Tragedy and Adjustment

Life Goes On

MARIE CURIE FOUND A LIFELINE in her professional and family responsibilities during the summer following Pierre's death. She moved with her daughters and father-in-law to Sceaux, the suburb where Pierre's family had lived and where he and his mother were now buried. She also prepared to teach Pierre's course. On November 5, 1906, the day of her first lecture, the hall was packed. In addition to the students taking the course, a crowd had gathered of those curious to hear how the widow--the first woman professor at the Sorbonne--would fare.

The Sorbonne
The inaugural lecture of a professor was normally an occasion for lavish tributes to one's predecessor and eloquent claims for one's own field of science. But the crowd heard only a matter-of-fact lecture about developments in physics over the past decade.

“When one considers the progress that has been made in physics in the past ten years, one is surprised at the advance that has taken place in our ideas concerning electricity and matter....”

--Marie Curie, opening of first Sorbonne lecture, November 5, 1906

André Debierne
André Debierne, seen here in the Curies' laboratory shed, not only helped Marie confirm experimentally that radium was an element, but also remained a devoted friend and colleague over the years. (Photo ACJC)

During that summer, Marie's research program-- to identify and isolate radioactive elements--intensified. In part she was spurred on by a challenge from an unexpected quarter. In a letter to the editor on the front page of The London Times of August 9, 1906, Pierre's longtime fan Lord Kelvin advanced a theory that radium was no element but rather a compound of lead and five helium atoms. Since the theory threatened the entire science of radioactivity, Marie began lab work to disprove it -- and more generally to put her discovery on such a firm basis that nobody could doubt it.

Enlisting the aid of her old colleague André Debierne, she eventually confirmed that radium was indeed an element. It was an effort of years to measure the atomic weight of radium beyond question and thus firmly locate the element in the Periodic Table. But the measurements left nothing in doubt.

FEW PEOPLE MANAGE TO CREATE an entirely new institution from scratch, single-handed. That is what Marie Curie set out to do--establish a lab worthy of Pierre's memory. She had her fame, her friends, and her fierce determination. A substantial grant in 1907 from an American philanthropist enabled her to assemble a research staff, but that was only a start. It helped that in the little world of the Paris elite, the professors in Curie's circle were on good terms with politicians in the left-leaning parties that controlled the French government. These politicians agreed with the professors' ideals--rational science was the vanguard of human progress. Yielding to persuasion, the government-funded University of Paris joined the private Pasteur Foundation to fund a Radium Institute. Marie Curie would supervise one of its divisions, a radioactivity laboratory, while an eminent physician would supervise the second division, a medical research laboratory.

“...a laboratory is not created in a few months with a wave of a magic wand...” --Pierre Curie in a letter to a university administrator, 1903
Andrew Carnegie.
American steel-manufacturer and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie established the Curie Scholarships, which enabled promising scientists to devote themselves full-time to research in Marie's lab
Marie and daughters at home
Marie in front of the Curie home at Sceaux with her daughters and (at far left) a friend. Irène's friendships with her classmates from the cooperative school remained close over the years. (Photo ACJC)

Her work at the Sorbonne and in the lab was so time-consuming that Marie turned over her position at the Sèvres school for women teachers-in-training to her friend and colleague Paul Langevin. She nonetheless made time to run a cooperative school with a number of other professional parents who disapproved of the rigid French school system. Each family agreed to teach one class each week in its field of expertise.

Between 1906 and 1908, Irène and a group of eight or nine other children were thus privileged to learn math, science, history, literature, and studio art from eminent figures in those fields.

ANOTHER DEATH IN THE FAMILY deeply saddened Marie and her daughters. Pierre's father died in February 1910. Now a series of Polish governesses, some more successful than others, helped raise Irène and Eve. Yet during the course of that year of mourning Marie isolated radium metal. She saw the publication of her comprehensive textbook, A Treatise on Radioactivity. And she secured the right to define an international standard for radium emissions. Such a standard was essential for an efficient radium industry and uniform medical applications. The measure she established was accepted by the international scientific community, which named it the Curie.

“Curie. A unit of radioactivity. One Curie is the quantity of a radioactive substance that decays at the rate of 3.7 x 1010 disintegrations per second.”
--Dictionary definition

Scandal and Recovery

Periodic Table of Elements

© 2000 - American Institute of Physics