We are thrilled to publish this article by Jakub Müller, a Polish private researcher focused mainly on the topics of Marie Skłodowska-Curie and the city of Piekary Śląskie, Poland. In 2021, he was awarded a cultural scholarship for his research on the travels of Marie Skłodowska-Curie. Results of the research have been described in a book, yet to be published. Editor at local historic portal Piekarski Werk (http://piekarskiwerk.pl), author of several articles and reviews of Curie-related publications, he also runs a blog about forgotten books and uncanny stories (www.milczenieliter.pl).
By Jakub Müller
This older couple (or middle-aged, depending on the definition of old age) are Marie Skłodowska-Curie and Albert Einstein. Although they do not have an Instagram account nor Facebook profile and died years ago, luckily they are still remembered. Memory of their achievements prevails and has not yet drowned in the sea of YouTube streams, junk knowledge and fake news.
These inconspicuous photographs are hiding a certain mystery… Well, as strange as it sounds, nobody knows when they were taken. I do not mean the exact day or month… there is no agreement even on the year! This has led to confusion and dissemination of false information.
I decided to take up the challenge and become an amateur Sherlock Holmes. If you are curious how I managed the investigation – read on. Let’s get started.
The reward for most absurd description of the photo goes to Wikipedia. The photo caption says that the photograph was taken on the Saranac Lake, during Curie’s trip to the US in 1929. Let me bashfully add that Marie never met Einstein in the US, plus the file name indicates the year 19231. By the way – that year is also incorrect, but let’s not anticipate events.
Einstein indeed enjoyed sailing on the Saranac, but the first time he saw the lake was in 1936, two years after Curie’s death2.
Let us check the trustworthy catalogue of Musée Curie (the Curie Museum) in Paris. Here is our treasure… The description does not leave any space for confusion: year 1925, it says3.
Their catalogue also contains a different Einstein photo, where he is dressed exactly the same4. Again, 1925. Einstein was indeed in Geneva in 1925. But Madame Curie was not there.
Let us continue. Back in February of this year, according to American Institute of Physics’ online photo metadata, the photo was taken in 19295. However, on the back of the physical photo, a pencil inscription says: “1925.” This date is also provided in Images of Einstein: A Catalog, published by AIP in 19796. Supportive colleagues from AIP have also spotted this inconsistency and it has since been corrected (Catalog ID Einstein Albert C73 and Einstein Albert C74).
From the French National Library – 19257, UNESCO Courier (official UNESCO journal) – also 1925, “on a misty day” - they added8.
And so on, and so on.
At this very moment I became really doubtful. So many authorities are inconsistent about the origin date of this photograph… Can they all be wrong? Maybe I have tomcruised myself and stepped into a real mission impossible?
I think that all these discrepancies originate from the fact that nobody has given this topic a closer look yet.
So, the plot, the characters and place of action have all been introduced. It’s high time to set our clocks.
Marie met Einstein personally in 1911, during the first Solvay Conference in Brussels. Einstein confirmed this fact in one of his letters:
I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty, and that I consider myself lucky to have made your personal acquaintance in Brussels(…)9.
My first brilliant conclusion is therefore the following: the photograph must have been taken somewhere between 1911 (first meeting with Einstein) and 1934 (Curie’s death).
The case gets more complicated now. The basic question is: how many times and when did Madame Curie visit Geneva? As if out of spite, she did it on numerous occasions. Marie Skłodowska-Curie visited Geneva at least 10 times in the following years: 1900, 1922, 1924, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1932, 193310.
These visits were usually related to the works of the International Commission of Intellectual Cooperation (ICIC, done under the umbrella of the League of Nations). Marie became an ICIC member in 1922 and served as vice president between 1928 - 1933. ICIC used to have yearly “general assemblies,” which usually took place in July in Geneva.
The ten “suspicious” years need to be investigated further. 1900 can be eliminated straight away; the scientists did not make each other’s acquaintance until 1911. Einstein was a rookie scientist at that time and published his first scientific work. No one seriously admired him yet and nobody dreamed of having a walk with him at the Geneva Lake.
1922 – first yearly session of ICIC. Both Curie and Einsten were nominated as ICIC members, but only Marie arrived in Geneva. Missed shot.
1924 – 23th 24th July: meeting of the ICIC Subcommision of Bibliography, 25th – 29th July – yearly meeting of ICIC. Marie arrived with a bodyguard – her daughter Ève. Einstein also honoured ICIC members with his presence. Chatting a lot with Marie, he paid special attention towards young Ève, who loved the company of this unique, older “uncle.”
The weather was really unpredictable and autumn-like but the scientists managed to take a couple of strolls together. It is highly probable that our photograph was taken during one of these wanders. Who could be the photographer? Another secret… It could be Ève, or Paul Langevin (Curie’s fellow scientist and ex-lover) or someone else…
1927 – another joint Geneva stay for Madame Curie and Alberta Einstein. Again July (20th – 26th), again the reason being ICIC discussion panels. This time the weather was really nice. Giants of science willingly used the opportunity for a walk, strengthening their friendship ties by the Geneva Lake. Theoretically, our famous photo could have been taken at that time.
1928, 1929 – despite being invited by ICIC, Einstein did not make it to Geneva. He was replaced by Hugo Krüss, director of the National Library in Berlin.
1930 – another assembly of ICIC members. Surprisingly, July. Einstein appeared and checked in at the Bellevue hotel. Marie spent majority of her free time with him (Einstein, not the hotel). Is it possible that the image originates from 1930? Yes, of course.
1931, 1932 – the same story as in 1928 and 1929. Einstein missing and replaced by Krüss.
1933 – 13th yearly ICIC session. Meticulous Marie was there, of course. Einstein resigned from ICIC membership one year earlier so it was Krüss again to take his place.
Conclusion number 2: Einstein and Marie Skłodowska-Curie met only three times in Geneva: in 1924, 1927 and 1930. We have managed to narrow it down from ten years to only three!
For certainty and to double-check, we shall now have a quick look at Einstein’s correspondence. It’s time to dig deep into the cavernous archives of Mr. Albert.
I focused only on years 1924, 1927 and 1930. Our goal is to confirm Einstein’s stays in Geneva during these years and – if possible – determine their exact dates.
Much of Einstein’s legacy from all over the world is deposited at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (Einstein was one of its co-founders) and this is where we guide our steps11.
Bingo! The answer is hidden in the 14th volume (!!!) of Einstein’s correspondence. He arrived in Geneva on July 21st or earlier and was in Zurich on the 29th12. He spent his first day with Marie, Eve, and Langevin. It was hot and humid: “Here it’s a laundry atmosphere, like in Singapore13.” Though the photograph could have been taken between July 21st and 29th, it was not the 21st of July. In the meantime, the scientist was almost caught naked after the bath which he enjoyed one floor above his apartment14.
Einstein visited his son Eduard in Zurich and on the evening of July 11th, headed for Geneva. He stayed there until 13th July, then visited Leukerbad for a couple of days and returned to Geneva to attend the ICIC discussions scheduled for 20th – 26th July15.
Of course, when leaving the city absent-minded Einstein caused confusion because of an allegedly lost toothbrush16. Luckily it emerged quickly. What a relief! For Einstein himself, his oral cavity, and the closest circle of the brilliant scientist as well.
I have checked with Albert Einstein Archives at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Albert traveled to Geneva on 21st July and was definitely there on 22nd July. He most likely left around the 30th, as his postcard from 31st July was sent from Zurich17. He attended the July ICIC session planned for 23th – 29th July, which is also confirmed by one of Marie Skłodowska-Curie’s letters.
Our little einsteinysis proves that the photograph was most probably taken in 1924, 1927 or 1930, which are the only years that Marie and Albert stayed in Geneva simultaneously. Surprising fact: it was always July, but when you have a look at the picture you can clearly see both scientists dressed up in heavy coats and hats. Something does not fit here…
Mission number 3 lies ahead of us. We need to investigate Geneva weather reports from almost 100 years back. Let’s go for it!
I decided to contact the Swiss meteorogical centre, whatever the name would be. Reliable Google suggested: MeteoSwiss, Federal Office for Meteorology and Climatology. I gave a metaphoric knock at their door and here we go! Kind and supportive MeteoSwiss employees shared respective yearly weather reports. After analyzing them I can say that:
In general: not much summer heat, lots of autumn chills. I also felt like somebody poured cold water on my head. My whole enthusiasm and energy have evaporated.
I realized I made a mistake: the average monthly data is interesting but does not fully reflect the chaos factor of the Swiss weather. The average temperature of 19.1 does not say much. It could be that on the day of the walk, and only on this particular day, the daytime temperature was, say, 12 degrees. I need more detailed data. But where to find the answers?
I have an idea. Newspapers should be able to help us.
1924 (21th July – 29th July)
And they did. Please have a look: July of 1924 was not a proper, summery July. No really hot days, the temperature usually below 20 degrees, almost daily precipitation and overwhelming dark clouds. We are on track!
1927 (20th – 26th July)
1930 (23th – 29th July)
Participants of the 12th ICIC assembly had to face unpredictable weather, clouds and high temperature differences.
Between July 23rd and 29th, only two rainless days were recorded. July 23rd was the month leader in amount of precipitation. Maximum temperature on 24th July is only 15 degrees Celsius. Two days later it jumped to 27 degrees. The difference between minimum and maximum temperature on that day was almost 20 degrees! The weather in 1930 was therefore chaotic, changeable and without any doubts, could have triggered Madame Curie and Einstein to wear coats.
The analysis of meteorological data allows us to eliminate a pretty warm year – 1927 - from suspects. We are one last step from finalizing our investigation.
The photo can be also found in Curie’s family album stored at the Musée Curie in Paris. Although - as I already mentioned – the museum catalogue assigns this photograph to the year 1925, I decided to enquire a bit. Maybe some annotation exists on the back of the photo?
“No, they do not” – was the answer. “But the photograph is credited by Irène as July 1924,” says Natalie Pigeard-Micault, museum’s deputy director32.
This actually solves the riddle and confirms the correctness of our research.
With a solid level of probability it can be concluded that famous pictures of Albert Einstein and Marie Skłodowska-Curie walking by the Geneva Lake have been made somewhere between 23rd July and 29th July 1924.
The author of the article also learned his lesson. I could have approached Musée Curie at the very beginning stage of the investigation, saving lot of time and effort. Surely, I could have. Usually, the simplest solutions are the best ones…
But on the other hand – do we want to miss the fun of investigating everything ourselves and checking different traces? Definitely not.
Anyway, the goal of the investigation has been reached, the correct date of the photograph revealed. Achievement unlocked. We did it!
Thank you all for this joint, historical journey. See you in the next investigation.
Post-scriptum – Helen Dukas’ theory
A very intriguing theory comes from Helen Dukas, Einstein’s secretary and assistant for over 20 years. In a letter to Joan Warnow-Blewett from American Institute of Physics, Dukas refers to the origin of the photograph. She confirms with certainty that it could not have been taken in 1925. Her bet is November 1929 though:
My guess is it was done in November 1929 when Professor Einstein was in Paris for lectures at the Institute Poincare. […] In January 1926 Professor Einstein was also in Paris for the League of Nations Committe (…). But my bet is still on 1929 – I remember the coat and hat33.
Paris, not Geneva! Shocking news. I admit I had to read it twice to make sure it’s not a typo.
Of course, Dukas might be right. There were few people on earth who knew Einstein as well as she did. On the other hand… her assumption is not actually based on any hard facts.
The letter was sent in 1979, when Dukas was already 83 years old. She mentions also Geneva in her letter but doubts the photo could be made there due to the fact that ICIC meetings took place in July. However, as we proved earlier, the weather was so cold and rainy on some days that it surely justified wearing coats.
Staying humble – as it is possible that I am wrong – personally I stay with the version that the photo was made in July 1924, as confirmed by weather reports, Curie’s family album and, partially, by the scientists’ correspondence.
For supporting my research, patience, all the useful information and comments I would like to thank the American Institute of Physics crew (especially Corinne Mona and Audrey Lengel), Natalie Pigeard-Micoult from Musée Curie, Chaya Becker from Albert Einstein Archives at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Jean-Jacques Prignaud.
1 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Einstein-e-Madame-Curie-1923.jpg , online access 20.11.2022.
2 https://hotelsaranac.com/stories/einstein and https://www.saranaclake.com/story/2013/10/saving-einstein, online access 19.02.2023.
3 These are actually not one, but two related images, cat. MCP209 and MCP210. http://www.calames.abes.fr/pub/curie.aspx#details?id=Calames-2014730177403331470, online access 14.02.2023.
4 http://www.calames.abes.fr/pub/curie.aspx#details?id=Calames-2014730177403331469, cat. MCP208, online access 14.02.2023.
5 https://repository.aip.org/islandora/object/nbla%3A293764, online access 04.02.2023. Emilio Segrè Visual
Archives, Einstein Albert C73, C74.
6 Own correspondence with Corinne Mona and Audrey Lengel.
7 The National Library of France (Bibliothèque nationale de France, BnF Gallica, sig. 2004-259453), https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k58393240/f40.item.r=curie%20gene…, online access 04.02.2023.
8 The UNESCO Courier, October 1967, p. 22. Marguerite Perey’s article entitled The women we called „La Patronne”.
9 Walter Isaacson, Einstein. His life and universe, Simon & Schuster, New York 2007, p. 170.
10 Author’s three-year research, described in an unpublished book devoted to foreign travels of Marie
11 Einstein was a member of the University’s board of governors between 1925-1927. Aditionally, in his will he left Hebrew University all documents, correspondence and manuscripts along with copyright. Einstein Archives comprise of trifling 55,000 items.
12 Diana Kormos Buchwald, József Illy, Ze’ev Rosenkranz, Tilman Sauer & Osik Moses (red.), The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. Volume 14: The Berlin Years: Writings & Correspondence, April 1923-May 1925, s. 811. https://einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu/vol14-doc/913, online access: 04.03.2023.
13 Ibid, s. 456. https://einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu/vol14-trans/323, online access 04.03.2023.
15 D.K. Buchwald, J. Illy, Z. Rosenkranz, T. Sauer & O. Moses (red.), The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. Volume 16: The Berlin Years: Writings & Correspondence, June 1927-May 1929, p. 68 and 69. https://einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu/vol16-doc/172, online access: 04.03.2023.
17 Own correspondence with Albert Einstein Archives at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
18 Journal de Genève, nr 201, 23.07.1924, https://www.letempsarchives.ch/page/JDG_1924_07_23/6, online access: 05.03.2023.
19 Journal de Genève, nr 202, 24.07.1924, https://www.letempsarchives.ch/page/JDG_1924_07_24/6, online
20 Journal de Genève, nr 203, 25.07.1924, https://www.letempsarchives.ch/page/JDG_1924_07_25/6, online
21 Journal de Genève, nr 204, 26.07.1924, https://www.letempsarchives.ch/page/JDG_1924_07_26/5, online
22 Journal de Genève, nr 205, 27.07.1924, https://www.letempsarchives.ch/page/JDG_1924_07_27/6, online
23 Journal de Genève, nr 207, 29.07.1924, https://www.letempsarchives.ch/page/JDG_1924_07_29/4, online
24 Journal de Genève, nr 208, 30.07.1924, https://www.letempsarchives.ch/page/JDG_1924_07_30/5, online
25 Journal de Genève, nr 197, 21.07.1927, https://www.letempsarchives.ch/page/JDG_1927_07_21/6, online
26 Journal de Genève, nr 198, 22.07.1927, https://www.letempsarchives.ch/page/JDG_1927_07_22/6, online
27 Journal de Genève, nr 199, 23.07.1927, https://www.letempsarchives.ch/page/JDG_1927_07_23/6, online
28 Journal de Genève, nr 200, 24.07.1927, https://www.letempsarchives.ch/page/JDG_1927_07_24/6, online
29 Journal de Genève, nr 202, 26.07.1927, https://www.letempsarchives.ch/page/JDG_1927_07_26/6, online
30 Journal de Genève, nr 203, 27.07.1927, https://www.letempsarchives.ch/page/JDG_1927_07_27/6, online
31 https://www.e-periodica.ch/digbib/view?pid=ads-001%3A1930%3A12#297, online access: 05.03.2023.
32 Own correspondence with Musée Curie, February 2023.
33 The letter comes from Albert Einstein Archives at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.