Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie

  • Barbara Goldsmith
Weidenfeld & Nicolson/W. W. Norton: 2004. 320 pp. £14.99 / $23.95 0393051374 0297847678 | ISBN: 0-393-05137-4
More than a woman: Marie Curie believed she had overcome the physical constraints of the body. Credit: THE ART ARCHIVE/CULVER PICTURES

The life of Marie Curie was better than fiction. She was brilliant, driven and difficult; a scientist of the first rank; a mother; a young widow; a scorned woman in love with a married man; and a shrewd marketer of both herself and her discoveries. She won two Nobel prizes — for her work on radioactivity and the discovery of radium and polonium. She died aged 67 as a result of her cavalier approach to laboratory exposure to radioactive materials. Her appearance was also striking, both as a pale, beautiful young woman and as a stern, intense matriarch.

It is perhaps unsurprising that her life story has been told and retold in hundreds of biographies since her death in 1934. Beginning with her daughter Eve's affecting 1937 study, biographers have sought to illuminate her tragedies, intellectual style, determination and achievements, in studies aimed at scientists, children and the general public, published in English, French and many other languages. The flood shows no signs of abating: since 1995 there have been 36 English-language biographies entitled, roughly, Marie Curie. These include Susan Quinn's Marie Curie: A Life (Simon & Schuster, 1995), a fast-paced and well documented portrait of the Curies and their world, and Marie Curie: A Biography by historian of science Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie (Greenwood, 2004).

It would be reasonable to wonder why anyone would want to write another biography of Marie Curie. Her personal papers, still somewhat radioactive, have been accessible to researchers for more than a decade, and the details of her life have been well known in outline for 60 years. What more could there possibly be to say?

Yet I must acknowledge that Barbara Goldsmith has managed to say some interesting things, and they are not the result of intense data-mining. Rather, she contributes a slow, methodical curiosity about matters that other authors have brushed past.

Goldsmith turns her attention to Curie's shifting ways of writing about her husband Pierre in the diary written after he was killed in a traffic accident, and to the mixed messages in Pierre and Marie's discussions of the commercial applications of their work. She addresses Marie's decision to involve her 17-year-old daughter Irene in the dangerous and gruesome war work of X-raying stricken soldiers, and she ponders Eve's estrangement from her mother. The Curies' interest in spiritualism, their attendance at séances and their involvement with the Society for Psychical Research are explored in the context of Marie's reactions to Pierre's death. The public scandal over her affair with the physicist Paul Langevin is considered primarily in terms of its depressive effect on Marie, rather than in sociological terms, which could illuminate gender relations in early twentieth-century France. Goldsmith then considers the Curies' incautious handling of radium, which she attributes to their love of their own discovery. A final chapter outlines the family's enduring legacy and continuing scientific achievement. In all these discussions, Goldsmith makes good on her promise to excavate an “inner world”.

As Goldsmith acknowledges, Marie Curie invented her own life story in the ‘autobiographical notes’ that accompanied her 1929 study of Pierre after his death. That life story, which has shaped virtually every biography of her since, emphasized the irrelevance of the physical body to scientific work. She described her paltry diet, her cold garret room and her poverty, using such details to highlight the legitimacy of her apprenticeship to science. Curie said she was strong enough to overcome the constraints of the body, its need for food and warmth. By implication, she could also overcome those constraints that made her own, female body an almost insurmountable barrier to intellectual achievement. Her descriptions of a self-sacrificing life of the mind had an enduring popular appeal, and biographers writing for the children's market have emphasized Curie's indifference to ‘feminine’ things of the body (food, clothing, beauty) and her engagement with ‘masculine’ things of the mind (science, truth, evidence and power).

Goldsmith, an experienced biographer, notes that she was herself seduced as a young girl by the Curie legend. Like myself, and so many others, she was drawn to the image of the brilliant, tragic, woman scientist, particularly as played by Greer Garson in the 1943 film Madame Curie. In one memorable scene, the newly introduced Marie and Pierre begin to discuss their scientific work, but just as the first few technical words are exchanged, the scene suddenly leaps forward in time to the close of their discussion and the last few technical words. The intellectual life that bound Marie and Pierre together apparently had no particular bearing on the love story. Goldsmith's biography is similarly unconcerned with Curie's scientific contributions. Quinn's 1995 account presents Curie's scientific world in much more detail, but a full-length scientific biography of Curie has yet to appear.

Goldsmith has the sense to refrain from grandiose and dramatic claims, and her tone throughout is quizzical, calm and perceptive. The book provides not new information but a thoughtful perspective on the life of one of the most important scientists of the twentieth century. The author is careful in her extrapolations from available records, and does not assume that she knows anyone's inner feelings unless they have been expressed in writing. With its clear and accessible style, the book could be shared with young readers, who might be less susceptible than earlier generations to narratives of romantic self-sacrifice, and more intrigued by the psychological portrait of a complicated and accomplished woman scientist.