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An Introvert as Celebrity Scientist
World-famous in her day and ours, introvert Marie Curie dodged publicity and was deeply harmed by it yet also used it to support her research.
In its front-page obituary on July 5, 1934, the New York Times lauded Marie Curie for her discovery of the radioactive elements radium and polonium and other hard-won scientific achievements, for which she received two Nobel Prizes. The Times praised her as a “modest, self-effacing woman” known for “disdaining all pomp” and “shunning notoriety in any form.” The truth is significantly more complicated than that praise, however.
Most of the time Madame Curie found media publicity either a bother or a life-changing torment. Yet in one period of her life she consented to a whole lot of public fuss in order to obtain something uniquely precious for her scientific research. And she fought more than once for appropriate recognition of her accomplishments. All of this fits consistently with her introverted personality.
Born Maria Sklodowska in 1867 in Poland, which at that time was ruled by Russia, she received an education mainly from her father, a Polish nationalist fluent in five languages. At age 18 she found work as a governess but didn’t adjust well to the social aspect of the job because she detested “stupid incessant parties” and “idle chatter.” A better lifeline to her sense of self was the math problems her father sent her to solve when the two were apart. In 1891 her family’s finances finally made it possible for her to move to Paris to further her scientific education at the Sorbonne.
In 1895 she married fellow scientist Pierre Curie, whom she considered her soulmate. “We dreamed of living in the world quite removed from human beings,” Pierre once wrote. (Obviously he was an introvert also.) The two worked so singlemindedly on their experiments that one of their daughters later called it an “anti-natural existence.” As part of their commitment to the role of science in improving human life, they declined to patent their process for extracting radium from raw materials, a decision that made the struggle to finance their research more difficult.
In 1903 the Nobel Prize committee decided to recognize the Curies, along with another scientist named Henri Becquerel, for their groundbreaking work on radioactivity. However, the Prize committee invited only Pierre to give the required lecture in Sweden. There the president of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences who presented the award at the official ceremony disparaged Marie’s leading role in the discovery by citing the Biblical passage about women having been created as a “helpmeet” for men.
Both Curies tried their hardest to evade the popular attention that descended on them after winning the Nobel – especially the interview requests from journalists who printed whatever came into their heads. Marie sometimes refused to shake hands with admirers and noted that even in her own laboratory she was criticized by some for not being “sufficiently friendly.” When a restaurant owner recognized her and asked her to sign his guest book loudly enough for all the other diners to hear, she silently put down money for her group’s uneaten meals and motioned for them to leave with her. All this wasn’t arrogance or misanthropy but just an introvert’s reticence and desire for privacy.
Several years after Pierre’s tragic death in an accident with a horse-drawn carriage on a stormy day, Marie’s attempt to keep the press at bay took a horrifying turn. She had fallen in love with a scientific colleague, whose jealous wife got hold of their passionate letters to one another and spilled them to the tabloids. Marie Curie was vilified in the papers as a “foreign Jewish home wrecker,” among many other sexist and xenophobic insults. (She was not Jewish.) The hounding got so intense that she had to not only leave Paris but also travel abroad under an assumed name.
Around this time, the Nobel Prize committee decided to honor Marie Curie again, this time for isolating the chemical elements of radium and polonium. The telltale love letters had not yet been published. Once the scandal broke and news of it reached Sweden, however, the committee president attempted to dissuade Curie from attending the award ceremony. Curie fiercely retorted, “In fact the prize has been awarded for the discovery of Radium and Polonium. I believe that there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life.” She refused to renounce the prize and attended the award ceremony with her head held high.
The New York Times obituary did not mention Curie’s ill-fated love affair or the scorn heaped on her in France because of it. Indeed, her reputation in the United States was so positive that two triumphant tours of America raised sizeable funds for her research. In 1920 Missy Meloney, the editor of an American women’s magazine, learned that although Curie had discovered radium, she lacked the money to purchase enough of it for her own research. One gram cost a whopping $100,000.
Mrs. Meloney vowed to raise the money to solve this problem. In just eight months, she collected $100,000 in small donations from women all over the US. When Curie traveled to America to receive the gift in a ceremony with President Warren Harding, she balked when she was told that the money would be transferred to her personally. Almost holding up the ceremony, she insisted that the gift deed be redrafted with her laboratory as the recipient.
At the same time, Curie did not object when Mrs. Meloney couched her fundraising in terms of radium’s role in medicine even though the gram of radium would mostly be used for pure research. She understood that saving lives had a greater appeal for the public. Equally, she did not object to receiving honorary degrees from Smith College, Wellesley College, the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania and four other universities during that trip. She put up with honors and ceremonies that she felt furthered the cause of science or women in science even though she strongly disliked being the center of attention.
On a second trip to the US, Curie arrived two days after the catastrophic stock market crash of October 1929. Nevertheless, President Herbert Hoover went ahead with presenting her a bank draft for tens of thousands of dollars to purchase radium for a new institute in Curie’s native Warsaw. Her health had already been failing for many years, and commentators now are certain that Madame Curie’s unprotected exposure to radiation over the course of decades contributed to her death in 1934 at age 66.