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A passionate strength

· ​Marie Curie ·

In early November 1911 Marie Curie was the only woman invited by the Belgian industrialist Solvay to the meeting he had organized at the luxurious Hotel Metropole in Brussels to bring together the most brilliant brains in the world. Everyone knew that she was a candidate for a second Nobel Prize; with her husband Pierre she had received the first for physics and radiation studies in 1903.

Marie Curie in a portrait of 1903

For the first time Marie Curie, usually so modest and thrifty, had had elegant fashionable clothes made and had bought new accessories. She did so not only in order not to make a bad impression at the hotel, but also because the man she loved, the mathematician Paul Langevin, was also taking part in the meeting. She was a widow but he was married with four children. In those days of isolation she was to live her great passions: confrontation with scientific ideas, hypotheses, views of the world among people of such a high level and closeness to her lover.

While she was away, a scandal broke out in Paris: the brother-in-law of Langevin’s wife, a journalist for a sensational paper, revealed their relationship. In the following days other details were to emerge, the whole of Paris was talking of nothing else and Marie’s daughters were unable to go to school because of the storm in the media. The press of the extreme right behaved as though it was facing a new Dreyfus case: a mother of a French family humiliated by a foreigner, a Polish harpy. Some insinuated that she was Jewish. Many asked that Marie be expelled from the country and the brilliant scientific results she had achieved, the Nobel Prize, counted for nothing. They asked and obtained that she be prevented from teaching at the Sorbonne, where she had obtained her husband Pierre’s post after his death as the first woman teacher. On her return to Paris she could not even seek refuge in her villa at Sceaux where she lived with her daughters but was obliged to ask friends for hospitality: journalists beseiged her house, and a few days later a brigade of infuriated “citizens” began throwing stones at the house and damaged it.

Illustration by Irene Renon

Furious discussions followed and even three duels between her supporters and her denigrators. In the end, a trial for adultery was avoided and she was able, travelling by train, to receive her second Nobel Prize, this time awarded to her alone, for chemistry.

Marie succeeded in emerging from this battle and in rebuilding her life – breaking the bond with Langevin – thanks to her extraordinary tenacity, to her rare strength of mind of which several times in her life she had already given proof. If she had not had these qualities, how would a poor Polish girl have managed who arrived in Paris alone to take a degree in mathematics and physics at a faculty which barely tolerated the presence of women? And how could she have prepared a doctorate which began to reveal her gifts when no laboratory gave her a post to bring the necessary experiments to conclusion? Someone suggested that she turn to an outsider, Pierre Curie, a bizarre scientist who experimented outside the academic community and with whom not only love was born but also the plan to work together. Marie had overcome her first hard apprenticeship through passion for science which then came to constitute a single entity with her love for Pierre. For her the offspring born of love were not only their real children, Irene and Eva, but also the new elements that they discovered together, polonium and radium. Thus the sudden and early death of her husband threw her into total despair from which she managed to recover slowly, thanks to her discipline in work and to the help of friends, including Paul, one of Pierre’s favourite students. Once again loving passion and scientific passion converged and made Marie happy while she wrote the 1,000 pages of her treatise on radioactivity. She was 43 years old, at that time old for a woman, but she behaved like an adolescent and underestimated the risks of such an irregular bond.

Marie’s extraordinary genius and the human sympathy which she inspired in everyone were all inherent in this passionate strength which vitalized the tenacity and patience she showed in the course of her research. However, she would often repeat to her students that intuition and imagination were the scientist’s cardinal virtues. With very clear grey eyes, a mass of ash-blonde hair gathered in a knot, dressed almost always modestly in dark colours, Marie had a charismatic personality and an undeniable fascination which attracted love and envy in equal measure. Einstein wrote to her at the time of the scandal: “I feel the need to tell you how I began to admire your spirit, your energy, your integrity, and of the happiness I feel at the idea of having been able to meet you personally in Brussels”.

Her last passion was France, her new homeland, even though it had so despised her: she took part with total patriotic dedication in the First World War, creating mobile radiological units with which to give help to the wounded. However, she never accepted that radiation, her “daughter of love”, could be ambivalent, useful but at the same time lethal. She continued to believe that it was solely beneficial. It was not only ignorant soldiers who paid for this, but she herself too, dying of leukaemia at the age of 67 in 1934.

Lucetta Scaraffia

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