MARIE CURIE AND HER DAUGHTERS: The Private Lives of Science’s First Family
Marie Curie achieved many “firsts” in her lifetime. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the first to win it twice. She remains the only laureate to have won in two scientific fields: physics (1903) and chemistry (1911). Along with her husband, Pierre, she discovered two new elements, radium and polonium. And she was the first person to use the word “radioactivity.”
Of course, author Shelley Emling is hardly the first to chronicle the extraordinary life of Madame Curie, born Marie Sklodowska in Warsaw in 1867. Just two years ago, Lauren Redniss published “Radioactive,” a remarkable, gorgeously designed book accompanied by the author’s cyanotype artwork and drawings.
In “Marie Curie and Her Daughters,” Emling covers some familiar terrain, but whereas many biographical accounts of Curie conclude after the scientist’s second Nobel Prize, this book essentially begins in 1911, exploring in depth the last 20 or so years of Curie’s life. Until her final days (she died in 1934), Curie remained a dedicated and much-celebrated scientist — launching not one but two major research institutes — yet she never profited financially from her achievements.
Most notably, Emling offers an intimate look at Curie’s relationship with her children, which involved many long separations but lacked no shortage of mutual devotion. Curie’s granddaughter Helene shared with Emling her mother’s private reminiscences of Curie, as well as a trove of more than 200 letters between Marie and her two daughters. The correspondence reveals how, even as Curie’s daughters yearned for her, they accepted how utterly dedicated she was to her scientific work. Because of her career demands, Curie missed several of her daughters’ birthdays. At the end of her life, she was clearly playing catch up — making up for lost time, getting to know her daughters on a deeper level, and becoming a doting grandmother.
Curie had become a single mother at 38, when Pierre died (in 1906) after being run over by a horse-drawn wagon in Paris. She was left alone to raise two young children — Irene, who also became a Nobel Prize-winning chemist; and Eve, a humanitarian who would write an award-winning biography of her mother (and who lived to the age of 102).
After Pierre’s death, Curie fell in love with a married scientist, Paul Langevin. Their affair was bitterly exposed by Langevin’s wife, who released the couple’s anguished love letters to the press. Curie was devastated. She suffered public humiliation, severe damage to her reputation, and became suicidal. Her recovery from this painful period was lengthy and arduous.
Emling shows how Curie’s 1921 trip to the United States, to raise funding for her Radium Institute in Paris, proved transformative. A comeback of sorts, it also allowed her a seven-week trip with her daughters. They treasured this precious time with her. Curie was treated to a stream of ceremonies, celebrations, and honorary degrees. Like a rock star, she was besieged by fans at every stop. She also formed a close friendship with a journalist, Missy Meloney, who had helped bring Curie to the States and championed her work. Curie, who was later able to make one more trip to the United States, despite her failing health, felt deeply grateful for America’s generosity and open-hearted spirit.
This fascinating, moving story falters only in the last few chapters, when it runs out of steam and includes some needless filler. The book’s final line is an inexplicable clunker, as if written for a high school textbook: “And if for no other reason, that is why ‘Manya’ Marie Sklodowska Curie is one person worth learning more about.”
Still, that weak conclusion doesn’t diminish the inspiring message conveyed throughout the book: that Curie was driven by “the sheer pleasure of the beauty of science, and the enormous satisfaction derived from making the previously unknowable known.”