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Marie Curie’s legacy looms large 150 years after her birth

A celebrity crystallizes,” legal scholar Sheryl Hamilton writes, “when we both desire and recognize a relationship between a persona and a person” (1). This territory, the one that opens up between what we think of as biographical and biological “fact” and what we suspect is a result of self-fashioning strategies, is central to the celebrity culture in contemporary society.

For all their complexity, however, this phenomenon is not reserved only for the famous-for-being-famous but applies equally to the famous-for-being-accomplished. As the most iconic of all female scientists, Marie Sklodowska Curie belongs squarely in the second category.

Truth be told, I haven’t thought about Curie for quite some time—this following a few years of thinking of little else. But the 150-year anniversary of her birth on 7 November is as good a reason as any to revisit some of the dynamics that helped solidify her into the celebrity she is today.

Curie’s track record is well known. So far, the only woman twice awarded the Nobel Prize—her 1903 and 1911 distinctions in physics and in chemistry, respectively—ensure her a permanent seat on the Mount Olympus of science. Heralded as the personification of research excellence by the European Union in the coveted grants that bear her name, Curie is a heroine for two nation-states in particular: Poland, where she was born, and France, where she conducted her pioneering research on radioactivity. Thanks to her ongoing importance as a role model for women in science, substantial investments continue to go into the preservation of her legacy.

ATLASPIX/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Curie’s persona has been revisited and refined countless times, most recently in the 2017 film Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge.

The material that transformed Curie from person to persona comes to us largely via Eve Curie’s famous hagiography of her mother, Madame Curie. This was followed in turn by countless biographies, plays, and movies, and Curie’s life continues to be perpetuated as a foundational narrative of partnership, perseverance, commitment, and heroism against all odds.

Recent years have seen this idealized version of Curie challenged by less-celebratory interpretations. In Julie Des Jardins’s The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science, Curie is described as “a superhuman anomaly,” one who causes female scientists frustration by establishing unrealistic expectations of scientific accomplishment, rather than inspiring them to excel.

Curie’s reticence to acknowledge the very real danger of radium is another chink in her heroine armor. Books such as Per Olov Enquist’s novel The Story of Blanche and Marie or Lauren Redniss’s poetic Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Fallout have explored this issue to some degree but have done so with the greater creative license afforded by their nontraditional narrative forms.

For some, Curie is simply in the way. “Stop talking about Marie Curie,” suggested Rachel Swaby in a piece in Wired in 2015 (2). She casts too big a shadow, is too well known, and has become the one and only female scientist in the public imagination, Swaby argues. There is some merit to this argument. On the other hand, that particular status is in itself a worthy object of study.

It would be untrue and coy to suggest that I do not, like everyone else, find her life fascinating. But for my own book, Making Marie Curie: Intellectual Property and Celebrity Culture in an Age of Information, Curie was something of an afterthought, secondary to another concern: intellectual property.

Curie, a married woman, could not own property. In this aspect, she was just like any other woman living in France at the time. Whether or not it influenced how she perceived herself or her work, this fact allows us to think differently about the persona/person she became.

The gifting practice around radium that was the reason for her tour of the United States in 1921, the complex politics behind the quest for scientific ownership in the interwar years: These are stories of intellectual property, but they are also stories that add to our understanding of Curie and her enduring role in the history of science.

As she wrote in the biography of her husband-collaborator Pierre Curie, “We took no copyright [a mistranslation from the brevets (patents) in the original French edition], and published without reserve all the results of our research, as well as the exact processes of the preparation of radium. In addition, we gave to those interested whatever information they asked of us” (3). This story, which remains one of the most famous of all intellectual property decisions in the history of science, is a central pillar in the construction of the Curies’ particular brand of science. Rather than insisting on the control afforded by patents, they gave, and the gifting of radium became a central dimension in the narrative of the Curies’ partnership and contribution to science.

Let me end this essay by saying something on the one arena where the balance between person and persona is most clearly played out—the science biography. As one of the most popular but least acknowledged of genres, the biography’s treatment of persona versus person is particularly interesting as a tool for thinking about ways we can and cannot “use” famous female scientists.

Although in theory, the range of possibilities we have for approaching Curie biographically is open-ended, in practice, it is not. Think about how Bruno Latour plays with Pasteur in The Pasteurization of France, where Pasteur is present as both a person and a persona, and at the same time is completely removed, subordinated to the process of pasteurization. To be present and absent at the same time is a trick that might work for Pasteur, but for Curie? I am not so sure.

Sexing mechanisms continue to influence the biographical construction of the scientist and are especially critical when it comes to notions of personhood, person, and persona. I have argued elsewhere that because Curie is a woman, we demand authenticity from her (4), and because we insist on having it, we tend to police the boundaries of what we can do with her body, person, and persona more rigorously than we would in the case of a male scientist.

Does this mean that we should stop talking about Marie Curie? No, of course not. But we must also start talking about additional ways Curie (and other female scientists, for that matter) has the capacity to tell complex stories of networks, property, and celebrity—stories that go beyond framing them first and foremost as role models. She, and they, have more to offer.

References

  1. S. Hamilton, Impersonations: Troubling the Person in Law and Culture (Univ. Toronto Press, Toronto, ON, Canada, 2009)

  2. R. Swaby, “We need to stop ignoring women scientists,” Wired, 1 April 2015

  3. M. Curie, Pierre Curie and ‘Autobiographical Notes’ (Macmillan, New York, 1923)

  4. E. H. Wirtén, Social Studies Sci. 45, 597 (2015)

About the author

The writer is the author of Making Marie Curie: Intellectual Property and Celebrity Culture in an Age of Information (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2015). She is at the Department for Studies of Social Change and Culture, Linköping University, Sweden.