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article imageReview: ‘The Woman Who Lit up the World’ Special

By Alexander Baron     May 5, 2013 in Science
Paris - Today's 'liberated' women complain loud and often about the raw deal they get from a male-dominated establishment. If they knew what Marie Curie went through, they'd bite their tongues.
Although great women scientists have been few and far between, there have been some. Of these, the name Madame Curie stands head and shoulders above all the others. The Genius of Marie Curie - The Woman Who Lit up the World is currently on BBC iplayer for those who can receive it. Her story is of course very well known, but this hour long documentary focuses heavily on her private life. Both Maria Salomea Skłodowska and her sister aspired to a university education, something girls from even working class backgrounds attain regularly now, but for a girl in late 19th Century Poland, even the daughter of a teacher, forget it.
For other girls, not for Maria, and after leaving school aged 15 with institutions of higher learning in her native Poland off limits, she relocated to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, following in the steps of her sister Bronya.
Maria Skłodowska arrived in Paris in 1891, graduated top of her class, and four years later, on July 26, 1895, she married her boss, Pierre Curie. It was love at first sight, on her part at least, but although they would win worldwide fame together, and she would bear him two daughters, their marriage would not last, because on April 19, 1906, Pierre was killed in a bizarre road accident.
It was Marie who while working with her husband coined a new word: radioactive. In 1903, the Curies (with Antoine Henri Becquerel) were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work - the discovery and isolation of radium - but after her husband's death, Marie's fame turned to notoriety for something that today would hardly raise an eyebrow.
In the last years of the 20th Century an aspiring American President has confessed to a "drink problem" then served two terms; a serving President has been caught having illicit sex in the Oval Office, and served out his second term. Homosexuals and lesbians seek and hold high government office; even convictions for rape and assault (à la Mike Tyson) cause only limited public outrage, but in the second decade of that same century, in France of all places, her affair with a married man five years her junior turned her into an outcast.
Paul Langevin had been one of her husband's students; the affair was exposed by his wife, and led to Marie's public vilification aided by a frenzy in the gutter press of the day.
There is a lot more to this documentary, but suffice it to say that her reputation was soon restored - her second Nobel Prize might just have contributed to that. To this day she remains the only woman, the only person, to win two such prizes in different sciences.
Although it is pointed out here that Marie never patented any of her innovations, not mentioned is the fact that she and Pierre donated the money from the Nobel Prizes to charities and their medals (by Marie) to help the war effort.
In 1921, she visited the United States where she was given a rapturous reception, especially by women. She capped her tour with a visit to the White House. Madame Curie died aged 66 in France on July 4, 1934, but like countless lesser women, her name lives on. Her relatively early death was almost certainly brought about by decades of exposure to radiation. In 1995, the bodies of Marie and Pierre were exhumed, and after a state funeral they were interred in the Panthéon.
More about madame curie, marie curie, pierre curie, radium, Nobel prize
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