The lady with the lab

Marie Curie: A Life by Susan Quinn Heinemann, pounds 17.99; Was the discoverer of radium a feminist heroine? By Lucy Hughes-Hallett
In November 1911, Marie Curie was awarded her second Nobel Prize. Days later, a Paris journal published letters between her and her fellow- scientist Pierre Langevin which demonstrated not only that they were having an affair but also that Marie Curie, who had been widowed three years earlier, was trying to persuade Langevin to leave his wife and four children. A representative of the Swedish Academy wrote to her suggesting that, in the circumstances, she might wish to postpone accepting the prize until her reputation had been cleared. Her response was superbly defiant. "The prize has been awarded for the discovery of Radium and Polonium'', she wrote. "I believe that there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of my private life." A month later she went to Sweden.

In fact the distinction, in Marie Curie's case, between work and emotional life was all but non-existent. Even her liaison with Langevin she presented to herself as a way of saving for science a brilliant man burdened by a vulgar wife. As a student at the Sorbonne, Curie had begun by socialising with her compatriots (she was Polish) but gradually dropped all her acquaintances except those with whom she could discuss the work which engrossed her. Her happiest years were those when she and her husband Pierre Curie worked together. "A great tranquillity reigned in our poor shabby hangar. We lived in a preoccupation as complete as that of a dream".

Curie was working at a joyful time for her subject. When she died in 1934, the pernicious consequences of her discoveries were only just beginning to become manifest. Towards the end of her life she would occasionally admit that her long over-exposure to radiation had damaged her health; but for most of her working life it was possible for her to believe, as her husband did, that scientific research differed from political action in that, in the latter sphere, "We could never be sure we weren't doing more harm than good."

At the beginning of this century, in an exhilarating race between the Curies and their peers, discoveries were made each one of which, as Susan Quinn points out, "violated one assumption or another of nineteenth-century science". Quinn writes clearly and grippingly about these discoveries. Marie Curie was brought up in the oppressive atmosphere of a country under Tsarist domination, where schools had two time-tables, an official one with which to satisfy the Russian inspectors and a true one which included clandestine lessons in Polish literature and history. In her teens she conducted classes for peasant children which, if discovered, might have resulted in her being imprisoned.

For her the intellectual life was heroic, a matter of peril outfaced and adversity overcome. But, as Quinn stresses, it was not just the herculean labour involved in extracting minute quantities of radium from literally tons of other matter which makes her work compelling, but the immensity of its significance. Scientific biography has a clear advantage over the literary variety. While it is hard for the reader to share an author's excitement in, say, finding the right structure for stanza 17, even a scientific ignoramus (like myself) can respond to the glamour of research which lays the foundations of a new theory of matter.

Hindsight has inevitably made of Marie Curie a feminist heroine. She herself seems to have been grandly dismissive of gender. The prodigious youngest child in a brilliant family, she must always have felt herself to be exceptional, not representative of any group, national, ideological or sexual. She was the first female scientist to win the Nobel Prize, and the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne. Her first application to join the Academie Francaise was defeated by anti-feminists determined to uphold "an immutable tradition" of male exclusivity. According to her daughter Eve, the snub "in no wise afflicted her". But she was always careful to correct any impression that she was primarily her husband's helpmeet. As Quinn makes plain, the humility and selflessness for which the Curies, collectively, have been celebrated, were mostly Pierre's. After his death Marie Curie, more worldly-wise, was prompt in claiming credit for her discoveries and regretted the fortune they had sacrificed in deciding not to patent their method of producing radium.

Quinn fills in Curie's various backgrounds, placing her in cultural history as well as in the history of science. The milieux of Warsaw under the Tsars, of the bucolic manor houses of the Polish aristocracy, of the Left Bank at a time when female students were vastly outnumbered by uneducated grisettes, of the belle epoque intelligentsia, are all described in careful detail.

Marie Curie's application to join the Academie and the resulting debate in the press provide a fascinating microcosmic survey of the intellectual climate in France at the time. Curie's candidacy, which she and her supporters discussed solely in terms of her scientific achievements, was viewed by her opponents as a showdown between Church and secular state, the sacrosanct family and renegade women, La Belle France and foreigners. Bizarrely, given that Curie was not even partially Jewish, it even gave rise to a series of anti-Semitic diatribes (her supporters were classed as Dreyfusards).

The core of Quinn's book, though, is, very properly, her account of Curie's work. As they identified more and more radioactive elements, Pierre and Marie Curie were entranced to find their samples were spontaneously luminous - "these gleamings stirred us with ever new emotion and enchantment."

Quinn wisely refrains from doing more than hint at the danger inherent in those gleamings; but her book has itself a potently ambiguous central image - in Marie Curie's precious trove of radium, glowing lethally and amazingly in her ramshackle laboratory.