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Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie

Frivolous and dangerous uses of radium


“In this fascinating life of Madame Curie, Barbara Goldsmith powerfully conveys both the magic of science and the struggle of being a woman in a man’s universe.”

-- Walter Isaacson, Director or the Aspen Institute for Physics and the Humanities

“An uncommonly heartfelt and empathic profile of a scientific hero.”

--Timothy Ferris, author of Coming of Age in the Milky Way and Seeing in the Dark

"History has treated Marie Curie as a mysterious genius, as if she sprang full-blown from the head of Zeus—or perhaps her husband. Barbara Goldsmith gives us a flesh-and-blood woman whose life and work will inspire our own. Marie Curie was the brilliant discoverer of radium and the radioactivity crucial to modern science. Barbara Goldsmith is the brilliant discoverer of Marie Curie."

--Gloria Steinem

“Barbara Goldsmith has written a superb study of a fascinating and historically important woman whose life is a great deal more interesting than the myth it inspired. Obsessive Genius is an obsessive read.”

-- Gay Talese

“Great lives in science are all about passion and curiosity. Marie Curie, the Polish-born discoverer of radium, had both in grand measure. But down the road she helped open-up nuclear energy, which meant atomic bombs, and put Curie center stage during one of the great turning points in scientific history. Barbara Goldsmith has uniquely captured the woman and her science.”

-- Thomas Powers, author of Heisenberg’s War

“Obsessive Genius vividly portrays the powerful personal story of privation, sacrifice, triumph, and reward of one of the greatest scientists of the Twentieth Century, Marie Curie. It is a fast-paced exciting tale of scientific adventure which I read in one sitting. Barbara Goldsmith makes an important addition to her growing body of work on the life and accomplishments of women who have shaped our history and our lives.”

--Dr. William Haseltine, Ph.D., Chairman and CEO
Human Genome Sciences, Inc.



New York Times Book Review
November 28, 2004
'Obsessive Genius': Too Hot to Handle

OBSESSIVE GENIUS The Inner World of Marie Curie.By Barbara Goldsmith.Illustrated. 256 pp. Atlas Books/W. W. Norton & Company. $23.95.

HINDSIGHT is the bane of biography.

Feminism is one of the most distorting of lenses. To see Marie Curie forced to sit among the audience in Stockholm while her husband, Pierre, gave the lecture following their joint receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1903 is infuriating. What a way to treat a woman! One of the strengths of ''Obsessive Genius,'' Barbara Goldsmith's excellent short biography of Marie Curie, is its suppression of anger.

Goldsmith, whose books include ''Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last'' and ''Johnson v. Johnson,'' tells the remarkable story of the first woman to win a Nobel Prize without anachronistic editorializing. The facts of a working woman's life in the late 19th century speak for themselves. After the birth of her first child in 1897, Curie would come home from the laboratory to breast-feed. When that took too much time, she hired a wet nurse, then passed much of the child-care duty to her widowed father, who joined her household. What mattered was to get back to the lab.

Marie Curie, born Marya Sklodowska in Warsaw in 1867, of scholarly parents of modest means, married in Paris in 1895. She and Pierre Curie fell in love over his invention, the quadrant electrometer, in the Parisian industrial college where he worked. He was not looking for a wife any more than she was husband-hunting; he believed that women ''draw us away from dedication.'' But he recognized a soul mate. Providing her space in his lab, he suggested she work on Becquerel rays -- energetic rays given off by uranium and several other elements. With his equipment and instructions, she found she could discover new elements by measuring their radioactivity. Their paper on ''The New Radioactive Substances and the Rays They Emit'' was part of the celebrations for the Paris Centennial Exposition in 1900. After they won the Nobel Prize, they were celebrities to the extent that journalists, Pierre complained, had gone even so far as ''to describe the black-and-white cat that lives with us.''

That Marya Sklodowska became Marie Curie was owed to Warsaw University's ban on women. She and her older sister, Bronya, encouraged by their intellectual father, were superb students, and when Bronya moved to Paris in order to take a medical degree, Manya (as her family called her) worked as a governess to help with costs and continued her self-education, helped by the mathematics problems her father sent her to solve. Subject to severe depression, she had thrown herself into her books since the death of her mother six months before her 11th birthday.

She was also beautiful, and fell in love with the son of her well-to-do employers, who banned marriage on grounds of social unsuitability. After at least five more dismal years as a governess, her prospects changed when Bronya, now married and living in Paris, persuaded her to revive her dreams of studying at the Sorbonne. She began at last, becoming one of only 23 women of the 2,000 science students at the Sorbonne, and only one of two to work for a degree in science.

To avoid distraction, she left her sister's home and took a sixth-floor garret room in the Latin Quarter. Obsessed with her work, she was nonetheless surprised to come first in her examinations and later furious with herself for coming in second in mathematics. She was the first woman to take a degree in physics from the Sorbonne.

The race was on to discover new elements that produced more radioactivity than uranium. The year after her first child was born, she discovered radium. Neither she nor Pierre Curie suspected -- or wished to -- that radioactivity was harmful. Their hands, their clothes, their equipment all were contaminated. When Pierre was given, at last, a chair at the Sorbonne and Marie made head of research, he was already limping from bone deterioration.

Both Curies, like many scientists of the time, were interested in the spirit world. If electromagnetic waves could carry telegraph messages across space, why not across time? When, in 1906, Pierre was killed by a horse-drawn wagon galloping off the Pont Neuf, Marie often addressed him directly in her diary. Two years later the Sorbonne gave her her his chair, making her its first woman professor.

Working as always until the small hours at what was now called the Curie Laboratory, she once, in front of her younger daughter, Eve, crashed to the floor with exhaustion. Einstein said of her that she was ''cold as a herring.'' Not so. In 1911, she fell in love with a married scientist, Paul Langevin, and met him secretly in his rented Paris apartment. His jealous wife had their letters stolen and released to the press, at about the same time that the papers carried the news of Curie's second Nobel Prize (for the isolation of the elements polonium and radium). Such were the times. Men were expected to have mistresses but a woman with a lover was a she-devil -- in her case, a Polish temptress. From Stockholm came the polite suggestion that she not go to Sweden to collect the prize, but she replied ''I believe that there is no connection between my scientific work and my private life.'' She went to the ceremony, accepted the prize from King Gustaf V and shortly after had a severe nervous breakdown.

By the time Curie made her first trip to the United States, radium was the glamour substance of high society and was added to products like face cream and lipstick. The Curie myth had its own rewards. She succeeded in raising money to continue the research of the Curie Institute, largely from those thinking she was seeking a cure for cancer.

Covered in lesions, Marie Curie died in 1934. To the end, she denied that her beloved radium had killed her. However, in 1956, the death of her daughter Irene Joliot-Curie (who became the second woman to win a Nobel science prize), was attributed to leukemia from exposure to radioactive substances. As Irene's husband, Frederic, approached the same fate two years later, he called it ''our occupational disease.''

Marie Curie would not have cared. As seen in Goldsmith's poignant -- and scientifically lucid -- portrait, she was a depressed, obsessive genius. Life itself was less important than the work. Could Marie Curie have achieved so much without the depression? Probably. Without the obsession? Probably not.

Brenda Maddox's most recent book is ''Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA.''


Best-selling historian Goldsmith incisively chronicles the intensely dramatic life of the first woman scientist to win the Nobel Prize, neatly explicating both scientific breakthroughs and complex personal and societal conflicts. Curie, born Marya Salomee Sklodowska, endured and triumphed over a tough childhood in Russian-occupied Poland as well as depression, sexism, and poverty. A brilliant and profoundly committed scientist who achieved many firsts, she found her soul mate in fellow scientist and maverick Pierre Curie, who helped her conduct the grueling experiments that enabled her to discover polonium, radium, and radioactivity, thus throwing "open the door to atomic science." A humanist who hoped that radiation would only be used for good, Marie Curie also invented a mobile X-ray unit that her courageous scientist daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, who also won a Nobel Prize, operated on the front lines. Marie, Pierre, and Irene were all made fatally ill by their work with radioactive substances, and decades later, the Curie papers that Goldsmith has made such superb use of were still "hot." Marie Curie's life, Goldsmith concludes, was "tragic and glorious." Her powerful portrait reveals a woman of great passion, genius, and pain who changed the world in ways she would have deplored.

A lucid, captivating biography for all interested in science and the obstacles women scientists faced.
-- Donna Seaman.


"I never see what has been done; I only see what remains to be done." -- Marie Curie

Female scientists fill the hallways of the finest educational institutions, sit on grant committees and preside over international organizations. For those too young to remember, it is difficult to imagine a scientific community without women. But there was a time when only one or two women were working in science. These women were lone warriors, struggling and striving in a world that consistently placed them one step behind their male counterparts.

Barbara Goldsmith chronicles the life of a woman whom many honor as a scientific heroine in her new book, "Obsessive Genius, The Inner World of Marie Curie." Indeed, accounts of Marie Curie spurred many to pursue science and forage new territories. Her accomplishments in the face of sexism, war and poverty are impressive enough to motivate even the most lackadaisical soul.

Goldsmith writes that she, too, had been long intrigued with the great Madame and sought, in this book, to "investigate the vast disparity between image and reality" that has always surrounded Curie's life. There is never a dull moment in this true tale, and Goldsmith's nostalgic yet matter-of-fact writing style blends well with her fascinating subject. Marya Salomee Sklodowska (later called Marie) was born on Nov. 7, 1867, in Russian-occupied Warsaw, Poland. Her earliest exposures to physics came from her father, a closet physicist. Both she and her older sister Bronya were drawn to science from a very young age. But neither Curie's desire to study physics or her sister's passion for medicine was quickly attained.

After attending a fledgling university for women, called "the Flying University," for her undergraduate education, Curie worked as a governess to fund Bronya's medical education. Once her sister's dream was fulfilled, Curie went on to become the first woman to graduate with a doctorate in physics from the Sorbonne in Paris. After this feat, Curie continued to acquire many more firsts: She was the first female professor at the Sorbonne, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in physics and the first woman to be laid to rest under the dome of the Pantheon in Paris.

Most tales of Madame Curie, as she was called in lieu of doctor or professor, define her on two levels, her scientific achievement and romance. Goldsmith tells us that these passions -- her husband, Pierre, and the element radium -- were, in fact, merged.

She could not choose one over the other. Indeed when he died, Curie fell into a deep depression from which she never truly recovered. At the beginning Pierre Curie had to convince Marie Sklodowska that he was worthy of her affections. But her love for him grew as the two shared their interest in science and the laboratory. Both were reclusive individuals who wrapped themselves in their own experiment-dominated space. They shared a Nobel Prize, and had two daughters, Irène and Eve. When the couple won the Nobel, he was lauded as the primary winner by the scientific community, even though Marie had performed much of the groundbreaking work. For her entire career, Marie Curie suffered this type of second-class status among her male colleagues. She was refused seats on various prestigious committees and passed up for scientific prizes on more than one occasion. But she continued to persevere, and was even awarded a second Nobel Prize, this one in chemistry.

Curie's love for radium, unlike her love for Pierre, was immediate. And even as the element stripped away her insides and killed her, Curie continued to praise its wondrous qualities. She even went to great lengths to sneak radioactive substances out of Paris and away from the Germans during World War I. Goldsmith balances stories of Curie's achievements with dark depictions of bouts of debilitating depression and illnesses from radiation exposure that constantly threatened Curie's life and set back her work. Her love life was also fraught with controversy; long after Pierre's death, an affair with a married colleague cost Curie her reputation. As with any of the other setbacks she faced, however, Curie took society's blows with courage. So when the Nobel Prize committee requested that, because of her scandalous affair, she not attend the ceremony commemorating her second Nobel, she refused.

Goldsmith leads the reader through a wonderland of facts with just the right blend of science and story. In the end, the mystery of the great Madame remains, but a deeper understanding of what she went through as a woman and a scientist shines as strong as her radium.

Aparna Sreenivasan is a science writer in Seaside (Monterey County).


"Popular biographer Goldsmith (Other Powers, 1996, etc.) pens a sharp, sprightly, refreshing portrait of the brilliant, melancholic scientist, affording a sensible look into her head and into the body of her work.

Forget the myths surrounding Marie Curie (1867-1934), says the author, and consider her on merits alone. Are they not wowing? First woman with a degree in physics from the Sorbonne, first female professor at the school, first woman to win not one but two Nobel Prizes, first woman to be elected to the French Academy of Medicine. In a world of vicious, institutionalized sexism, Curie was as "rare as a unicorn." Nothing came easy, notes Goldsmith. Her father drove her hard down the intellectual path. Her husband, brick though he was in other ways, left the household to her alone. She was plagued by recurrent depressions. Money problems hampered her research, and her research probably killed her. Goldsmith does her best to set right some of the discrepancies between history and myth. Curie, for instance, did not toil alone: " . . . in this journey of discovery, Marie and Pierre were equally involved . . . Pierre took over the physics . . . Marie acted essentially as a chemist." She was, however, the one who sparked the pursuit into the mysteries of radium. The author also acknowledges the tangle and messiness of her subject's life. Curie took a governess's job to put her sister through the Sorbonne. She had her home stoned after the disclosure of her affair with a married man and brushed off the tar-and-feathering to accept her second Nobel that same year. She exposed her daughter to radium, knowing its deleterious effects--chronic ill health and fingers like concrete might have been a clue. Goldsmith unconvincingly suggests an answer can be found in willfully ignorant "love" for radium: "my child," Curie called it.

Opens the door on Curie as she opened the door on atomic science." (15 photos)


"Marie Curie's ability to focus her intelligence on what she wanted to accomplish is legendary, and in this exploration of Curie's "obsessive genius" Goldsmith (Little Gloria...Happy at Last) has produced a finely detailed and well-researched biography. But she has interwoven with Curie's scientific progress the emotional and personal costs involved, from Curie's early years as a governess to the ongoing battles for sexual equality in the scientific academies of Europe. The hypocrisy of the times, particularly regarding Marie's affair with Paul Langevin (her late husband's student), is so striking that one wonders why Curie retained her incredible loyalty to France. Unlike Susan Quinn 's detailed Marie Curie, which concentrates on Curie's scientific life, Goldsmith focuses on the social and economic hurdles that Curie had to overcome to manage the roles of scientist, wife, mother, and staunch French wartime ally. She also provides an excellent portrait of the age in which Marie Curie was to do so much for the world. Recommended for all libraries." - Hilary Burton, formerly with Lawrence Livermore National Lab, CA


"The Disaster of Our Lives"

Marie Curie had discovered radium and the fierce energy released by radioactivity. In so doing she and her husband Pierre had worked incessantly and won the Nobel Prize in the sciences. Now that this task was completed they were about to make a Faustian bargain. In the past, they had fought prejudice, neglect, cynicism. Now a new-found celebrity brought with it a cornucopia full of their greatest desires. In return, all that had been most meaningful in their lives began slipping away. The Curies, who had "dreamed of living in a world quite removed from human beings" were besieged by the press. They sensed that this recognition might bring them the rewards they sought, but they were not prepared for the frenzy that followed. The Nobel Prize only in its third year had attracted little attention especially in the sciences. But, here was a human interest story made for the press. As in a fairy tale, Marie was depicted as a beautiful, poor, immigrant, a Cinderella who lived in a garret. Cold and hungry, she studied deep into the night. Then she met her Prince Charming in the person of Pierre Curie. Finally, after years of toil in miserable conditions, she discovered a luminous, magical substance that might prove to be a panacea for the world’s ills. The publicity was concentrated mostly on Marie, but after a childhood of discipline and suppressing her emotions, she received fame with equanimity. Pierre, the most private of men, called it, "the disaster of our lives." He was upset that although the Nobel Prize was for the discovery of radioactivity, that it was radium itself that fascinated the public. He wrote a friend,

I have wanted to write to you for a long time;  excuse me if I have not done so. The cause is the stupid life which I lead at present. You have seen this sudden infatuation for radium,  which has resulted for us in all the advantages  of a moment of popularity. We have been pursued by journalists and photographers from all countries of the world; they have gone even so far as to report the conversation between my daughter and her nurse, and to describe the black-and-white cat that lives with us . . . . Finally, the collectors of autographs, snobs, society people, and even at times, scientists…. With such a state of things I feel myself invaded by a kind of stupor. And yet all this turmoil will not perhaps have been in vain, if it results in my getting a Chair and a laboratory . . . .

    "From early youth Pierre [found it] necessary . . . to concentrate his thoughts with great intensity upon a certain definite object . . . . It was impossible for him to modify the course of his reflections to suit exterior circumstances," Marie wrote. Pierre, thinking that publicity would bring scientific support, granted interviews but clearly this was painful for him. He often answered questions with a nod of his head or shrug of his shoulders and frequently looked at his watch as if to say, "This is a waste of time." Not so with Madame Curie, who stoically and politely received all callers.
   Today the walls of the Curie Institute are lined with photographs of Marie and Pierre in various scientific poses. The most famous one is of Madame Curie holding aloft beakers of radium bromide. "You know she posed for that picture," Hélène Langevin-Joliot remarks. On close inspection the photograph seems forced, Marie’s arms are awkwardly extended, her eyes are glazed rather than concentrated. Yet the Curies had judged correctly, fame had brought long sought after rewards.
    It had become an embarrassment to France to find its most famous scientists occupying inferior positions. Impelled by public opinion, spurred on by the press, the Director of the Academy of Paris petitioned Parliament to create a new science Chair at the Sorbonne and name Pierre as its occupant. The Chair came with a salary of 10,000 francs, but made no provision for a laboratory. A newly influential Pierre, with public support behind him, declined the Chair. This was followed by negative publicity so telling in its impact that the Sorbonne recanted and promised Pierre a fully-equipped laboratory and three assistants of his choosing. Madame Curie was to be named head of research.
    The Curies’ dream of an unencumbered life in science at last seemed obtainable, but Pierre’s ambivalence and distress were evident when he wrote to Georges Gouy, "As you have seen, fortune favors us at this moment; but these favors do not come without many worries. We have never been less tranquil than at this moment. There are days when we scarcely have time to breathe . . . ."
In the face of their celebrity, the work that had brought such happiness had diminished.
We continue to lead the same life of people who are extremely occupied, without being able to accomplish anything interesting. It is now more than a year since I have been able to engage in any research, and I have no moment to myself. Clearly I have not yet discovered a means to defend ourselves against this frittering away of our time which is nevertheless extremely necessary. Intellectually, it is a question of life or death.

   At this time the medical use of radium was problematic, but bogus applications of radium substances were growing at an astonishing rate into a multi-million dollar industry. The vast energy emitted by pure radium allowed it to be diluted up to 600,000 times by such substances as zinc sulfide or bromide and still retain its power. The radium craze was not to abate for over four decades. Products containing radium were perceived as a cure for real and imaginary illnesses and as a novelty for society. George Bernard Shaw wrote, "The world has run raving mad on the subject of radium, which has excited our credulity precisely as the apparitions at Lordes excited the credulity of Roman Catholics."

   Minute dilutions of radium were added to tea, health tonics, face creams, lipsticks, bath salts, costumes that glowed in the dark and so forth. "Crème Actina" purported to contain radium was guaranteed to keep skin looking young. "Curie Hair Tonic" guaranteed no loss of hair. A bag containing radium worn near the scrotum was said to restore virility, a "Cosmos Bag" was strapped to the waist for arthritis. Radium toothpaste was said to preserve and whiten teeth, a radium inhaler to increase the vigor and enrich the blood. A doctor calling himself Alfred Curie marketed "Tho-Radia Creme." His advertisements showed a beautiful blonde woman with flawless skin bathed in blue light. According to Hélène Langevin-Joliot, Marie was so offended by this appropriation of the Curie name that she asked a lawyer to write him to desist. Nevertheless he continued.
   One could buy a "Revigorator"—a flask lined with radium to be filled with water each night to drink the following morning. "Raithor" a drink containing one part radium salts to 60,000 parts of zinc sulfide, was said to cure stomach cancer, mental illness, and restore sexual vigor and vitality. An American industrialist, Eben Byers, drank a bottle a day for four years at the end of which he died in excruciating pain from cancer of the jaw as his facial bones disintegrated. The famous American Follies Bergere dancer Loie Fuller became infatuated with Marie and her discovery and wrote requesting some radium to create a costume. When Marie refused, Loie came to the Curies’ house and performed a dance, her body lit by electric lights colored by blue cellophane filters—the nearest she could come to a radium effect. Soon, in Paris, New York, and San Francisco, theater and night club reviews featured women invisible but for the glowing radium paint on their costumes.
   Radium had become the pet substance of high society. In fashionable drawing rooms, society hostesses paid exorbitant prices to have so-called experts lecture on radium. Upper-crust men and women carried in their pockets or purses glass vials containing tiny particles of radium bromide. When Pierre heard of this, he wrote a paper warning about the danger of burns, but perhaps flirting with danger was alluring to affluent people as was the frequent use of morphine injections and cocaine.
A device called a Spinthariscope invented by Sir William Crookes to detect radioactivity soon became favored by society. A round brass tube about two inches long, housed a tiny mirror and a transparent screen covered with zinc sulfide. An alpha particle of radium bromide, approximately one six hundred thousandth of pure radium, was placed inside. This was no toy. It demonstrated the fierce energy of radioactivity. On the screen one saw a multitude of scintillations, like minute shooting stars, as the substance decayed. Crookes patented his Spintharoscope. Everywhere profits poured in.
   While the Curies received processed radium for research and royalties on the sales, they were far from rich for they held no patent on radium or on the process by which it was manufactured. In 1923, when Marie was trying to raise money to continue her research, she wrote a short autobiography in which she stated that they had considered taking these steps and knew they would "sacrifice a fortune" if this was not done, but that she told Pierre that such action "would be contrary to the scientific spirit . . . . If our discovery has a commercial future, that is an accident. Radium is going to be of use in treating disease . . . . It seems to me impossible to take advantage of that." Pierre agreed with her, saying, "No. It would be contrary to the scientific spirit."