Marie Curie: 100-year anniversary of a Nobel Prize

 Images Madame-Curie-Paris-631

The United Nations named this year the Intenational year of Chemistry in honor of the amazing Marie Curie, who won her second Nobel Prize a century ago this month. She shared her first Nobel prize in 1903, the first ever awarded to a woman. That same year, she was the first woman to earn a physics PhD in France. Smithsonian looks back at the life of this inspirational scientist:

The marquee event of her six-week U.S. tour (in 1921) was held in the East Room of the White House. President Warren Harding spoke at length, praising her “great attainments in the realms of science and intellect” and saying she represented the best in womanhood. “We lay at your feet the testimony of that love which all the generations of men have been won't to bestow upon the noble woman, the unselfish wife, the devoted mother.”

It was a rather odd thing to say to the most decorated scientist of that era, but then again Marie Curie was never easy to understand or categorize. That was because she was a pioneer, an outlier, unique for the newness and immensity of her achievements. But it was also because of her sex. Curie worked during a great age of innovation, but proper women of her time were thought to be too sentimental to perform objective science. She would forever be considered a bit strange, not just a great scientist but a great woman scientist. You would not expect the president of the United States to praise one of Curie’s male contemporaries by calling attention to his manhood and his devotion as a father. Professional science until fairly recently was a man’s world, and in Curie’s time it was rare for a woman even to participate in academic physics, never mind triumph over it.

"Madame Curie's Passion"


  1. Lets hear it for Madame Curie! But seriously, the Smithsonian is in dire need of a proofreading editor…

  2. I think you’re parsing the quote incorrectly. “have been wont to bestow” can be read as “would typically have bestowed upon” – and I think this is probably what Harding meant. Interpreted this way, the quote suddenly describes a new dimension of respect that men can / should have for women, whereas previously we might only have respected “…the noble woman, the unselfish wife, the devoted mother”. Just my two cents.

  3. Yeah, and we still report on what female politicians are wearing, and get upset if any cleavage is showing. I’m not sure much has changed.

  4. Marie Curie’s daughter Irene Joliet-Curie won the Nobel prize with her husband Frederic Joliet-Curie. Her Granddaughter Helene Langevin-Joliet is a professor of nuclear physics and Director of research at CNRS- the largest center for research in fundamental science in Europe. Her grandson Pierre is a noted biologist also at CNRS. (Her daughter Eve Curie Labouisse may not of won the Nobel but her husband did accept the one for UNICEF which she had been working for at the time).

    Marie Curie’s family is incredibly accomplished. I am willing to go so far as to say that, as a parent, she led her family to have a greater effect on humanity than most parents can even dream. 

    Marie Curie is one of the greatest scientists the world has ever seen. She did this in spite off all that was stacked against her but with the support of her family which she, in turn, supported.

    Maybe the problem isn’t that we consider family and motherhood as part of Marie Curie’s life and success, but maybe the problem is that we idealize a myth of masculine individuality that is generally not true. Maybe we actually should consider a Man’s place within a family when we consider his “manhood”, rather than diminish Marie Curie by not considering her family.

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