Why We Need New Scientific Heroes

Is it time to forget about Marie Curie?

Posted Nov 15, 2019 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

What we say about our scientific heroes reveals more about us than about them.

Three hundred years ago, Isaac Newton was worshipped as a humble Priest of Nature, a virtuous saint who dedicated his life to pure research. In contrast, now he features as a reclusive alchemist, a scheming obsessive who vindictively demolished his rivals’ reputation. Hardly an ideal prescription for budding scientists to aim for.

And what about an aspirational figurehead for female students? The top candidate is still Marie Skłodowska Curie, the Polish physicist who won two Nobel prizes for her work on radioactivity. In a recent opinion poll, she scooped up a quarter of the votes, easily defeating her nearest competitor, Rosalind Franklin, who has unfairly been cast into a traditional role for women – the helpless victim, excluded from the halls of honor by her ruthless rivals, James Crick and Francis Watson.

Marie Skłodowska Curie was a wonderful person, and she deserves to be admired. But can modern school girls really benefit from learning skewed lessons about a persecuted scientific martyr?

Wellcome Collection (Creative Commons).
Marie Curie alone in her laboratory, 1912.
Source: Wellcome Collection (Creative Commons).

This famous photo confirms the exaggerated stories. Standing alone in her bleak laboratory, Curie wears shabby, unfashionable clothes and looks miserable. Perhaps she already knew that prolonged exposure to radioactivity was destroying her health. What sort of enticement to the life sciences are pictures like that?

According to the mythologized versions of her career, Curie spent long days and nights in an unheated shed sifting tons of pitchblende to isolate a minute sample of radioactive salt. Often going without food, she sacrificed herself to research with little prospect of either financial reward or academic recognition. As her younger daughter put it, radium was her parents’ favorite child. Does that seem an appealing ambition for would-be scientists?

Curie is often acclaimed for refusing to file patents that would make her rich. ‘We were working in the interests of science’ she declared, as if such lack of self-interest justified her impoverished existence. Is that the sort of hardship we are training young women to accept?

In any case, it wasn’t like that. Her husband had no qualms about benefitting financially from his own inventions. The truth was that under French law, Curie had no rights of ownership – any profits she made went straight to her husband. And after he died, everything passed to her two children. 

Curie was an astute businesswoman who knew how to negotiate and protect her own interests. At the end of her triumphant tour of the USA in 1921, she stunned her hosts by refusing to accept the massive amount of money they had raised, insisting instead on receiving its equivalent as radium that then had to be shipped across the Atlantic. The night before President Harding was due to present this gift, she self-protectively threatened to boycott the ceremony unless an additional clause was added to cover the possibility that she could die on the trip home.

After her husband died suddenly in a road accident, Curie struggled on alone. But when she turned for comfort to a married man, he escaped criticism, while she was lambasted in the press as ‘a Jewish whore’. No wonder she broke down under the pressure and fled to England, where she was cared for by her close friend, the electrical expert Hertha Ayrton.

Ayrton declared to a journalist: ‘I do not agree with sex being brought into science at all. The idea of “woman and science” is completely irrelevant. Either a woman is a good scientist, or she is not.’  That seems to me to be an ideal worth striving for, although there is still some way to go.

Curie embarked on her first voyage to New York almost a century ago. Since then, several other women have won Nobel prizes in science: they have proved that she was not a unique exception. Women can scale the same heights as men, and will do so increasingly in the future.

Even so, none of these female Nobel laureates has achieved the international glory of Marie Curie. Why not? It seems that too many people still believe that you can either be a good scientist or a normal woman, but not both. That has to change.