“Today’s ceremony is a deliberate outreach on our part from the Pantheon to the first lady of our honored history. It is another symbol that captures the attention of our nation and the exemplary struggle of a woman who decided to impose her abilities in a society where abilities, intellectual exploration, and public responsibility were reserved for men.”
– Francois Mitterrand, April 20, 1995
Marie Curie is one of the most famous female scientists and perhaps one of the most famous women in the western world. I intentionally say famous and not well-known, because Curie was and remains a bit of an enigma. A lifelong sufferer from depression, “[t]he only way she was able to cope was by screening out the world and focusing obsessively on a subject, thus holding at bay her feeling of desolation.” An extremely private, introverted woman, Curie’s successes were hard-fought, often under-appreciated, and later mythologized.
Barbara Goldsmith nobly and ably tackles her subject, creating a biography that is well-researched and yet eminently readable. Goldsmith tells briefly of Marie Curie’s childhood and her education, spending most of the book focused on the adult Marie’s trials and triumphs. Curie was a woman of firsts, many of which are richly described in Goldsmith’s book.
“In 1893, Marie Curie became the first woman to secure a degree in physics at the Sorbonne. The following year she received a second degree, in mathematics. She was the first woman to be appointed a professor at the Sorbonne, and the first woman to receive not only one but two Nobel Prizes…. She was the first woman to be elected to the 224-year-old French Academy of Medicine. In addition to having a spectacular career, Marie raised two daughters largely as a single mother and saw that they were well educated, physically strong, and independent.”
I feel compelled to point out that the glass ceilings Madame Curie cracked are still far from shattered. As of 2015, 48 of 870 individuals who have received a Nobel Prize in any category have been women. I wonder if Curie would be impressed or dismayed at the progress we’ve made?
Barbara Goldsmith’s biography is a fine explication of an enigmatic woman. The task she has set herself is a difficult one, given records in multiple languages, the passage of a significant amount of time, and the privacy of her subject. I suspect that writing about such an exceptional character may stymie a writer’s freedom and creativity; in my experience, biographies are rarely exceptional for their writing, but for their dealing with exceptional subject matter. Such is the case with “Obsessive Genius.” Goldsmith’s prose is balanced, if not inspired; her information broad and factual, if not emotionally deep. Still in all, “Obsessive Genius” was thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening, and I am grateful for Barbara Goldsmith for sharing Marie Curie’s luminescence.
Below is an excerpt from Eve Curie’s biography of Marie, which was included in Goldsmith’s work. Admittedly this may be an unfair comparison, as this passage was written by Curie’s daughter, which suggests a greater access to and emotional connection to her source material. The writing, however, in just a few short strokes, evokes feeling and life that I find thoroughly engaging.
“‘Marie Curie did not change from a happy young wife to an inconsolable widow. The metamorphosis was less simple and more serious. The interior tumult that lacerated Marie, the nameless horror of her wandering ideas, were too virulent to be expressed in complaints or confidences. From the moment when those three worlds, ‘Pierre is dead,’ reached her consciousness, a cape of solitude and secrecy fell upon her shoulders forever. Madame Curie, on that day in April, became not only a widow, but at the same time a pitiful and incurably lonely woman.'”