Vol 0, No 13
21 December 1998
A Role Model For The 21st Century?
Andrew James Horton
A hundred years ago the element radium was first identified and separated by Marie Curie. Of all the things we could be marking the centenary of, this one might seem to be very low on the excitement scale. So, is this all really worth making a song and dance about? Well, it's certainly worth making a film about, for that is exactly what director Krzysztof Szmagier has done with his latest documentary Maria (1998). Szmagier aims to increase our understanding of the lesser-known sides to Marie Curie: a woman, a wife, a mother, a lover and a Polish national hero.
Curie, although a household name, is in many ways unknown. We tend to remember her achievements far more than we do her life. This most blatantly manifests itself in the fact that many now assume she was French. Whilst the English-speaking world generally refers to her as Marie Curie, to Poles she is Maria Sklodowska-Curie, emphasising her Polish origins. Hence, Szamgier's film automatically confronts us with a polemical stance. By calling it Maria, rather than Curie, he emphasises that she was a woman as much as a scientist and by calling it Maria, rather than Marie, we are clear that he is interested in her Polish side as much as her connections with France.
Marie/Maria's life story is truly incredible and it is almost impossible to comprehend the prejudices which she had to overcome. Poland at that time was partitioned, and Warsaw part of Russia. Gender discrimination and Russian fears of Polish nationalism acted in concert to prevent Marie from attending university. Undeterred, she attended the "free university" - an illegal series of lectures held in secretly in private houses. Marie's thirst for knowledge was insatiable, and she left for France to attend lectures at the Sorbonne.
Life was no easier in Paris and, despite her brilliance, she had to fight fiercely for acceptance among the French scientific community. She was poor, she was a woman and she was a foreigner to boot. That she succeeded is no indicator of her success in quelling these prejudices and shows more her gut determination to surmount them. Even when she had achieved international stardom and become the first person to win a Noble Prize twice, she met with continuing waves of resistance. So much so that the French only transferred her remains to the Pantheon, the burial hall of French "great men," in 1995. She was the first woman to have her remains interred there.
Love and scandal
Her private life was not smooth-sailing either. She was denied the opportunity to marry her first love because she was not of a high enough class. Her personal loss, though, is science's gain for otherwise she would not have married Pierre Curie, the brilliant French physician already famous for his ground-breaking work on piezoelectrics, which was later to alter the course of World War I. Marie and Pierre worked together on radium and received the Nobel Prize for physics jointly with Henri Becquerel in 1903 for their work on radioactivity, a term coined by Marie. When she won her second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time for chemistry, it was, alas, awarded to her alone - Pierre had died after being run over by a horse-drawn cart two years earlier.
The death did not deter Marie in her work. She fought off reactionaries who tried to prevent her from taking over Pierre's lecturing position at the Sorbonne, thus becoming the first woman told hold a teaching position at the institute. In World War I, she toured the front and under her initiative radiology treatment was provided to troops. When she ran out of money for research in years to come, rather than accept defeat she would go on fund-raising tours of America, collecting hundreds and thousands of dollars for a single gram of radium. These tours both relied on and fed her growing status as a star. She won infamy as well as fame, though, and the press of the day were shocked by the two romances she had in the twenty years after Pierre's death. Poland was never far from her heart though and she returned their often, founding the Radium Institute in Warsaw in 1932.
The person's the hero
Many of those present at the screening at the Polish Cultural Institute in London, thought that the film did not explain her contribution to science enough. Personally, I couldn't disagree more. Heroes and heroines are more than just the sum of their greatest achievements. Many a scientist has made astounding scientific discoveries only to go unrecognised because the public have not been able to identify with their personality, their life story and their emotions. Pierre Curie is a classic example. If Marie is a hero, it is because there is something in her beyond her intellect which we can identify with. She captured the minds and hearts of people not just because of the importance of her work but because she was able to inspire people by her inner qualities, whereas now she is little more than a name in association with two squares on the periodic table.
In this respect I was deeply disappointed that Szmagier did not spend more time uncovering those parts of her which made her an international celebrity in the early decades of this century. For instance, the film made comparatively little effort to draw on personal sources, such as her letters. This is not entirely the director's fault: much interesting material on Marie was destroyed in the Communist era, in attempt to cover up the scandals in her life, and funds were severely limited which restricted the source materials to those from European archives.
The films weak points are many and obvious. It has clearly suffered from the budget restrictions. This is most notable in the lax translation, which preserves the Polish love of long wordy sentences with multiply nested relative clauses. Although spoken in perfect English, the speed and density of the voice-over was such that it was almost impossible for me to follow. Furthermore, the film was ignorant of the conventions of an English-language documentary. I sincerely hope that when Szmagier said that he intended the film for schools and colleges he was referring to using the Polish version of the film being used in Polish schools and Polish colleges.
A Polish hero
The film is, therefore, more interesting in its conception than in its execution. Marie's life, although not as much in the public's mind as it has been, should still have the capability to inspire. After all, in an age where we are increasingly wondering what are good role models for young women to follow, Marie Curie stands as not just the most famous woman scientist the world has known but as the only famous woman scientist the world has known.
More than this, she is a very Polish hero. Her life mirrors that of her country, struggling in the face of adversity and surviving against all odds. Like Chopin before her and director of the three colours trilogy Krzysztof Kieslowski after her, she realised her destiny through France, underlining the strong ties between the two countries. Nationalism can be such a xenophobic concept and feminism can be mindlessly right-on, but Marie Curie manages both to epitomise her nation without isolating it from the context of Europe and to be an iconic figure for female success without either sacrificing her femininity or degrading it.
The discovery of radium opened up whole new fields in medicine and physics. More than this, though, it had far-reaching effects not just on our knowledge of science but also on the way we thought about the subject. However, its discovery on its own is meaningless and radium is inextricably bound up with Marie's dynamic personality. As such, there is no particular reason why we should mark its centenary of radium's discovery in itself. Far more interesting is the woman behind it and the qualities which, even after the passage of a century, qualify her as a role model for the 21st century.
Andrew James Horton, 21 December 1998
English-language materials on Marie Curie are in abundance, although a lot of them just seem to repeat information given on all the others. Perhaps the definitive one is Zbigniew Zwolinski's site, which, as well as having a biography which is far more extensive than most, contains a massive catalogue of other sites devoted to the great scientist, pictures of the craters on the moon and Mars bearing her name and a bibliography of published sources (remember? - paper) on Marie and her work. German speakers also have the option of a Deutsch version. Work your way around from there.
If you're resident in the UK, you can even have a Marie Curie credit card, if you so desire. No, it doesn't glow in the dark, but all profits the card makes goes to the charity Marie Curie Cancer Care. A worthwhile cause if ever there was one.
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