I had Susan Quinn’s biography of Marie Curie sitting on my desk for around a month before I even cracked the spine. Perhaps it was the mournful cover done in shades of brown and black, with Curie gazing sternly out. Perhaps it was the size of the book that daunted me; at 500 pages (including footnotes) it’s no lightweight. I knew Marie Curie as the first woman to win a Nobel prize, but surely her life couldn’t be eventful enough to fill all those pages?
As it turns out, I was completely and utterly wrong. From the first page I was caught up in Curie’s amazing life. She was born Polish in a time when that country was occupied by Russia, and as a child learned Polish history and other banned “nationalist” subjects in secret. Women had no chance of a higher education in Poland at that time, and the Curie family could not afford to send their talented children abroad to study. So Marie Curie and her sister Bronia teamed up; Marie worked to support Bronia’s studies in Paris, then later lived with her sister during her own studies. It was in Paris that she met Pierre Curie, her partner in life and work, and began the research into radioactivity that would make her name.
Quinn reaches past the hagiographic portrayal of Marie as an early feminist saint to offer a portrait of a real woman. Science was Curie’s lifelong love, but her devotion to Pierre was real and she was devastated after his early death in a street accident. The most moving parts of the book come directly from a journal written by Curie in the year after his death, when she pours out her heart to her dead husband. The book is returning to the library with a few tear-stains on these pages.
Like the best biographers, Quinn succeeds in fading into the background. She only rarely ventures away from the evidence to offer suggestion or a comment, but they are always insightful and relevant. Her sympathy with Curie is evident , but she does not shy away from presenting the less attractive sides of her character where necessary, such as her tendency to self-promotion and her ambivalent attitude to raising children.
Reading Marie Curie: A life also led me to reflect on the role of science today. Quinn’s description of the Curies passing by their laboratory after dark to enjoy the pretty radioactive glow of the minerals provides a window to a more innocent world. Curie believed passionately in the power of science for good, but these days we have a real suspicion of science (witness the controversy regarding GM foods, for example). On the other hand, the blindness of the Curies to the potentially harmful effects of radioactivity took a toll on their health and the health of others treated with the new “radium treatments”. So was Curie’s belief in the power of science ultimately wrong? Like the woman herself, it is a complex question .
This is a wonderful, inspiring book, despite the forbidding cover. Still, on reading the book, I think perhaps the designer got it right after all. The cover is utilitarian, simple, and with little regard for aesthetics, but it conveys the essential information. I think Marie Curie would have approved.