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Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize overshadowed by a sentimental scandal

Frenchwoman Emmanuelle Charpentier received the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday. The 51-year-old geneticist (along with American Jennifer Doudna) has developed “molecular scissors” capable of modifying human genes, a revolutionary breakthrough. The laureate, who hopes to bring “a very strong message” to young girls who want to embrace scientific careers, trusted by men, walks in the footsteps of Marie Curie, awarded the same prize 109 years ago …

This Wednesday, November 8, 1911, Marie Curie was at work in her laboratory in rue Cuvier (5th arrondissement of Paris) when a telegram fell: the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to her. “In recognition of the services for the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of new elements: radium and polonium, by the study of their nature and their compounds”, details the Stockholm Foundation. For the scientist who celebrated her 44th birthday the day before, it’s the coronation. Eight years earlier, a first Nobel Prize, this time in physics, had rewarded her and her husband (as well as Henri Becquerel) for their work on radiation.

After the death of Pierre Curie, she finds love again with a scientist

The relationship between Marie Curie and Paul Langevin, pending separation, caused a scandal at the time. / Albert Harlingue / Roger-Viollet

Physics and now chemistry: double consecration. A third did not come from Sweden but from Belgium: at the Solvay congress held at the Hôtel Métropole in Brussels a few days earlier, she was the only woman among all the top European science: Ernest Rutherford , Hendrik Lorentz, Max Planck, Henri Poincaré, Paul Langevin, and the rising star of quantum physics, Albert Einstein. A fabulous magma of gray matter, gathered to phosphorate on the theory of radiation and quanta.

In this assembly brought together for the first time by the Belgian patron Ernest Solvay (still relevant today), only one mustache is missing: that of Pierre Curie. On April 19, 1906, her husband passed under the wheels of a horse-drawn carriage as he crossed, in heavy rain, the Pont-Neuf crossroads on the Quai des Grands Augustins. Devastated by grief, Marie first sank into a deep depression, confiding in her diary – in fact, letters addressed to Pierre – her dark thoughts, as dark as the mourning dresses she never leaves.

In the streets of Paris, she wanders “as if hypnotized” in the middle of traffic. “Among all these cars, will there not be one to share with me the fate of my beloved”, writes the widow. Her relatives are worried to see her sink into an icy silence. Including with her daughters, Irene and Eve, to whom she never talks about their father.

It is in her laboratory that she will gradually go up the slope. “I’m better there than anywhere else,” she confides in her notebook to Pierre’s ghost. “I can no longer conceive of anything that can give me real personal joy except perhaps scientific work: and again no, because if I were successful, I would be sorry if you did not know”, she wrote in the summer 1906, the first without him. She throws herself into the work and quickly, successes follow one another. Appointed professor at the Sorbonne (a first), her inaugural lecture on November 5, 1906 was a scientific, media and social event. In 1909, she was at the top: holder of a chair in general physics and head of the new Radium Institute which would later take her name.

It took less than five years to go from the first – inertia – to Isaac Newton’s second law: dynamics! Since the summer of 1910, she has even found love again, with Paul Langevin, brilliant physicist and old friend of the Curie couple. He is – among other things – the author of a theory on… magnetism. Paul rented a two-room apartment in rue du Banquier (Paris 13th arrondissement) where lovers can let their romance run free. She is a widow, he is in the process of separation… so what? Unfortunately for the two lovers, the times are not always “beautiful” for those who free themselves from conformism.

Mysogynia, xenophobia … the press is unleashed

On November 4, 1911, the scandal broke out on the front page of the Journal, a daily with a large circulation. The article, titled “A love story: Mme Curie and Professor Langevin”, is devious. “Like the X-rays which burn those who approach them too closely, they have just kindled a fire in the heart of one of the scientists who study their action with tenacity … and the wife and children of this scientist are in tears” , wrote the journalist, who later repented. It was Paul Langevin’s mother-in-law who unpacked everything. With the complicity of her daughter, the outraged stepmother passes Marie off as a “home breaker”. It was she who “kidnapped” her poor son-in-law, who was also five years younger.

Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize overshadowed by a sentimental scandal
Le Petit Parisien of November 5, 1911 puts Marie Curie’s liaison with Paul Langevin / Albert Harlingue / Roger-Viollet on the front page

When the crisp business bursts, Marie and Paul are still in Brussels, where the Solvay Congress is just coming to an end. The fire spread through the press – even foreign ones – at a tremendous speed. And the culprit is Marie! Some of the most nauseating gazettes even suggest that Pierre committed suicide when he learned of his misfortune. The same people never forget to mention the origins of Marie Skłodowska-Curie, who became French in 1895 after her marriage to Pierre. “The foreigner”! “The Polish” and even “the Jewess”, which she is not. The Work, an anti-Semitic firebrand, is unleashed against the “vestal of radium” and her friends, all of them former Dreyfusards of course!

At the end of November, Marie was forced to leave her house in Sceaux, stoned by a bunch of madmen. An uninspired minister even suggests that she return to Warsaw. She thinks about it for a moment, before giving up, thanks to the insistence of her friends. It is in this storm that she learns that she receives the Nobel Prize in chemistry. The newspapers, monopolized by the scandal, evacuate the information in a few lines. The chalice of injustice, to the dregs.

We ask him not to come and get his prize

In a letter of December 1, a Swedish academician has the delicacy of begging her not to come and collect her prize. She curtly refuses and on the 10th arrives in Stockholm with her daughter Irene. In her speech the next day, she recalled that “the discovery of radium and polonium (named in honor of his homeland of origin) was made by Pierre Curie, together with me ”.

The violence of the scandal will get the better of her romantic relationship. In the test, Paul, it is true, did not live up to him. “It is disappointing to make all the interest of life depend on feelings as stormy as love”, she wrote years later to Eve, her youngest daughter. It radiates, but it is no longer happiness. At the end of December, he was detected a kidney disease, the first signs of too long exposure to radioactive substances which would eventually prevail in 1934.

At the heart of this sordid affair soaked in the poison of xenophobia and misogyny, Illustration took up the cause of “the irreproachable Madame Curie”. In its November 11 edition, the prestigious magazine is saddened to see her pay the “cruel ransom of celebrity”. Yes, that price, it would have gone well.

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