Recognition and Disappointment

Honors from Abroad

FRANCE WAS LESS FORTHCOMING than other countries when it came to honoring the Curies' work. In early June 1903 both Curies were invited to London as guests of the prestigious Royal Institution. Since custom ruled out women lecturers, Pierre alone described their work in his “Friday Evening Discourse.” He was careful, however, to describe Marie's crucial role in their collaboration. The audience included representatives of England's social elite and such major scientists as Lord Kelvin. Kelvin showed his respect by sitting next to Marie at the lecture and by hosting a luncheon in Pierre's honor the following day.

Lord Kelvin
Britain's Lord Kelvin, whose contributions in several fields helped shape the scientific thought of his era, openly displayed his admiration for Pierre's scientific achievements.
"Radium" caricature
The attention that English scientists paid to the Curies' work helped make them household names in that country, as in this famous caricature, “Radium,” from the popular British periodical Vanity Fair.

But all was not well that weekend. Pierre was in such bad health that he had experienced difficulty in dressing himself before the talk. His fingers were so covered with sores that he spilled some radium in the hall while demonstrating its properties. Ill health, however, kept neither Curie from noting the value of the jewels worn by the members of English high society they met in the course of the weekend. They amused themselves by estimating the number of fine laboratories they could set up with the proceeds from selling those jewels.

VISITORS FROM ABROAD also helped honor Marie on the occasion of her formal thesis defense in June 1903. Her sister Bronya made the difficult trip from Poland to celebrate Marie's academic triumph.

Bronya had insisted that the first woman to receive a doctorate in France should acknowledge the special event by wearing a new dress. Characteristically, Marie chose a black dress. Like the navy wedding outfit she had chosen eight years earlier, the new dress could be worn in the lab without fear of stains.
title page of Marie's doctoral thesis
Title page of the published version of Marie Curie's doctoral thesis, “Research on Radioactive Substances.” The examiners exclaimed that Curie's doctoral research contributed more to scientific knowledge than any previous thesis project.

Another foreign admirer was a last-minute guest at a dinner to celebrate Marie's achievement. New Zealand-born scientist Ernest Rutherford, who was also actively engaged in research in the new science of radioactivity, was visiting Paris. He had stopped by the Municipal School shed where Marie isolated radium, and at dinner that night he asked Marie how they managed to work in such a place. “You know,” he said, “it must be dreadful not to have a laboratory to play around in.”

FAMILY LOSSES UNDERCUT some of the pleasure Marie could take in her own achievements. In August 1903 she experienced a miscarriage. Some time later Bronya's second child died of tubercular meningitis. And against the backdrop of these specific losses was the fact that Pierre's health continued to deteriorate. Sometimes unbearable pain kept him awake all night, lying weakly in bed, moaning.

“I had grown so accustomed to the idea of the child that I am absolutely desperate and cannot be consoled.”
--letter from Marie Curie to Bronya, August 25, 1903

Marie in 1903
Marie Curie in 1903, the year her thesis was published. (Photo ACJC)

Next:
The Nobel Prize and its Aftermath

2000 - American Institute of Physics