cover of Excelsior
The right-wing French press, including the daily Excelsior, attacked Curie's candidacy for the French Academy with scurrilous and racist claims based on supposedly scientific analyses of her handwriting and facial characteristics.

The Academy Debacle

A SCANDAL-DRIVEN PRESS is not a recent phenomenon. Pierre and Marie had been hounded by intrusive reporters as early as 1902, when news began to circulate about the medical uses of radium. After they won the Nobel Prize, reporters redoubled their attentions. But until late 1910 most press coverage of Marie Curie focused on the heroic labors of the blonde, foreign-born mother, wife, and then widow. Some of the press changed its tune, however, in November 1910, when Curie offered herself as a candidate for the single vacant seat for a physicist in the French Academy of Sciences.

Her main rival for the seat was 66-year-old Edouard Branly, whose scientific reputation was based on his contribution to wireless telegraphy. When Italian Gugliemo Marconi was awarded the 1909 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work in that field, many French patriots felt stung by Branly's exclusion.

Branly's claim to the Academy chair was also championed by many French Catholics, who knew that he had been singled out for honor by the Pope. For generations French politics had been bitterly divided between conservative Catholics and liberal freethinkers like Marie and her friends, and the split ran through every public action.

Among the false rumors the right-wing press spread about Curie was that she was Jewish, not truly French, and thus undeserving of a seat in the French Academy. Although the liberal press came to her defense, the accusations did the intended damage. Branly won the election on January 23, 1911, by two votes. Curie responded to the snub characteristically, by throwing herself into her work.

cartoon of Curie vs. Edourad Branly
“An academic tournament: Will a woman enter the Institute?” Marie was weighed against Edouard Branly, who taught at a leading Catholic institution.

“The struggle between you and M. Branly will arise most strongly on the clerical issue....Against him will be the forward-looking and university elements of the Academy....”
--letter from Georges Gouy to Marie Curie, November 1910

Paul Langevin
Paul Langevin. The Langevins' 1902 marriage had deteriorated to such an extent by mid-July 1910 that Langevin left the family home for an apartment in Paris, not far from Curie's lab.

The Langevin Affair

AN EVEN WORSE SCANDAL was to erupt before the end of 1911. That a woman who was left a widow at 38 should become romantically attached again is not surprising. But when Curie's relationship with fellow physicist Paul Langevin moved beyond friendly collegiality to mutual love, she could not foresee where it would lead. Langevin, a brilliant former pupil of Pierre's, was unhappily married to a woman who came from a similar working-class background but lacked his educational attainments. With four children to raise, Madame Langevin complained that Paul placed his commitment to science above the needs of his family.

“They can't comprehend at his house that he refuses magnificent private industry to dedicate himself to science,” wrote a friend of Langevin's. During the summer of 1911, as rumors about a relationship between Curie and Langevin began to spread, Madame Langevin began proceedings to bring about a legal separation.

Curie at 1911 conference
Curie was the only woman at the 1911conference organized and subsidized by Belgian industrialist Ernest Solvay. Discussions at this gathering of the world's top physicists opened the way to a new physics that would bring together relativity, the quantum, and radioactive atoms. Langevin, at far right, stands next to the young Albert Einstein. Rutherford stands above Curie, who confers with Poincaré.

That autumn Curie, Langevin, and some 20 other top physicists attended an international conference in Brussels. While the scientists considered the challenge to modern physics presented by the discovery of radioactivity, the French press got hold of intimate letters that Curie and Langevin had exchanged (or forgeries based on them).

THE WIDOW HAD TARNISHED the good name of her deceased husband! This was only one of the accusations hurled at Curie during her absence in Belgium. Resurrecting the lie that she was Jewish, some anti-Semitic newspapers decried the devastation wrought on a good Frenchwoman by a foreign Jewish home wrecker. Other reporters spread false hints that Curie's affair with Langevin had begun while Pierre was still alive, driving him to commit suicide in despair.

“The fires of radium which beam so mysteriously...have just lit a fire in the heart of one of the scientists who studies their action so devotedly; and the wife and the children of this scientist are in tears....”

Le Journal, November 4, 1911

On her return to France, Curie discovered an angry mob congregated in front of her home in Sceaux, terrorizing 14-year-old Irène and 7-year-old Eve. Curie and her daughters had to take refuge in the home of friends in Paris. Meanwhile Langevin and a journalist who had reviled Marie held a duel--an emotional but bloodless “affair of honor.”

Illness and Rebirth

Emile Borel
Mathematician Emile Borel, scientific director of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, sheltered Curie and her daughters even when the minister of public instruction threatened to fire him for sullying French academic honor.
© 2000 - American Institute of Physics