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French Women & Feminists in History: A Resource Guide

Marie Curie

Frank Henri Jullien, photographer. Marie Curie. [1922 to 1930]. Library of Congress Digital Collections.

The Polish-born Marie Salomea Skłodowska (1867-1934) traveled to Paris in her early 20s seeking an education. Polish universities at the time did not admit female students. While studying at the Sorbonne in Paris she met her future husband and scientific partner, Pierre Curie (a professor in the School of Physics). Working under very difficult conditions the couple was able to isolate the element of Polonium (named after her native Poland) and develop methods for the separation of radium from radioactive residues. Their discoveries resulted in the joint Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903 for her and her husband. She bore two daughters: Irène in 1887, and Ève in 1904. Irène Joliot-Curie and her future husband Frédéric Joliot would be jointly awarded a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935 — sadly just after the death of Marie Curie. Ève would go on to become a concert pianist and diplomat. She married the American politician Henry Labouisse and became and American citizen in 1958. She also wrote a biography on her mother.

Madame Curie was tireless not only in her research but in her efforts to use her scientific research to alleviate suffering — particularly during the First World War. She utilized her expertise with the X-ray machine to help the wounded and also learned to drive and fix her car. This made visits to the front possible where she was able to assist as needed at the hundreds of hospitals in both France and Belgium. She became internationally recognized. In 1921 President Harding, with help from fundraising by the Women of America, presented Madame Curie with one gram of radium for her laboratory in Paris. In 1929 President Hoover presented her with a gift of $50,000 donated by American Friends of Science to purchase radium for a laboratory she established in Poland. Her works include countless papers in scientific journals as well as Recherches sur les Substances Radioactives, (1904), L’Isotopie et les Éléments Isotopes, (1924) and the classic Traité’ de Radioactivité (1910). The sudden and tragic death of Pierre Curie in 1906 devastated the Curie family but invigorated Marie's determination to continue with their work. In 1911 Marie Curie received a second Nobel Prize — in Chemistry for her further research on radioactivity.

After the death of her beloved husband she fell in love with one of his former students, Paul Langevin. Unfortunately Langevin was married and his wife eventually obtained letters between the two and used them as leverage to separate them. She leaked the letters to the press and Madame Curie was painted as a foreigner, a Jew and a homewrecker. In France it was not uncommon to have discrete affairs, but most likely due to Marie's fame this delicate agreement simply did not work and Langevin's wife was determined to end it. Marie's reputation suffered tremendously as a result of her affair and it almost prevented her from being permitted to receive her second Nobel Prize. Many have compared the fury over Curie's affair with the anti-Semitism and zenophobia of the Dreyfus Affair. She also suffered a hardship when she was not admitted to the Academy of the Sciences. Nevertheless, after time passed, her passion, hard work and remarkable accomplishments eventually brought her the respect and affection of a nation. In 1995 French President Francois Mitterrand ordered the ashes of Marie Curie and her husband be transferred from the small cemetery to the majestic Panthéon in Paris. She was the first woman to be so honored in this monument of "great men." She would be followed by women fighters in the French Resistance, Germaine Tillion and Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz; the Holocaust survivor, politician and feminist Simone Veil, and Civil Rights activist, Résistante, and singer, Josephine Baker.

For digitized sources on women of this time period see Digitized Sources: Women in the Long 19th Century and Feminism in the 20th Century.

You can identify additional material by searching the Library of Congress Online Catalog using the following headings:

Curie, Marie, 1867-1934

Print & Digital Resources

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.