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Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie

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Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie
by Barbara Goldsmith
W. W. Norton, November 2004

Excellent… A poignant – and scientifically lucid – portrait – The New York Times Book Review

Riveting… Goldsmith has humanized an icon – Washinton Times

Best-selling historian Goldsmith incisively chronicles the intensely dramatic life of the first woman scientist to win the Nobel Prize, neatly explicating both scientific breakthroughs and complex personal and societal conflicts….Her powerful portrait reveals a woman of great passion, genius, and pain who changed the world in ways she would have deplored. – Donna Seaman, Booklist

Goldsmith powerfully conveys both the magic of science and the struggle of being a woman in a man's universe. – Walter Isaacson, President of the Aspen Institute

Goldsmith also reminds us, without belaboring the point, that Curie overcame obstacles, including pervasive sexism within the scientific community, that almost cost her the Nobel. – Publishers’ Weekly

A book to buy for yourself and then buy ten more copies to give as presents to grateful friends. – John Guare, playwright

Historian Barbara Goldsmith brings flesh and blood – as well as some welcome and engrossing precision – to the popular legend of “Madame Curie” as a pioneer woman scientist and ideal wife and mother who gave her life to the discovery of radium, radioactivity, and – as many thought at the time – a cure for cancer. Born Maria Salomea Sklodowska (1867–1934) in Russian-occupied Poland, she had had to study physics and chemistry on her own, since women were not admitted to university, until she had enough money to go to Paris and study at the Sorbonne. But the prejudices of a male-dominated society and scientific community dogged her all her life. She had vowed not to let romance distract her from research, but found and married the similarly dedicated maverick scientist, Pierre Curie, who encouraged her in the experiments that led to her discovery of radioactivity and the elements polonium (so named to honor her homeland) and radium – breakthroughs that essentially launched atomic science and laid the groundwork for much of the research of scientists like Neils Bohr and Ernest Rutherford. But when her husband, his partner Henri Becquerrel, and – over the objections of many in the scientific establishment – Marie Curie herself were jointly awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, she had to listen from the audience as Pierre Curie gave the acceptance speech.

Goldsmith reveals both the tenacious scientist obsessed with work and a woman who suffered cycles of depression, was emotionally distant from her children, and was deeply traumatized when her husband, already limping from the effects of their excessive exposure to radiation, was fatally hit by a horse-drawn wagon in 1906. In 1911 Marie Curie won a second Nobel on her own in chemistry. Though she became an advocate of women’s rights and an anti-war activist, Goldsmith cites her contributions to x-ray technology, especially her invention during World War One of mobile x-ray units for use along the front lines, called “les petites Curies” (the little Curies), one of which was driven by her daughter Irene Joliot-Curie, a scientist as well, who was to be a part of Marie’s legacy and enjoy even greater national recognition than had her mother. When Marie Sklodowska-Curie died in 1934, hoping that radioactivity would be harnessed exclusively for the benefit of mankind, she was covered with lesions, especially on her hands. (Even some of the original Curie papers used by Goldsmith in her research for Obsessive Genius still had traces of radioactivity.) In 1935, a year after her mother’s death, Irene – with her husband Frédéric Joliot – shared the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their synthesis of new radioactive elements.

Barbara Goldsmith, historian and biographer, is the author of The Straw Man, Little Gloria…Happy at Last, Johnson v. Johnson, and Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. She lives in New York City.