"I loved this woman who is unapologetic. I loved this woman who is uncompromising. I love this woman who really does not care, because she does not have the time to care about what people may think about her," explains Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis author and director of the newly-released Marie Curie biopic, Radioactive. "She wants to do her job."
And she does it well. The Marie Curie in Radioactive, played by Rosamund Pike, is razor-sharp, candid, and intolerant of nonsense in all its forms. It's this single-mindedness, the film seems to argue, that allows her to see and pursue what others didn't—and lead her and her husband to change the course of modern history.
Based roughly on Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout, the biographical graphic novel by Lauren Redniss, the movie charts Curie's rise and legendary partnership with her husband, Pierre—all whilst flashing forward to the events that would shape the legacy of their research: Hiroshima, Nevada's Doom Towns, the development of radiation therapy. It touches on the Curies' dabblings in the occult, and a tabloid scandal that threatened Marie's professional career. And from her tragedy-struck childhood in Poland to her much-maligned affair, it's pretty much all true.
Here, the real story of Marie Curie, trailblazing woman scientist.
Curie was born Marya Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland, in 1867.
Sklodowska was born as the youngest of four sisters into a modest family. As Radioactive depicts, she lost her mother to tuberculosis at 1o years old. She also lost her oldest sister, Zosia, to typhus.
She was raised under Russia's occupation of the country, and attended a secretive "Floating University" that constantly changed locations to elude the Russians, which taught science and other subjects as well as otherwise forbidden topics like Polish history and culture. She also learned some from her father, himself a science teacher—but as her family couldn't afford to send her to college, she worked as a governess to save money for tuition. (Her employment with the family ended after they found out she'd begun an affair with their older son, when he returned from university.)
At 24, she went to Paris.
In this new country, the budding scientist adopted the name Marie. She enrolled at the world-renowned Sorbonne, eventually earning degrees in physics and the Mathematical sciences. When she began her studies, out of the roughly 1,800 students, only 23 were women.
After graduation, she was introduced to Pierre Curie.
A polish physicist connected them, thinking that Curie might have space in his lab. He did, and they soon fell for one another. Pierre wanted to have an equal partner in life and science; as Satrapi says, if Marie's modern, "he's hyper-modern." They married on July 26, 1895, and honeymooned on bicycles through the French countryside.
Satrapi spoke to one of the Curies' grandchildren while making Radioactive, and her major request was that Satrapi not forget Pierre. "This whole thing is possible because you have this nuclear fusion between them," the director explains.
They had two daughters: Irène, who would follow in her parents' footsteps, winning her own Nobel Prize alongside her husband, and Ève, who became a journalist and worked alongside her husband for UNICEF (her husband would receive a Nobel Peace Prize for this work.)
Marie began studying radioactivity in 1897.
Inspired by Henri Becquerel's accidental discovery that uranium caused a reaction in a photographic plate, Marie Curie chose to pursue this "entirely new" (Marie's words) field of study. After taking careful measurements, she determined that energy was held within uranium, and coined the term "radioactivity."
In time, she and her husband discovered two radioactive elements: the first they named polonium, in honor of Marie's native Poland, and the second they christened radium, after the Latin for "ray." Still, their peers remained skeptical. To prove their discoveries beyond a doubt, the couple began working to distill substantive amounts of their elements from seven tons of raw material. It took four years to reach their goal, in 1902.
Once they'd extracted radium chloride, they decided not to patent it. A cottage industry of products sprung up around the element, claiming that it could cure all manner of ailments, and that it could augment existing inventions.
Professional recognition soon followed.
In 1903, having completed her thesis on radioactivity, Marie Curie made history once again, becoming the first woman in France to receive a doctorate. Later that year, the Curies learned they'd won the Nobel Prize.
The Curies were indeed interested in the occult.
The pioneering couple were among the many 19th and 20th century luminaries—think Alexander Graham Bell, Edvard Munch, and Sir Oliver Lodge—who found the Spiritualist movement intriguing. They attended seances lead by Italian medium Eusapia Palladino, though Pierre found them more interesting than Marie did.
Although today it may seem confusing that leading scientific minds took the supernatural seriously, it's really not all that surprising: at the time, their discoveries were upending established scientific dogma, and it seemed like much less of a stretch that some of the Spiritualists' ideas might hold water, too.
Wait, what about that dancer?
The performer who reappears throughout Radioactive, dancing in a billowing greenish gown, is Loïe Fuller. In real life, she collaborated with the likes of Thomas Edison on using science to stage surreal performances. She asked the Curies to work with her as well, hoping to employ their radioactive discoveries in her work, but they declined. Fuller did, however, perform in the Curies' home, Redniss notes in her book.
Satrapi chose to include Fuller as a haunting, dreamlike presence throughout Radioactive, appearing when the line between the real and unreal begins to blur. "My whole job is to make this imagination visible," she explains.
Pierre Curie died in 1906.
The scientist was run over by a horse-drawn carriage in Paris. Marie was crushed by the loss, and the passages she wrote in her diary at the time are a testament to her grief. Satrapi says that when she came to the passage about Pierre's death, even as someone who doesn't cry easily, "I was sobbing."
The Sorbonne offered Marie her husband's professorship—the first time they'd given a woman such a position. Said Marie of the appointment, "There have been some imbeciles to congratulate me on it."
She began a relationship with Paul Langevin a few years later.
Langevin was an accomplished scientist in his own right, and Pierre's former student. Curie fell hard for him, and they began exchanging passionate letters. He was also married—though he told Marie it was an unhappy union. Marie urged Langevin to divorce his wife, even instructing him on how to do so in her letters, but he remained married.
In 1911, Langevin's wife passed their love letters to the press, and the public revolted against Marie, their hatred fueled by xenophobia as much as sexism. Her Polish heritage was condemned, and she was falsely cast as a Jew.
That same year, Marie Curie received her second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry. As the committee began planning the ceremony, they worried that Marie's presence would cause a scandal, and at least one person told her as much, urging her to stay in France. She wrote back, "There is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life." For his part, Langevin challenged Gustave Téry—a journalist who'd written negative and hateful stories about Marie—to a duel, which ultimately ended without bloodshed. In December 1911, Marie collected her second Nobel Prize at a ceremony in Stockholm.
Langevin and Curie's relationship, however, did not survive.
In WWI, Marie found a life-saving way to apply her research.
Determined to help the war effort, Marie offered to melt down her Nobel Prizes for their monetary value, but the bank declined to do so.
She found an even more useful way to help, though: alongside her daughter Irène, she created X-ray machines to be used in hospitals, and eventually 18 mobile X-rays to be used on the battlefield, called "petites Curies." The availability of medical imaging saved lives.
Marie Curie died in 1934.
The effects of radiation had been taking their toll on Marie's body for decades (and had done the same to Pierre as well, when he was alive). On July 4, 1934, she passed away at the age of 66.
Her groundbreaking research, of course, would long outlive her—and transform the world, for better or worse. From the atom bomb to cancer treatments, Radioactive threads the fate of the Curies' discoveries through the story of the couple themselves. Says Satrapi, "You cannot talk about this discovery and not talk about the consequences."
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