The Musée Curie:
A Polish Gem in the Heart of Paris
The Musée Curie is a perfect little gem set in the heart of Paris. Located in the 5th Arrondissement, this elegantly renovated space on the rue Pierre et Marie Curie within the Curie Institute is equipped with bilingual explanations at each exhibit, where you can learn about the astonishing scientific achievements of Marie Curie.
Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Warsaw in 1867, she left Poland in 1891 at the age of 24 to study in Paris, where she became the first woman in France to gain a doctor of science degree. There, she met the love of her life, Pierre Curie whom she married and with whom she conducted her subsequent scientific work. Pierre was killed in a carriage accident in the streets of Paris on 19 April 1906 at the age of 45. Crossing the busy Rue Dauphine in the rain at the Quai de Conti, he slipped and fell under a heavy horse-drawn cart. He died instantly when one of the wheels ran over his head, fracturing his skull.
Madame Curie continued the work that she and her husband began, and she became the single most accomplished scientist of the 20th century. She shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband and with physicist Henri Becquerel and went on to win the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on her own. As a physicist and chemist she conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice, the only person to win twice in multiple sciences, and was part of the Curie family legacy of five Nobel Prizes. The isolation of radium was considered the greatest event in chemistry since the discovery of oxygen because it showed that an element could be transmuted into another element. This discovery revolutionized chemistry and inaugurated a new scientific era. Madame Curie was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris and the first to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris.
Not bad for a Polish girl living in a country that didn’t give women the right to vote until 1945. I remember as a teenager watching the movie Madame Curie, with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon playing Marie and Pierre Curie. Watching the movie again recently, I found it is as inspiring as it is little seen. The film is undoubtedly one of the best film biographies that Hollywood produced during its Golden Age. Watching film footage of the real Madame Curie at the museum made Greer Garson’s protrayal seem all the more authentic.
Madame Curie’s office and adjoining laboratory are beautifully preserved and staged at the Musée Curie. Established in 1934 and renovated in 2012, the museum contains a permanent historical exhibition on radioactivity and its applications, notably in medicine, focusing primarily on the Curies and displaying some of the most important research apparatus used before 1940. It also contains a center for historical resources, which holds archives. photographs, and documentation on the Curies and the history of radioactivity and oncology. All exhibits are explained in English and French.
Madame Curie’s achievements included the development of the theory of radioactivity (a term she coined), techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two elements, polonium (named for her native land) and radium. Under her direction, the world’s first studies were conducted into the treatment of neoplasms (tissue masses that often become tumors), using radioactive isotopes. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and in Warsaw, which remain major centers of medical research today. During World War I, she established the first military field radiological centers.
While a French citizen, Marie Skłodowska Curie used both of her surnames and never lost her sense of Polish identity. She taught her two daughters the Polish language and took them on visits to Poland. She named the first chemical element that she discovered polonium–which she isolated in 1898—after her native country.
Curie died in 1934, aged 66, at a sanatorium in Sancellemoz (Haute-Savoie), France, due to aplastic anemia brought on by exposure to radiation while carrying test tubes of radium in her pockets during research, and in the course of her service in World War I mobile X-ray units that she had set up.
In the Musee Curie’s film footage of Madame Curie, she seems an unpretentious wisp of a woman with a heartfelt smile and the determination of a scientific mind. A true feminist, she embarked on a lecture tour of the United States in 1921, making it a point to visit women’s colleges.
On the official website of the Nobel Prize, you can read about the rise in xenphobia, sexism and anti-Semitism in France that in 1911 resulted in a rightist newspaper smear campaign against Marie Curie, even though she was a French citizen, an accomplished scientist, and not even Jewish. She withstood assaults on her loyalty to France and attacks urging her to “go back to Poland.” She withstood it all, focusing on her work, which ultimately places her clearly at the top of the list of the greatest and most accomplished women the world has ever known.