In 1911, Albert Einstein penned a letter to Marie Curie in which he told her to stay strong in the face of extreme personal criticism: “If the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don’t read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.”
By that time Curie had already proved herself a brilliant scientist—she had won the Nobel Prize for her work with radioactivity in 1903 and in 1911 became the first woman to run the physics laboratory at the Sorbonne—but was coming under fire for her personal life. She had been widowed five years before and had since been living with the (married but separated) physicist Paul Langevin. The French media painted her as a “seductive Jew,” even though she wasn’t Jewish or doing anything inappropriate for someone at her stage of life. Einstein, who was later known to have at least six mistresses throughout his career, never received the same sort of media criticism for his extracurricular activities.
A century later, Curie and Einstein have been inducted to the metaphorical pantheon of scientific greats. Their biographies have been written and rewritten; elementary school children learn about their lives and the impact of their science, still unable to understand the science itself. As the reputations of these groundbreaking scientists have been elevated to the stuff of legend, many of these less-flattering personal details have fallen away. Men especially are considered brilliant scientists first, fallible humans second.