Marie Curie


bySusan Quinn.Simon & Schuster, 496 pages, $30.00.
A life of quick and easy success (unless that success is followed by tragedy) gives a biographer little dramatic material with which to compel a reader’s attention. Ms. Quinn has no such problem. Maria Sklodowska was a Pole, born under the Tsarist tyranny, with a background of minor aristocrats and occasional revolutionaries. Because her immediate family had no money for advanced schooling, she worked for some years as a governess to support her sister’s studies in France. When Marie herself reached Paris, she made quick progress to a degree, married Pierre Curie, a fellow scientist, and set about examining certain oddities arising from the discovery of x-rays. She delected, and isolated, radium. In summary it looks easy, but it was not. The governess job was hard work and led to a disappointing love affair with the son of one of her employers. Her student days in Paris were spent in cashless hard study. Her marriage to Curie was a happy union of interests, temperaments, and productive research, but rewards came slowly. Curie had not attended the right schools—an important matter given the old-boy nature of the Academic des sciences—and Marie was (horrors!) a woman and not even French. She was not permitted to present reports of her discoveries in person. Her husband had to do it, although for the most part he had little to do with her work beyond contriving lab space and equipment. Even in her honored old age she was suspected by some male bigots of being a fraud riding on her dead husband’s achievements. Ms. Quinn’s admirable biography demonstrates that she was far from a fraud. It presents a woman of great intelligence and enormous power of concentration, whose normally gentle and almost timid manner masked strong emotions and fierce determination. It also masked—imperfectly— a normal capacity for erotic indiscretion and professional severity. Madame Curie emerges here as an agreeably human genius.