Barbara Goldsmith

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Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography


This biography begins on April 20, 1995 when the ashes of Marie and Pierre Curie were transferred from their graves in a Paris suburb and re-interred in the Pantheon, thereby placing the Curies among the "immortals" of France. Thus, Marie became the first (and so far the only) woman to be honored in this way. Goldsmith's biography is a straightforward and well-written narrative that eschews hagiography, wordiness, and psychological interpretations.

The story of Marie Curie (1867-1934) is well known. Born into an intellectual but impoverished Polish family, she struggled to obtain a scientific education, first in Poland and then at the Sorbonne in Paris. While a graduate student, she met and married the young chemist Pierre Curie. Together, with essentially no funding and dismal laboratory space, they discovered and characterized radioactivity. Later, on her own Marie discovered and isolated two new elements, polonium and radium. Subsequently Marie and Pierre created the Curie Institute, where Marie was in the forefront in envisioning medical applications of radioactivity and radium.

The story is especially powerful in its depiction of bias against women in science. Marie had to fight for many years to obtain a faculty position at the Sorbonne (unheard of for a woman), or even space to conduct her experiments. When the Nobel Committee awarded its 1903 Prize in Physics, Pierre had to fight to have his wife included in the citation, even though the bulk of the brains and energy behind the discovery of radioactivity were clearly Marie's. Marie was later vindicated when she won her second (and solo) Nobel Prize in 1911 for the discovery of radium.

Obsessive Genius doesn't shy away from Marie Curie's recurrent clinical depressions, which began during her adolescence, nor from her obsessive, hard-driving personality. The book presents an even-handed picture of repeated conflict between her love of her husband and children (one of whom, Irene Joliet-Curie, in 1935 became the second woman scientist ever to win the Nobel Prize); and her passion for her work.

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