The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science

The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science

by Julie Des Jardins

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The historian and author of Lillian Gilbreth examines the “Great Man” myth of science with profiles of women scientists from Marie Curie to Jane Goodall.
Why is science still considered to be predominantly male profession? In The Madame Curie Complex, Julie Des Jardin dismantles the myth of the lone male genius, reframing the history of science with revelations about women’s substantial contributions to the field.
She explores the lives of some of the most famous female scientists, including Jane Goodall, the eminent primatologist; Rosalind Franklin, the chemist whose work anticipated the discovery of DNA’s structure; Rosalyn Yalow, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist; and, of course, Marie Curie, the Nobel Prize-winning pioneer whose towering, mythical status has both empowered and stigmatized future generations of women considering a life in science.
With lively anecdotes and vivid detail, The Madame Curie Complex reveals how women scientists have changed the course of science—and the role of the scientist—throughout the twentieth century. They often asked different questions, used different methods, and came up with different, groundbreaking explanations for phenomena in the natural world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781558616554
Publisher: Feminist Press at CUNY, The
Publication date: 03/01/2010
Series: Women Writing Science
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 265,661
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Julie Des Jardins teaches American history at Baruch College, CUNY, and writes on gender and American women. Previously, she was a lecturer at Harvard University, where she was awarded the Alan Heimert Prize for Seminar Teaching. Des Jardins has a PhD in American history from Brown University and has taught the history of gender, race, and feminism since 2000. She is also the author of Women and the Historical Enterprise in America.

Read an Excerpt


Madame Curie's American Tours: Women and Science in the 1920s

IT WAS AN INTERVIEW TO RELISH: THE RECLUSIVE MADAME CURIE agreed to sit with American editor Marie Mattingly Meloney for a profile to be published in Meloney's magazine, the Delineator. Stéphane Lauzanne, editor-in-chief of Le Matin, had been following the Nobel laureate's story for years. "She will see no one," he warned Meloney. "She cannot understand why scientists, rather than science, should be discussed in the press." For all her attempts to prevent it, Curie's had become a household name. She had not made a public appearance in fifteen years, and yet she agreed to meet this American journalist in 1920.

Meloney had met famous scientists before. She had grown up near the estate of the illustrious Alexander Graham Bell, a breeder of horses that she yearned to ride. And only weeks before arriving in Paris she had stood in the laboratories of Thomas Alva Edison; eyeing the newfangled equipment at his command, she decided that one's scientific prowess brought not only admiration, but also great financial reward. In Pittsburgh she had seen the smokestacks of the greatest radium-reduction plants in the world. And yet when she reached the physics building at the rue Pierre Curie, the originator of this technology was a pale, timid woman, surrounded by nothing that would suggest material gain for her efforts. Her office was sparse; even to an untrained eye, the facilities looked inadequate. Curie rubbed the tips of her fingers over and over the pad of her thumb, a habit she had developed while trying to regain feeling lost in her hands. For her, scientific discovery had not led to riches but physical and material sacrifice.

That the two women would hit it off famously could not have been predicted, for Meloney was in many ways Curie's younger antithesis. An important person in the U.S. editing world and in New York society, she had started out as a reporter for the Washington Post but had become one of the most influential women of American media. She exuded social grace, money, and a penchant for publicity. Curie, a Pole who had emigrated to France to pursue science, was not interested in appearances, including her own. She dressed plainly, typically in black, and preferred to be undisturbed by anyone, at home or in the lab. Male colleagues she met at professional meetings thought her terse and disagreeable; small talk was not her métier. Her closest confidant since her husband's death in 1906 was her daughter Irene, a young physicist who was like her mother in interest and temperament. Despite their differences, however, Curie and Meloney were also working mothers who understood each other's struggle to balance professional and family obligations. The interview at the Sorbonne lengthened into informal talks during Curie's personal time. Meloney became "Missy" and Curie "Marie"; a mutual affection took root that lasted the rest of their lives.

Meloney felt confident that her readers wanted to hear from the reclusive scientist, for Americans had been following her story for years. In 1904, Vanity Fair had presented Marie and Pierre as a couple, months after they had together won the Nobel Prize for radioactivity. Marie appeared to be a puzzling contradiction: a brilliant scientist who was, nevertheless, also the "woman behind the man" in the Curie partnership. Although she was the codiscoverer of radium, she was also the person responsible for family domesticity, an image confirmed by another woman journalist who covered "The Curies at Home" for The World ToDay the same year. The domestic image may have seemed to diminish her as a scientist; yet young women with career aspirations saw her differently, as a model of grace and competence outside the home. When Curie won her second Nobel Prize in 1911, science editor James McKeen Cattell cast her in Science and Popular Science Monthly in an overtly feminist light, calling her rejection from the Académie des Sciences a tragedy for women scientists and science alike.

The journalistic treatment of Curie was startling, given the paucity of coverage on women scientists generally in the American press. Taking into account scientists both as authors and biographical subjects, male scientists were fifteen times more visible than their female counterparts in mainstream magazines. Journalists described science as an endeavor requiring culturally virile attributes — emotional detachment, intellectual objectivity, even physical strength at times. In 1920 a Columbia scientist described the "Eminent Chemists" of his day as the "the Dickenses," "the Thackerays," and the "Wells" of the field; then he heralded Curie as "the Columbus who discovered another continent in science," feigning amnesia about her gender to write about her in grandiose terms.

Still, even as Meloney talked with Curie, American women stood on the brink of winning suffrage. It was the increasing reality that domestic women were making inroads into political, professional, and public endeavors. Meloney thought that writing of Curie's achievements might allow other science-minded women to gain social acceptance. And who better than Curie to inspire an educated readership? She held a doctorate degree, had won Nobel Prizes, and had proved that, despite the odds, a woman could reach the highest echelons of her chosen professional field — even while rearing two fatherless daughters. She was a single mother and a world-class scientist — an everyday woman who made greatness look reachable. Meloney thought American women would see her as an icon for achieving it all: marriage, family, and career.

But as she told her story, Curie's frustrations became apparent. French science was impoverished after World War I, making it impossible to procure radium, the very element she had discovered, and as a result, her research had been curtailed. She could account for the locations of some fifty grams of radium in the United States; four were in Baltimore, six in Denver, seven in New York.

"And in France?" Meloney queried.

"My laboratory has hardly more than a gram," Curie replied, and that bit was available only for extracting emanations for cancer treatment in hospitals.

Meloney begged for clarification: "You have only a gram?"

"I? Oh, I have none. It belongs to my laboratory."

"But surely revenues from the patent of radium can pay for more," Meloney suggested.

"There were no patents," Curie corrected. "We were working in the interest of science. Radium is an element. It belongs to all people."

Curie thought it wrong to profit from her discovery, and yet the discovery had most assuredly lined the pockets of chemical producers back in the United States. American companies had mastered her processes to become the foremost producers of her coveted radium. Standard Chemical Company of Pittsburgh was responsible for more than half the 140 grams in existence worldwide, but it wasn't cheap. Medical researchers bought it in milligram increments for $120 apiece, and Curie needed more — at least a gram if she could get it. Meloney listened intently, the wheels turning in her mind. She prided herself on making things happen; she was going to get Curie her radium.

A public relations strategy developed in her imagination in the form of a story that would play out on the pages of the Delineator and major publications throughout the United States. It had all the elements of an American legend in the making: a tale of travesty about a woman and mother, who had sacrificed for the world but had received nothing in return. This woman had endured abject poverty to discover the element that was the leading cure for cancer, but had refused to patent its production so that the researchers of the world could study it readily. She should have been heralded as a saint, and yet the price of her altruism was a debilitating lack of funds, not for her own creature comforts but for humanity, who continued to suffer without her life-saving research. "I had been prepared to meet a woman of the world, enriched by her own efforts and established in one of the white palaces of the Champs d'Elysées or some other beautiful boulevard of Paris," Meloney wrote. "But Madame Curie was a simple woman, working in an inadequate laboratory and living in an inexpensive apartment, on the meager pay of a French professor."

The synopsis seemed extreme to Curie, who insisted that French scientists worked under modest conditions all the time, but Meloney wouldn't hear it. In the United States, she told Curie, many women had money, and when she returned from Paris she would write letters to the wives of physicians in major medical societies. Meloney planned a broad campaign that would bring together an odd mix: cancer researchers, academic scientists, chemical companies, and women with money and social connections. American science had grown quickly after World War I so that government funding was no longer enough to maintain it, and the age of fund-raising in the name of "science as social cause" had emerged. Meloney hoped to exploit Curie's image just as chemical companies were exploiting Albert Einstein's to raise funds for themselves and his educational initiatives overseas.

But the campaign could only succeed if donors perceived the scientist and her work as forces of benevolence. When Alice Hamilton and Ellen Swallow Richards were praised in the press for the healing applications of their work, American women who wanted to emulate them entered nursing and medical fields in larger numbers than ever before. But they studied organic material rather than the lifeless stuff of physical science. Meloney's promotional strategy necessarily had to reinvent Curie's physics, turning inanimate radium into a regenerative force for healing — and reenvision Curie's life, turning her into a benevolent lady. The press coverage on medical radium strengthened Meloney's view of how to proceed. The New York Times reported more than 150 deaths directly linked to cancer and radium research, its victims including men who had once worked under the Curies themselves. As more of the world's radium experts succumbed to mysterious symptoms, Curie's commitment to research seemed all the more heroic in Meloney's hands. The burns on her fingers, the jaundice, and worsening cataracts made Curie a martyr to behold; the findings of her research would be her gift to the world.

Curie had other compelling reasons to team up with American sponsors. During World War I she had been charmed by the simple demeanor of the young American soldiers who came to Paris to study radioactivity. She was also grateful to Andrew Carnegie, who had established a fund to keep her lab staffed after the death of Pierre. Over the years American women had expressed their admiration for her work, but she still couldn't imagine what would compel them to write checks — or in most cases, to have their husbands write checks — so that a French scientist could pursue her research. Meloney explained that they would see a mutually beneficial arrangement before them: as they raised money for her radium, they would exploit her image for their humanitarian and professional ends. This was false advertising, Curie told her. She had abstained from ideological movements her whole life to work in the spirit of "pure science" and wanted nothing to do with developing medical applications for radium or advancing the cause of women. Don't taint my radium with agendas, she implored; it absolutely "must belong to science."

A perfect strategy in the eyes of a privileged career woman like Meloney was apparently not acceptable to a scientist like Curie. To base a campaign on her maternal motivations was to make her look emotional, subjective, and hence defective to male scientists. The maternalism that women evoked to win access to college and the vote was antithetical tothe idea of science that Curie had internalized and come to revere. But for the sake of obtaining her radium she deferred to Meloney — it was all about the science in the end.

Against her better judgment Curie began writing a biographical piece to be distributed in the United States. Meanwhile, Meloney called on her connections in the world of publishing to get dozens of articles into print during the coming months. Current History Magazine printed "The Story of Radium in America." Dr. William Mayo asked Delineator readers, "Do You Fear Cancer?" drawing out anxieties that supporting Curie's work would presumably allay. Although these pieces were not explicitly about Curie, they set the stage for solicitations on her behalf by dramatizing the dangers of cancer and its study. Articles that followed emphasized Curie's importance to the field and shaped images of her that were appealing enough to make Americans open their hearts and checkbooks for the medical breakthroughs she ostensibly represented. Editors for Century Magazine and Current Opinion were hardly subtle, calling Curie a Jeanne D'Arc of the laboratory and "the most famous woman in the world." Meloney praised her in print for "minister[ing] to an agonized people." The front page of her magazine declared Curie's raison d'être: "That Millions Shall Not Die!" Her face, Meloney wrote, was "softer, fuller, more human" than most. "It had suffering and patience in it," as did "every line of her slender body." In its totality, hers was "the mother look" epitomized.

Meloney's publicity campaign was designed to appeal to a wide swath of people. Modern career women would admire Curie's professional competence, ambitious young people her self-making; she had achieved the American dream, even if not on American soil, pulling herself up by the proverbial bootstraps to work tirelessly for success. Unlike the aristocratic scientists of Europe, she apparently never forgot her modest Polish roots. It was not beneath her, Meloney told readers, to launder her own undergarments, even when she was hosted in homes that had servants. She was the embodiment of the Puritan ethic, much as Americans fancied themselves. Too poor to pursue science formally, she had borrowed books from the factory library and earned money as a governess to purchase a fourth-class ticket from Poland to Paris. With almost nothing but the clothes on her back, the twenty-four-year-old had arrived in the Latin Quarter, where she continued to exercise the frugality of legend. Journalists and biographers sensationalized her student years in a sixth-floor walk-up. Allegedly she hauled her own wood for a furnace that didn't work and resorted to piling clothes on the bedcovers and anchoring furniture on top to create a shield from drafts. Some maintained that she treated herself to an occasional boiled egg or piece of chocolate; others insisted she lived on tea and crusts of bread. All, including Curie herself, described a young woman so fixated on her studies that she didn't think to eat until her body collapsed. Her notebooks were obsessively neat. She graduated first in physics at the Sorbonne in 1893 and second in mathematics a year later.

Curie had many professional and social acquaintances, yet biographers insisted that the only person who caught her attention in those monastic years was Pierre, a man of equal intensity. A Polish professor introduced her to the thirty-five-year-old physics professor at L'Ècole Municipale in 1894. In addition to working on crystals and magnetism, he and his brother had inauspiciously discovered piezoelectricity and were using their findings to design instruments, including the electrometer Curie used to confirm the existence of radium. The first gift Pierre offered his future wife was a paper on the symmetry of electric and magnetic fields. He must have sensed their unique connection, for there was no better gesture of affection in her eyes. They were kindred spirits; neither ate, slept, or remembered social niceties when in the throes of some scientific question. Pierre loved Marie's commitment to science. Women of her intellect and drive were so rare, he thought, that he had to have her for himself. Their single-minded devotion to science should be their gift to humanity, he told her, and she eventually agreed. The path they walked together they described as an "anti-natural" one: they renounced "the pleasures in life" and pared down all distractions outside their immediate family to live and breathe their research. This meant renting a modest home, eating and dressing plainly, and rarely entertaining guests. "All preoccupations with worldly life were excluded from our existence," Marie recalled fondly. In a scientific man such reclusiveness was expected, but Marie loved Pierre because he accepted the same in her.

Their wedding in 1895 was simple; there was no exchange of rings or festivities to follow. Marie chose a navy blue dress versatile enough to wear at the wedding and in the lab afterward. She and Pierre enjoyed a bicycling honeymoon in the French countryside, but they didn't stay away from the lab for long. Pierre resumed his formal position at L'École Municipale, while Marie continued her studies and served as his assistant gratis. Marie agreed to be the homemaker so long as the work was confined to rudimentary tasks. Aside from used furniture relatives had given them, she had little to keep clean. She was not talented as a cook, but Pierre seemed not to notice what she was feeding him anyway. Their three-room apartment was on the rue de la Glacière, in close proximity to the school of physics so they could spend more time in the lab.


Excerpted from "The Madame Curie Complex"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Julie Des Jardins.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Through the Lives of Women Scientists 1

I Assistants, Housekeepers, and Interchangeable Parts: Women Scientists and Professionalization 1880-1940 11

1 Madame Curie's American Tours: Women and Science in the 1920s 23

2 Making Science Domestic and Domesticity Scientific: The Ambiguous Life and Ambidextrous Work of Lillian Gilbreth 53

3 To Embrace or Decline Marriage and Family: Annie Jump Cannon and the Women of the Harvard Observatory, 1880-1940 88

II The Cult of Masculinity in the Age of Heroic Science, 1941-1962 117

4 Those Science Made Invisible: Finding the Women of the Manhattan Project 130

5 Maria Goeppert Mayer and Rosalind Franklin: The Politics of Partners and Prizes in the Heroic Age of Science 157

III American Women and Science in Transition, 1962 201

6 Generational Divides: Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, Evelyn Fox Keller, Barbara McClintock, and Feminism after 1963 219

7 The Lady Trimates and Feminist Science?: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birut? Galdikas 253

Conclusion: Apes, Corn, and Silent Springs: A Women's Tradition of Science? 285

Acknowledgments 295

Index 297

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The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
GFio More than 1 year ago
Very well researched! I learned a lot from this book, and will be giving it to my daughter if I ever have one. This book is an inspiration to me. I am currently a college student, pursuing a degree in Neuroscience. To see how women before me have struggled in science is a great encouragement to me, and makes me only strive harder for what I want in life. The author is very objective and fair. She is not some man hating feminist. This is very well thought out research on some of the greatest women in science. The author hardly offers her opinion throughout the book, making The Madame Curie Complex objective as a scientist should write it. Read it and pass it down to your daughters!