When Marie Curie came to Yale in 1921 to receive an honorary degree, opinions among the faculty were decidedly mixed. Although six women had already received honorary degrees from Yale, she was the first to receive an honorary Sc.D. Her nomination had come not from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, but from physicians at the School of Medicine, who had corresponded with the Nobel laureate about the uses of X-rays and radium. Some chemists and physicists on the faculty thought the award was a mistake.
Among them was Bertram B. Boltwood, Ph.D., a Yale professor and a leading radiochemist, who felt that the physicians’ recommendation was a bit hasty. “When he learned Curie wished to visit him, he told the Yale administration he had no desire to have the honor thrust upon him,” said Daniel J. Kevles, Ph.D., the Stanley Woodward Professor of History. “He considered it the duty of the institution to entertain her.”
Kevles was one of three panelists to discuss the “Intellectual Journeys of Marie Curie” at a three-day symposium in November to celebrate the centennial of Curie’s first Nobel Prize and to honor women in science. An exhibit at the Cushing/Whitney Historical Library also examined Curie’s life and legacy.
Curie seems to have been destined to lead an unconventional life. She was born into a Polish family that included a grandfather who harbored the revolutionary notion that the children of peasants and nobles should go to school together. Her father was demoted from his job as a school headmaster for consorting with “radicals.” Marie Curie herself was illegally taught the Polish language, history and literature as a child and got around the ban on higher education for women in occupied Poland by attending an illegal, clandestine university. She later courted exile to Siberia for the crime of teaching peasant children to read and write.
Years later in Paris she would meet and marry an equally unconventional man. Pierre Curie was an outsider to the French scientific establishment who had not attended the right schools. In 1903, when he and a colleague were under consideration for a Nobel Prize, his sense of fairness demanded that a third collaborator in their studies of radiation also be included. So it was that Marie Curie received her first Nobel Prize, in physics. Her second, in chemistry for the discovery of radium and polonium, came in 1911, several years after her husband died in an accident.
Their strongly held beliefs would not allow the Curies to profit from their discoveries. “They made a deliberate decision not to patent the process for purifying radium, believing it belonged to the public,” said Sara Rockwell, Ph.D., professor of therapeutic radiology and director of the office of scientific affairs at the medical school, who also spoke at the symposium.
The United States that Curie visited in 1921 offered a bleak landscape for women in science. They were paid less than men and promoted more slowly. Most found jobs in women’s colleges that lacked the resources of larger schools. “Coeds could celebrate Marie Curie, but in the 1920s, few wanted to emulate her,” Kevles said.
Her tour culminated in a visit to the White House, where President Harding presented her with a gift of a gram of radium.
Yet even as a Nobel laureate and guest at the White House, Curie was not immune to discrimination on her American tour. The physics department at Harvard blocked an honorary degree for her, and rather than address the question of whether to admit women, the National Academy of Sciences declined to accept her as a member. And there was her reception at Yale.
Despite Boltwood’s antipathy toward her, the citation that accompanied Curie’s honorary Yale degree was warm and effusive. “It is superfluous to mention her discoveries in science and now she has discovered America. She has often encountered dangers in scientific experiments, but nothing so dangerous as American Hospitality; it is to be hoped that she will not be a Woman Killed with Kindness. She is unique. There is only one thing rarer than genius, and that is radium. She illustrates the combination of both.”
And eventually, Curie won over even Boltwood.
“In the end,” Kevles said, “Boltwood did receive Curie in his laboratory and was in fact impressed by her keenness in scientific matters and also her personal amiability.”