The Curies: a biography of the most controversial family in science

The Curies: a biography of the most controversial family in science 
Denis Brian 
Hoboken, NJ, US: John Wiley | 2005 | 438 pp | ?18.99 (HB) | ISBN 0471273910 
Reviewed by Helen Lunn 

This book chronicles the Curie dynasty, their professional and personal lives, the publicity, science, controversy, and Nobel prizes.  

It is well-researched with a bibliography. No scientific knowledge is required to read this book, which provides an insight into what it was like to be a scientist in the late 1800s and early 1900s, especially as a woman.  

Brian suggests that Marie Curie was awarded two Nobel prizes (for essentially the same work) because of a Machiavellian plot. Chauvinistic attitudes also prevented both Marie and Ir?ne (her eldest daughter) from joining the all-male French Academy of Science; in fact women were not admitted until 1979. 

The book charts how Marie coped after Pierre’s tragic death, how she was nearly driven to suicide over the publicity surrounding her suspected affair with Pierre’s young lab assistant, Paul Langevin, and the death threats made by his wife. Brian takes the view that the affair was never proven and leaves readers to make up their own minds. 

It is also interesting to find out that Ir?ne and Frederic Joliot-Curie missed two major discoveries - the neutron and positron - because they did not interpret their data correctly, before finally discovering artificial radioactivity for which they won their Nobel prize.  

Prejudice was not confined to the Curie women. Joliot never felt accepted by the scientific community. Outside the inner circle, he felt he had to prove himself after marrying the boss’s daughter. Perhaps this combined with his strong belief that science should be available for all regardless of background attracted him to the Communist party. He was subsequently suspected of revealing atomic secrets to the Russians.  

The Curies are revealed as creative, intelligent and idealistic. Marie and Pierre never patented their work believing it should be freely available to everyone and the Curie-Joliots worked tirelessly for world peace. Eve Curie Labouisse was the only non-scientist in the family. She was her mother’s biographer and a writer (the first woman to visit battle sites during the second world war); she also campaigned for peace and Unicef.