Women Scientists at the Time of Marie Curie

More than a century after she became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, Marie Curie still has the power to fascinate. French historian Natalie Pigeard-Micault has published a remarkable book entitled Les femmes du Laboratoire de Marie Curie (The Women of the Marie Curie Laboratory.) Ms. Pigeard-Micault sheds a surprising light on the status of female researchers early 20th century and dispels a number of widely-held but false impressions of their place in science.


At the beginning of the 1900s, despite Marie Curie’s enormous fame, women scientists were still seen as rare birds. Clichés abounded and some, unfortunately, remain all too familiar today: A female researcher could be nothing but a “bride of science.” She had no life aside from her test tubes, toiling away in obscurity and content to play second fiddle to the men in the lab. She had little chance of finding a husband and probably didn’t want one. After all, how could a woman be a wife, mother and a scientist? She must come from a family with little money. Otherwise, why would she be working at all, and in such an unfeminine profession, no less? And, of course there would be women in Marie Curie’s laboratory, but would male scientists want women in their institutions? Probably not.


Misconceptions all—and Ms. Pigeard-Micault’s book points out that, even a century ago, such stereotypes were far from the truth. In her study of the 45 women who worked in various capacities in the Curie laboratory in the 28-year period from 1907 to 1934, the author points up the highly varied personalities, nationalities, careers and life stories of these pioneering researchers.

They came from all over Europe and North America, some were quite young and still students, others were trained scientists in middle-age. Many of them married and had children, some even following Marie Curie’s example and taking their husbands as research partners. Some went on to great fame of their own such as such as Ellen Gleditsch, Marietta Blau, Elizabeth Rona and, Mme Curie’s Nobel Laureate daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie. A significant number became the first women professors of science in their home countries. Others had rewarding careers as researchers in academia or industry. Some took up other types of work and still others disappeared without a trace.

In short, far from the lonely lives of bluestockings who sacrificed themselves on the altar of science, Ms. Pigeard-Micault shows that many of these women had fulfilling lives both in and out of the laboratory. Of course, some of them did not have stellar careers and some were unhappy. No profession guarantees success and happiness, for women or for men.


One of the book’s more surprising revelations is that, contrary to what one might suppose, Mme. Curie was far from the only scientist to welcome women to her laboratory. Turn-of-the century scientific institutions in Paris were keen to accept qualified females from around the world. Gender and nationality, as it turns out, were not as much of a barrier as money, and Ms. Pigeard-Micault explains the decisive role played by socio-economic class. In direct opposition to the idea that only women from modest backgrounds would work as scientists, applicants to Mme. Curie’s lab as well as to other labs were mainly from society’s upper echelons.


Why? In the early 1900s secondary education was not yet free in most countries and far too expensive for most families. Few boys and still fewer girls even attended high school. Consequently, the pool of applicants, whether male or female, who had the necessary educational background for undertaking university-level science courses was small and Mme. Curie only accepted applications from persons who came with very high recommendations. With one single exception, all of the women who worked in the Curie laboratory came from relatively affluent families simply because only the well-to-do could afford the preparatory education that was a prerequisite to scientific research.

The author touches very briefly on the fact that women would be less welcome in the profession as the 1930s advanced, and such discrimination would be the norm until fairly recently. By the third decade of the 20th century, secondary and university education had become more accessible, there were many more trained scientists and the world economy was in crisis. Male scientists needed jobs and women scientists were considered competition in the crowded labor market.


Ms. Pigeard-Micault cites another factor with regard to the attitude toward women in science in the early 1900s. Although society at large still had great reservations concerning female scientists, the higher levels of the worldwide research community and, in particular, much of the Paris intellectual elite had decided that women scientists were as capable as their male counterparts. And why wouldn’t they? Marie Curie had already proven it to them.

Natalie Pigeard-Micault, the author of this book, is an engineer at the French National Research Center. She also holds a doctorate in the History of Science and serves as Manager of Historical Resources at the Curie Museum. Les femmes du Laboratoire de Marie Curie is published by Editions Glyphe / 85 avenue Ledru-Rollin / 75012 Paris, France / www.editions-glyphe.com

Photo credit: Institut Curie

For Women in Science

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