'Radioactive': How an affair with Paul Langevin left Marie Curie publicly humiliated despite her genius
Marie Curie — she was the woman who paved the way for other women in science, the one who discovered radium and polonium and won two Nobel prizes, and yet her personal life made as much noise as her professional life. In a snapshot, Curie's life was nothing less than a soap opera, ridden with professional highs and lows, as well as scandals in the offing.
She had humble and modest beginnings. She arrived in France without a penny and then shot to fame for making strides in science winning Nobel Prizes, discovering radioactive elements and saw a legacy being passed on, as her daughter Irene and son-in-law Frederic Joliot-Curie shared the Nobel Prize later. Marie was the first woman to win the Nobel prize and her daughter was the second. Yet, while her professional life shined, Marie's personal life went through a tragedy.
In 1906, her husband Pierre died in a road accident. At the age of 43, Marie went on to have an illustrious affair with Paul Langevin, a scientist who was five years younger than her. Biographer Lauren Redniss described him in her new book, 'Radioactive'. "Paul Langevin was tall with a thriving mustache... He was brilliant, acclaimed for an ingenious thesis on ionized gases. He was daring; he scaled the Eiffel Tower to find the purest air for a study of electric currents in the atmosphere. He was celebrated: elected to the College de France and the Academie des Sciences..."
This was enough to dominate all the tabloids, and the two even rented a flat near Sorbonne for their clandestine meetings. It was a scandal, as Langevin was a married man and the father of four children. It has been said it wasn't a happy marriage, as apparently once his wife had whacked him on the head with a bottle and she said she'd been whacked back for cooking an insufficient dessert. However, though Madame Langevin knew that her husband had affairs, she was mighty displeased about his dalliance with Marie. Rednis writes, "She found his relationship with Marie more upsetting, and before long a violent animosity rose up between the two women."
Matters escalated when Langevin's wife discovered the letters exchanged between the two of them and leaked details to the newspapers. The truth is, Madame Langevin had the letters stolen from his apartment and said that she would expose them to the papers, which is exactly what she did, just three days before Marie won her Nobel prize. This piece of information rocked France, as apparently Marie was not engaged in just a sordid affair, she planned to marry him. She had written to Langevin, asking him to divorce his wife and to marry her. The papers sympathized with Jeanne Langevin and Marie was cast was a conniving vamp who was trying to capture a married man.
It gets more tricky. Langevin was still not sure about giving up his earlier marriage, as his wife had given birth to a fourth child just before he started his affair with Marie. The ingrained misogyny showed in those times as Marie was dissuaded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences not to come to Stockholm and shake hands with the Swedish King. Pitiful, that despite making enormous strides in science, her relationship was considered a black mark.
In an effort to make things better, Langevin arranged for a legal separation from his wife but not a divorce yet, even though Marie requested him to do so. There were much murmurs and whisperings about Marie, until she helped wounded French soldiers during the First World War.
Marie always kept a calm face in public. When Svante Arrhenius, a member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, wrote to her after the story of her love affair broke, she responded coolly, "The prize has been awarded for the discovery of radium and polonium. I believe that there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life. I cannot accept... that the appreciation of the value of scientific work should be influenced by libel and slander concerning private life."
Though Paul Langevin and Marie Curie remained friends and kept in touch, the public shame and anxiety took a toll on their relationship, and their love story reached a dead end.
'Radioactive', the Marie Curie biopic, will release on Amazon Prime, on July 24.