- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 19, 2005

The fact that traces of radioactivity remain in the Curie family papers did not deter author Barbara Goldsmith from her research for Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie (Norton/Atlas Books, $23.95, 256 pages, illus.). And what a riveting story she has to tell. Marie Curie was the matriarch of a scientific dynasty: Marie and her husband, Pierre, shared the Nobel Prize in physics with another scientist in 1903.

After Pierre’s untimely death — he was crushed under a horse and dray on a Paris street corner in 1906 — Marie alone won a Nobel in chemistry in 1911. The Curies’ elder daughter and son-in-law won another in chemistry in 1935; and the younger daughter’s husband, as director of UNICEF, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965.

Surely, “obsessive” and “genius” apply to the family, and Ms. Goldsmith has drawn on interviews with Curie descendants as well as on family documents now in the public domain (they were sealed for 60 years after the Curies’ younger daughter wrote a biography in 1937) to interpret her fascinating subject.

It was a man’s world in which Marie Curie was driven to excel — she was one of the first women to earn a degree in science at the Sorbonne — and she had to fight discrimination (and depression) throughout her life.

The Nobel officials asked her not to come to Stockholm to receive her second award when they heard of her tempestuous love affair with a married former student of Pierre’s. Arguing that “there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life,” she attended anyway.

Ms. Goldsmith poignantly depicts Marie’s impoverished youth in a gifted but oppressed family in Russia-dominated Poland, where her mother died of tuberculosis when the child was 12. After graduating from secondary school at age 15, Marie worked for years as a governess to help pay for her older sister’s medical studies at the Sorbonne.

Once Marie reached Paris herself at age 23, she did indeed live in a sixth-floor garret — by choice, Ms. Goldsmith says, because she found her sister’s family too distracting. But money and laboratory space were always scarce, and she sometimes forgot to eat.

Then a friend introduced her to Pierre Curie, a brilliant but self-effacing, autodidactic (he was dyslexic) physicist who, with his brother, had invented some delicate instruments that she could use in her work on magnetism, and their collaboration began. They married in 1896.

Marie had the unusual concentration and extreme dexterity required to use the Rube Goldberg-like electrometer effectively, and by 1898 she had written “what was to become a seminal paper, leading to an entirely new method of discovering the elements by measuring their radioactivity, thereby throwing open the door to atomic science.”

Finding evidence of radium and polonium (named for her native country) proved easier than isolating the new elements, and the couple divided the tasks: “Pierre took over the physics, exploring the origin and nature of radium’s activity. Marie acted essentially as a chemist,” working with vast quantities of pitchblende ore residue to extract salts of pure radium and measure its weight.

“By 1904 it was considered an achievement when the yield was four grains of radium (0.26 gram) per ton of this ore.” The author notes that the Curies anticipated great medical benefits from the use of radium in cancer therapy, but within two decades it had been replaced by cobalt and related substances.

The health of both Curies suffered from their work with radium. Their benumbed fingers became “hard as cement with recurrent fissures that split open like red crags in clay.” Pierre’s leg bones had deteriorated before he died in the accident at age 49, and Marie died of radiation poisoning at 69.

Barbara Goldsmith is a gifted writer who has humanized an icon and produced a clear, readable book about her complex subject. One quibble: Her publisher should have provided an index.

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Don’t be deterred by the “authorized” nature of Roy Malan’s biography of violin virtuoso and long-time (1941-68) director of the Curtis Institute of Music Efrem Zimbalist EfremZimbalist:ALife (Amadeus, $29.95, 368 pages). The author, now the concertmaster of the San Francisco Ballet, was Zimbalist’s student and close friend, but he has done prodigious research for this book, checking Zimbalist’s recollections against those of contemporaries — and he waited to publish it until well after Zimbalist’s death in 1985.

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