- 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.

• • •

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 Efrem Zimbalist: A Life (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.

Dip into the book at any point and you’ll find fascinating insights (late in life, for example, fellow violinist Fritz Kreisler had to maintain a “ferocious” concert schedule partly to recoup what he had gambled or given away and “partly to get away from his equally ferocious wife”). There is also pedagogical trivia (famed teacher Otokar Sevcik preferred to teach his most promising pupils at 7 a.m., “to get them used to performing at peak level under disadvantageous conditions”).

Born in the Ukraine, Efrem Zimbalist got his first job at age nine, as an assistant concertmaster in a touring opera company. At age ll he was enrolled at St. Petersburg Conservatory to study with Leopold Auer, whose pupils — Zimbalist, Kreisler, Misha Elman, Jascha Heifetz — were to make the Russian school of violin playing predominant until the 1980s.

“Sing, sing, sing on your violin — it is the only way in which to make its voice tolerable to the listener,” said Auer. According to Mr. Malan, Zimbalist’s “ear, miraculous memory, natural finger dexterity, and high degree of intelligence” enabled him to get brilliant results with no more than an hour’s practice a day — which left him time to sneak into the theater for operas or ballet every night.

Everybody seems to have liked Zimbalist — in London, Joseph and Mary Fels (of Fels-Naptha) adopted him, paid for the fine violin he had been lent, and provided him with housing. In America he fell in love at first sight with a renowned soprano six years his senior, Alma Gluck, and eventually persuaded her to marry him. She had a daughter by her first marriage, and they had two children together.

In the 1920s he discovered the Far East and subsequently made six long tours there (one was eight months). In addition to playing in cities, “Zimbalist stipulated that he wanted to be booked in any village, no matter how insignificant, that expressed a desire to hear him play. ‘But how will I make any money?’ the impresario protested. ‘I’ll play for nothing.’”

All the pianos were out of tune, his violin came apart at the seams (he later carried an aluminum violin for practicing), and his gut strings broke (he became an early convert to metal strings). The author comments, “Such persistent efforts to expose Asia to his art contributed to the influx of Asian musicians onto the world’s platforms. For many Japanese hearing Zimbalist play was an isolated, soul-altering influence.” Zimbalist later taught several offspring of his Japanese listeners in the United States.

Zimbalist began to teach at Curtis in Philadelphia in 1928 and, says the author, “came to deplore elaborate theories, strongly believing that one ‘shouldn’t get too clever about playing the violin.’” He apparently became a superior teacher and administrator, and a few years after Alma’s death he married Curtis’s founder, Mary Bok.

Late in life, he mused, “I was terribly lucky … [Through our work, musicians] constantly come into contact with the minds of supreme beings like Beethoven or Mozart; these extraordinary humans reveal to us their deepest thoughts … .”

Readers, too, are lucky to have Mr. Mahan’s rich account of this remarkable man and his times.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide