A mostly female audience of about 100, some younger than 10 years old and some older than 60, gathered yesterday at the Whitney Humanities Center auditorium to hear a presentation discussing the “Intellectual Journeys of Marie Curie.”
The afternoon panelist discussion, moderated by Yale Associate Dean of Academic Development Merle Waxman, was the first in a University-wide symposium celebrating the 100-year anniversary of Marie Curie’s first Nobel Prize. The celebration, which will continue through Nov. 8, is designed as an opportunity not only to honor Marie Curie and her achievements in chemistry and physics, but also as an opportunity to celebrate other women in science.
Stanley Woodward Professor of History Daniel Kevles gave the first speech, discussing Curie’s visit to America in 1921. He described the different characterizations made of her by everyone from President Harding, who called her a “noble woman, unselfish wife and devoted mother,” to New York Times writers who described her as a “motherly-looking scientist.”
Kevles also discussed the discrimination that Curie faced during her life, noting that nearly all of Harvard’s physics department moved to prevent Curie from receiving an honorary degree from the university. He described Curie’s achievements as inspiration for all women in physical sciences.
“You have all come a long way, baby,” Kevles said.
A discussion of Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie called “Two in a Shed: History and Memory of the Curies as a Nobel Prize-winning Couple” followed, given by Helena Pycior, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Pycior described the commitment that both Pierre and Marie Curie made to supporting and recognizing one another’s achievements.
“The later Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to Marie Curie alone, after her husband’s death,” Pycior said. “She expressed that she wanted to share this honor with her husband publicly.”
The final speaker was Dr. Sara Rockwell, a professor of therapeutic radiology and the director of Yale’s Office of Scientific Affairs. Rockwell presented a slide show, taking the audience through Marie Curie’s life — from her childhood in Poland, to schooling in Paris and marriage to Pierre, to their scientific discoveries and eventual deaths.
“No woman in Europe had yet pursued a doctorate,” said Rockwell of Curie’s groundbreaking doctorate of science, which she earned right before having her second child.
The overall discussion seemed to engage the audience. Comments about the Curies’ famous shed where they performed experiments — which was known to glow in the dark because of radiation — elicited laughter.
History professor Cynthia Russett, who has taught a class on women in America, knew much about Marie Curie before the presentation, but found the discussions interesting nevertheless.
“I had heard the quotations [given by Kevles] about women being mediocre in science before,” Russett said. “but I was very interested in how [Kevles] showed how the scientific community subtly denigrated Curie. They would emphasize her nurturing nature, that she was interested in finding a cure for cancer, instead of showing that she was passionate about her work and science in and of itself.”
Audience member Allison Walker ’07 said she knew very little about the Curies before the presentation.
“I had no idea how the media and other people had colored Marie Curie during her tour of America,” said Walker, who is taking the class “Perspectives on Science.” “They showed her as motherly and weaker than she actually was.”
In conjunction with the 100 year anniversary symposium, an exhibit called “Madam Curie, Radioactivity, and the Emerging New Physics: The Extraordinary Career of a Woman Scientist” will run from Nov. 4 to March 15 at the Cushing Rotunda of the Yale Medical Library.