That Time Some Chauvinists Rejected Marie Curie’s Application to the French Academy of Sciences
she blinded me with science
It’s probably hard to believe that a two-time Nobel Prize winner for her work in both physics and chemistry, a person who discovered and created the word “radioactivity,” was rejected for membership by the French Academy of Sciences on this date in 1911. We are talking about the one and only Marie Skłodowska-Curie, pioneer for not just women in science, but in the field of radioactivity. And when she applied for membership, she was rejected by a margin of two votes — because she was Polish, maybe-Jewish (not that it matters, but she wasn’t), and a woman. Yup. Marie Curie — rejected by the French Academy of Sciences for having a vagina. If they weren’t already dead, they’d probably be kicking themselves in the most French way imaginable.
Let’s review what Curie had achieved leading up to her application in 1911:
Discovered the new elements polonium (named after her native country, Poland) and radium.
One Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903 (shared with her husband, Pierre Curie) for isolating radium. She was the first female winner of the prize.
Head of the physics laboratory in Sorbonne.
Obtained a doctorate in science and a professorship at the Faculty of Sciences (the first woman to do so).
Seemed like a lock, doesn’t it? But alas, the men in charge of accepting her application for membership into the French Academy of Sciences were not interested in having a woman as a peer. As Academy member Emile Hilaire Amagat put it, “Women cannot be part of the Institute of France.” (Which is adorable, considering his name looks so much like “Emily Hilary.”) Instead, they inducted radio pioneer Edouard Branly, because the French were really annoyed by another popular and successful Italian radio guy you may have heard of: Guglielmo Marconi. But mostly, Branly was a devout Catholic with the endorsement of the Pope himself. And also a dude.
While the religious factor is dirty enough by itself, the possibility of Curie being Jewish as an excuse for not accepting her application sounds like just that — an excuse. (In fact, her mother was also Catholic and her father was not religious at all.)
As Wired notes, this snub by the Academy did not go over well with everyone in France; the progressive press stood up for Curie, putting a spotlight on the sexist, bigoted decision. However, it being 1911 and all, there was plenty of conservative support for Branly (and opposition to Curie) that the decision stood.
So in response, Curie did what any of us would have done — she threw herself into her work on radioactivity and won a second Nobel Prize for Chemistry later that same year. (This one was all hers.) That made her the only person to date — let alone the first woman — to have been recognized for her achievements in more than one field of science.
Curie was never inducted into the French Academy of Sciences, and it took them until 1962 to finally induct a woman — Marguerite Perey, a French physicist who discovered the element francium, and a student of none other than Marie Curie.