Marie Curie: An icon or ‘in the way’?

Who would have been the most iconic woman physicist of all time if the Nobel Prizes didn’t exist? In 2017, Science published an article by Eva Hemmungs Wirtén to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Marie Curie. I got to it today because of this tweet:

One of the most well-known woman physicists and scientists – if not the most well-known – of the post-industrial era is Marie Curie. This is due in large part to the fact that she became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (physics, 1903), the first woman to win any Nobel Prize, the first person as well as the first woman to win the Nobel Prize twice (chemistry, 1911) and in two different fields.

As awesome as this roster of accomplishments sounds, they were all manufactured. The Nobel Prizes create prestige by being selective: they pick awardees for a prize after rejecting hundreds of equally eligible candidates for arbitrary reasons. One important reason is that potential laureates have to be nominated and are then considered by a committee of ‘luminaries’ behind closed doors. Both the nomination and the deliberation have historically been dominated by men, so as such few women were nominated in the first place and even fewer made it to the shortlist, if at all.

Ultimately, using the Nobel Prizes to describe “iconic” scientists forces us to inherit the Nobel Prizes’ prejudices. As a people, do we want to assemble a list of iconic scientists – members of society that were shaped by our collective morals and aspirations, and worked among us, often struggling through shared problems – that is assailed by the flaws that beset the Nobel Prizes? I assume the answer is ‘no’.

While Marie Curie may deserve her laurels for all the notable work that she did, we must remember that notability is like a fraction: the numerator is that individual’s contribution and the denominator is the background of achievements against which we examine it. The Nobel Prizes have horribly skewed the denominator in favour of men and of pseudo-signifiers of notability, like publishing in certain journals at certain times from certain countries.

Marie was the first woman to record a clutch of achievements vis-à-vis the Nobel Prizes, and all of them were the prize-giving committee’s failures – not Marie’s success. We don’t know how many other women everyone from the first nominators to the final committee overlooked. More importantly, we don’t know how many more women, and scientists of other genders, we the people ourselves overlooked, because we were too busy paying attention to the Nobel Prizes.

I can’t claim to speak for Marie Curie but I know it’s not fair to call her the “most iconic” on the back of a false distinction. As Hemmungs Wirtén wrote in her article:

Curie’s track record is well known. So far, the only woman twice awarded the Nobel Prize – her 1903 and 1911 distinctions in physics and chemistry, respectively – ensure her a permanent seat on the Mount Olympus of science. … The material that transformed Curie from person to persona comes to us largely via Eve Curie’s famous hagiography of her mother, Madame Curie. …

Recent years have seen this idealized version of Curie challenged by less-celebratory interpretations. In Julie Des Jardin’s The Madame Curie Complex, Curie is described as “a superhuman anomaly,” one who causes female scientists frustration by establishing unrealistic expectations of scientific accomplishment, rather than inspiring them to excel. … For some, Curie is simply in the way. “Stop talking about Marie Curie,” suggested Rachel Swaby in a piece in Wired in 2015. She casts too big a shadow, is too well known, and has become the one and only female scientist in the public imagination, Swaby argues. There is some merit to this argument.

Featured image: An edited photo of Marie Curie, c. 1920. Credit: Public domain.