Read the Uplifting Letter That Albert Einstein Sent to Marie Curie During a Time of Personal Crisis (1911)

Marie Curie’s 1911 Nobel Prize win, her sec­ond, for the dis­cov­ery of radi­um and polo­ni­um, would have been cause for pub­lic cel­e­bra­tion in her adopt­ed France, but for the near­ly simul­ta­ne­ous rev­e­la­tion of her affair with fel­low physi­cist Paul Langevin, the fel­low stand­ing to the right of a 32-year-old Albert Ein­stein in the above group pho­to from the 1911 Solvay Con­fer­ence in Physics.

Both sto­ries broke while Curie—unsurprisingly, the sole woman in the photo—was attend­ing the con­fer­ence in Brus­sels.

Equal­ly unsur­pris­ing­ly, the press pre­ferred la scan­dal to la réal­i­sa­tion sci­en­tifique. Sex sells, then and now.

The fires of radi­um which beam so mysteriously…have just lit a fire in the heart of one of the sci­en­tists who stud­ies their action so devot­ed­ly; and the wife and the chil­dren of this sci­en­tist are in tears.…

—Le Jour­nal, Novem­ber 4, 1911

There’s no deny­ing that the affair was painful for Langevin’s fam­i­ly, par­tic­u­lar­ly his wife, Jeanne, who sup­plied the media with incrim­i­nat­ing let­ters from Curie to her hus­band. She must have been aware that Curie would be the one to bear the brunt of the public’s dis­ap­proval. Dou­ble stan­dards with regard to gen­der are noth­ing new.

A furi­ous throng gath­ered out­side of Curie’s house and anti-Semit­ic papers, dis­sat­is­fied with label­ing the pio­neer­ing sci­en­tist a mere home wreck­er, declared—erroneously—that she was Jew­ish. The time­line was tweaked to sug­gest that Curie had tak­en up with Langevin pri­or to her husband’s death. Fel­low radio­chemist Bertram Bolt­wood seized the oppor­tu­ni­ty to declare that “she is exact­ly what I always thought she was, a detestable idiot.”

In the midst of this, Ein­stein, who had made Curie’s acquain­tance at the con­fer­ence, proved him­self a true friend with a “don’t let the bas­tards get you down” let­ter, writ­ten on Novem­ber 23. Oth­er than a del­i­cate allu­sion to Langevin as a per­son with whom he felt priv­i­leged to be in con­tact, he refrained from men­tion­ing the cause of her mis­for­tune.

A friend­ly word can go a long way in times of dis­grace, and Ein­stein sup­plied his new friend with some stout­ly unequiv­o­cal ones, denounc­ing the scan­dal­mon­gers as “rep­tiles” feast­ing on sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic “hog­wash”:

High­ly esteemed Mrs. Curie,

Do not laugh at me for writ­ing you with­out hav­ing any­thing sen­si­ble to say. But I am so enraged by the base man­ner in which the pub­lic is present­ly dar­ing to con­cern itself with you that I absolute­ly must give vent to this feel­ing. How­ev­er, I am con­vinced that you con­sis­tent­ly despise this rab­ble, whether it obse­quious­ly lav­ish­es respect on you or whether it attempts to sati­ate its lust for sen­sa­tion­al­ism! I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intel­lect, your dri­ve, and your hon­esty, and that I con­sid­er myself lucky to have made your per­son­al acquain­tance in Brus­sels. Any­one who does not num­ber among these rep­tiles is cer­tain­ly hap­py, now as before, that we have such per­son­ages among us as you, and Langevin too, real peo­ple with whom one feels priv­i­leged to be in con­tact. If the rab­ble con­tin­ues to occu­py itself with you, then sim­ply don’t read that hog­wash, but rather leave it to the rep­tile for whom it has been fab­ri­cat­ed.

With most ami­ca­ble regards to you, Langevin, and Per­rin, yours very tru­ly,

A. Ein­stein

PS I have deter­mined the sta­tis­ti­cal law of motion of the diatom­ic mol­e­cule in Planck’s radi­a­tion field by means of a com­i­cal wit­ti­cism, nat­u­ral­ly under the con­straint that the structure’s motion fol­lows the laws of stan­dard mechan­ics. My hope that this law is valid in real­i­ty is very small, though.

That delib­er­ate­ly geeky post­script amounts to anoth­er sweet show of sup­port. Per­haps it for­ti­fied Curie when a week lat­er, she received a let­ter from Nobel Com­mit­tee mem­ber Svante Arrhe­nius, urg­ing her to skip the Prize cer­e­mo­ny in Stock­holm. Curie reject­ed Arrhe­nius’ sug­ges­tion thus­ly:

The prize has been award­ed for the dis­cov­ery of radi­um and polo­ni­um. I believe that there is no con­nec­tion between my sci­en­tif­ic work and the facts of pri­vate life. I can­not accept … that the appre­ci­a­tion of the val­ue of sci­en­tif­ic work should be influ­enced by libel and slan­der con­cern­ing pri­vate life.

For a more in-depth look at Marie Curie’s night­mar­ish Novem­ber, refer to “Hon­or and Dis­hon­or” the six­teenth chap­ter in Bar­bara Goldsmith’s Obses­sive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Marie Curie Attend­ed a Secret, Under­ground “Fly­ing Uni­ver­si­ty” When Women Were Banned from Pol­ish Uni­ver­si­ties

Albert Ein­stein Impos­es on His First Wife a Cru­el List of Mar­i­tal Demands

Marie Curie’s Research Papers Are Still Radioac­tive 100+ Years Lat­er

How Amer­i­can Women “Kick­start­ed” a Cam­paign to Give Marie Curie a Gram of Radi­um, Rais­ing $120,000 in 1921

Marie Curie Invent­ed Mobile X‑Ray Units to Help Save Wound­ed Sol­diers in World War I

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.