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Vol. 33 No. 1
January-February 2011
An Inspiring Laboratory Director: Marie Curie and Women in Science  

by Soraya Boudia

“It is a woman who is now in charge of research and of numerous applications relating to radioactivity . . . Helping her and sharing the same work, is a whole staff of women doctors and university graduates.” This is how a female French journalist described Marie Curie’s laboratory in 1927, underlining the large number of women to be found working in a single scientific research laboratory that was also run by a woman (Geestelink 1927). It is interesting to look back at the large number of female researchers who worked with Marie Curie, and consider her role in inspiring and encouraging women to embrace a scientific career despite the difficulties and prejudices of the time.

Marie Curie, A Woman at the Head of an Interdisciplinary Institute
Following Pierre Curie’s death, by force of circumstance, Marie Curie took over as director of their laboratory in rue Cuvier. She henceforth played an increasingly important role in the French and international scientific communities. Along with other French scientists, she supported a policy for the development of scientific research and looked for ways both to develop her laboratory and to recruit more researchers. In 1908, the Pasteur Institute and the University of Paris decided to build a new multidisciplinary institute for research and for applications of radioactivity; it was called the Institut du Radium (Radium Institute) and had two sections, one devoted to physical and chemical studies (the Curie Pavilion, directed by Marie Curie), and the other concentrating on biological and medical applications (the Pasteur Pavilion, run by Claudius Regaud).

Curie’s laboratory . . . was at the heart of a scientific, industrial, instrumental, and medical network.

The Institut du Radium was completed in 1914, but not until after the First World War was it able to operate under normal conditions. During the 1920s it was one of the four main laboratories dominating the domain of radioactivity research, along with the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, directed by Ernest Rutherford, the Institut für Radiumforschung in Vienna, directed by Stefan Meyer, and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut für Chemie in Berlin, under the direction of Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner. In this domain, there were different ideas, concepts, and experimental practices concerning the application of radioactive elements. Each institute had its own approach. For instance, Rutherford’s collaborators had at first concentrated mainly on the study of physical radioactive changes and on the mechanisms of disintegration of radioactive elements. Then they began to progressively study atomic structure (Hughes 2002). In Berlin, the researchers specialized in the identification of new radioactive elements and in the physical study of their emissions. At Curie’s laboratory, part of the work was devoted to the study of the physical and chemical properties of radioactive elements, with particular focus on the development of different applications for these elements, such as in the field of medicine and in industrial production.

The Radium Institute in Paris, completed in 1914.

So it was its numerous different activities that made Curie’s laboratory stand out from the crowd; it was at the heart of a scientific, industrial, instrumental, and medical network (Boudia 2001). The Curies had begun to build this network together, but it was Marie’s impetus which allowed it to grow. The project to cover different areas of radioactivity stemmed from her decision to specialize in the purification and study of radioactive substances. For researchers in radioactivity, getting hold of radioactive substances was a constant concern. There was a profound lack of many radio-elements on the market and industrial production was difficult to set up. Those which were produced were extremely expensive, often well beyond the means of laboratories. Furthermore, their state of purification was often below the quality required by the research teams. The Curie laboratory helped to develop and adapt chemical treatments for each mineral type. Its researchers made instruments which were specially adapted to industrial needs and to mineral prospecting. The large amount of correspondence between the laboratory and its factories bears witness to the extensive circulation of personnel, radioactive substances, and instruments. Marie Curie was also in regular contact with factories abroad, such as St. Joachimstal in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, and with the Union Minière du Haut Katanga (Belgium at that time).

Marie Curie’s strategy for acquiring and purifying radioactive sources was not only a legitimate one; it was also effective. It allowed her laboratory to position itself in the world of radioactivity research as the leader in the preparation of radioactive sources, in terms of both quantity and quality. It also enabled it to become the reference for radioactivity metrology. Indeed, in 1910, an international commission made up of leading radioactivity researchers adopted the curie, suggested by Marie Curie and André Debierne, as the international unit of measurement for radioactivity and tasked Marie with establishing an international radium standard which would serve to calibrate different radioactive sources for both research and radioactivity applications.

In the two years immediately after the war there was a large majority of women at the laboratory.

The Women in the Curie Laboratory
In the large laboratory that she had succeeded in building, Marie Curie made considerable room for women. Between 1904 (when the laboratory was created in rue Cuvier) and 1934 (the year of Marie Curie’s death), 47 women worked there as researchers. Information about these women, from the archives in the Curie Museum in Paris, although fragmented, nevertheless provides us with a certain amount of information about them and their work. Regarding geographical origin (see table below), the data shows that 15 (perhaps 19) of the women came from France and 25 from abroad. For the remainder, some doubt still remains. More than a quarter came from eastern Europe, Poland, and Russia in particular. A significant group came from Scandinavian countries (the first being Norwegian Ellen Gleditsch and Swede Eva Ramstedt). When they arrived at the laboratory, nine women held doctorate degrees (in physics or chemistry and one in medicine). Ten others had science, physics, or chemistry degrees (two or three of these later went on to complete doctorates), four were teachers who had qualified at the École Normale de Jeunes Filles de Sèvres (where Marie Curie had taught between 1900 and 1904), two were engineers, and at least one had a degree in pharmacy.

The Women in Marie Curie’s Laboratory: Where They Came from and How Long They Stayed
Name Stay in Curie Lab Geographic origin
Brooks, Harriet 19061907 Canada
Gleditsch, Ellen
19071912 ; 19191920, short stays in 19241926
Blanquies, Lucie 19081910 France  
Leslie, May Sybill 19091911 UK
Ramstedt, Eva 19101911 Sweden
Szmidt, Jadwiga 19101911 Russia
Gotz, Iren 19111912 Hungary
Wrangell 19111912
Veil, Suzanne 19121914 France  
Ascouvart 19131914 France  
Molinier, Madeleine Née Monin 19171921 France
Cotelle, Sonia Née Slobodkine 19191945 Poland
Galabert ,Renée 19191933 France
Holwech, Randi 19191920 Norway
Joliot Curie, Irène 19191956 France
Klein, Marthe 19191920 France
Maracineanu, Stefania 19191920 Romania
Weil, Jeanne Samuel 19221925 France  
Chamie, Catherine 19191920 Russia
Lattes, Jeanne Samuel 19211949 France
Brunschvicg, Weill Adrienne 19211928 France
Weinbach, Lucienne 19231926 France  
Garcynska, Janine 19231924 Poland  
Wisner 19241925 France ?
Dedichen, Sonja 19241925 Norway
Dorabialska, Alicja 19251926 Poland
Gourvitch, R. 19251927 Lithuania
Pilorget, Germaine 19281930 Switzerland ?
Montel, Eliane 19251927 France
Rona, Elisabeth 19251926 (Hungary), Vienna
Larche 19261931 France ?
Waldbauer-Patton, I. Jocelyn
Leblanc, Marthe 19271929 France ?
Pompei, Angèle 19271928 France
Archinard, Isabelle 19281932 Suisse
Perey, Marguerite 19281937 France
Grabianka, Seweryn 19291934 Poland
Korvezee, A. 19291941 Netherlands
Lub Willy, A. 19301931 Netherlands
Marques, Branca Edmée 19301933 Portugal
Wibratte, Marie-Henriette 19311934 France  
Macaigne, R.   19311936 France ?
Manteuffel, I. 19311933 Poland
Prebil, Alice 19321934 Yugoslavia
Baschwitz-Levy, A. 19321933
Blau, Marietta 19321933 Austria
Emmanuel Zavizziano, Hélène 19331939 Greece

The place and role of women in the laboratory changed over time. The First World War saw a break both in the number and in the composition and status of the women. The cramped premises at rue Cuvier restricted the number of researchers. Of the 58 who worked at the laboratory between 1904 and 1914, 10 were women. The majority of them were foreigners (6 out of 10). All of them, with the exception of Ellen Gleditsch, remained for one or two years. They either had grants from their home countries or else worked for free. After the war, the laboratory’s female population grew. In the two years immediately after the war there was a large majority of women at the laboratory, with their number later stabilizing at around 30 percent. When the laboratory moved to the new Institut du Radium, it was able to hold a larger number of researchers, with a regular turnover in personnel. Marie Curie “made do,” finding intermediary and temporary solutions which required constant renegotiation with the administration and with manufacturers.

Marie Curie with her daughter Irène and other researchers in her laboratory at the Edith Cavell Hospital in 1914.

As of 1907, the Curie laboratory had at its disposal a number of specific grants (the Carnegie-Curie grants) which were given to a certain number of researchers—between two and six per year. For several years, about one-third of the personnel was essentially working for free. After the war, the number of grants increased. In addition to the Carnegie-Curie grants, were added the Commercy, Rockefeller, Rothschild, and Lazard grants, named after their patrons. Toward the end of the 1920s, the Caisse des Recherches Scientifiques and the Caisse Nationale des Sciences provided significant funding. While several women benefited from these grants and funds, they did so in a smaller proportion than their male counterparts (between 1920 and 1934, women obtained less than 20 percent of the grants). Women probably encountered the same difficulties as foreigners from certain geographical zones (eastern European countries in particular).

Irène Joliot-Curie and husband Frédéric Joliot in their laboratory at the Radium Institute, 1935.

Institutional resistance to the professional integration of women could be seen in the virtual absence of regular positions: aside from Irène Curie, no woman held the position of assistant. Generally speaking, the lack of funding made it very hard to bring young scientists into science faculties, but a relatively permanent group of researchers was formed and was able to ensure continuity at the laboratory. This group comprised 10 or so personnel, half of whom were women: Marie, Irène Curie, Catherine Chamié (Syro-Russian), Sonia Cotelle (Polish, née Slobodkine), and Renée Galabert. The last two had degrees in chemistry and joined the laboratory in 1919. Sonia Cotelle specialized in the preparation of radioactive sources. In 1926, she was appointed to a position which was created as part of a “special framework” for the Curie laboratory by the science faculties. Renée Galabert quickly took over the management of the measurements department. She left the laboratory in 1933 to take up a post as technical director at a radioactive elements factory. Catherine Chamié completed a doctorate in physics at the University of Geneva in 1913, and continued her scientific work as a mathematics assistant at the University of Odessa. She joined the laboratory in 1921, and then benefited from several grants before being compensated from the funds of the measurements department. These women had real scientific careers, similar to those of other researchers at the Curie laboratory.

Marie Curie and four of her students (sometime between 1910 and 1914, U.S. Library of Congress).

The work done by these women was a reflection of the laboratory’s various activities. Many of them worked in physics and chemistry, studying, for example, the characteristics of radioactive elements and their radiation and determining procedures for chemical treatments or for methods of measurement. They were particularly involved in two areas: the preparation of radioactive sources and certification (metrology). Numerous women were specialists in what was later to be called radiochemistry. This was true of the Curies, mother and daughter, and Ellen Gleditsch, Sonia Cotelle, and Marguerite Perey. This was not an occupation reserved for women however: Bertram Boltwood at Yale and the two Nobel Prize winners Otto Hahn in Berlin and Otto Hönigschmit in Vienna won acclaim as radiochemists. In addition, the laboratory’s measurements department was usually run by women. Created in 1911, this department acted as a national metrological institution in the field of radioactivity. Its activity focused on the calibration and certification of sources. Sonia Cotelle, Renée Galabert, and Catherine Chamié were all in charge of this department at some point. In other laboratories (UK, USA, Germany, and Austria), metrology was run by men.

Proportion of Women in
Marie Curie's Laboratory
Year Rate of Women
19041905 1/9 (11.4%)
19051906 1/8 (12.5%)
19061907 2/10 (20%)
19071908 2/11 (18.2%)
19081909 3/18 (16.7%)
19091910 4/18 (22.2%)
19101911 5/22 (22.7%)
19111912 4/20 (20%)
19121913 2/15 (13,3%)
19131914 3/15 (20%)
19191920 9/14 (64.3%)
19201921 10/19 (52.6%)
19211922 5/14 (35.7%)
19221923 7/28 (25%)
19231924 9/31 (29%)
19241925 12/35 (34.2%)
19251926 14/37 (37.8 %)
19261927 11/31 (35.5%)
19271928 10/31 (32.2%)
19281929 10/33 (30.3%)  
19291930 11/37 (29.7%)  
19301931 12/44 (27.3%)  
19311932 14/43 (32.5%)  
19321933 16/53 (30.2%)
19331934 13/47 (27.7%)

The example of the Curie laboratory demonstrates the variety of jobs held by women in the field of radioactivity. It is clear that these women were not simply given the most repetitive and boring tasks, with the real research roles given to men. (e.g., in astronomy, women were employed to sort through thousands of negatives, a task deemed to require qualities proper to women—patience and perseverance.) Their significant presence is probably the result of several factors. Marie Curie was a role model for many young women who aspired to careers in science. She was not a feminist (few female scientists in France were), nor did she develop any policies in favor of women, but she did represent an example to follow. Furthermore, the field of radioactivity sciences was an emerging one; it was not particularly institutionalized, and as it offered few career opportunities, it was initially more accessible to women.

Soraya Boudia is an associate professor in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Strasbourg. She was the director of the Curie Museum in Paris from 1999 to 2003. She published several papers on the history of radioactivity and on the international regulation of radiation risks. She is preparing a new book on the history of the radiation low doses.

See the References section for works cited in this article.

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