by Raizel Liebler
In an episode of the PBS children’s show Peg Plus Cat, Marie Curie shows up to discuss making mistakes and persevering alongside Albert Einstein and Billie Holiday (and a whale, since this is a kids show!). Considering she is one of the only female scientists that non-scientists know — and now also small children are aware of her — how did this happen? Why has Marie Curie’s discoveries and her persona become so sticky in the public’s memory?
Eva Hemmungs Wirten’s Making Marie Curie: Intellectual Property & Celebrity Culture in an Age of Information (University of Chicago Press 2015) delves into the whys of how one female scientist remains with us in public perception. This very academic book is nevertheless fascinating — delving into issues including but not limited to public versus private persona, intellectual property, decisions surrounding whether to patent inventions, women’s rights and autonomy, and French and American laws. Perhaps the only good way to describe this book is as a book you didn’t know you wanted to read, and it only makes you want to know more.
Wirten demonstrates how Curie was limited by law and institutional structures regarding how she constructed her own persona — and showed the world what she could do, considering that even if she had patented radium she would not been able to defend the patent from infringement because she was a married woman:
Because the law excluded her from the status of person upon which these intellectual property rights depend, the “property” road was closed to Marie Curie. The persona road was not. And while the law did not allow her to be a person, she was becoming very good at cultivating her persona.
Oh, and for those who want action, there are also discussions of being kept out of professional organizations, duels, an affair, “the trial of the century” and claims that Curie was not for women’s suffrage, which she publicly suffered the fools who had misstated her viewpoint.
But there is also discussion of how the decision to not patent radium, resulted in her receipt of a large quantity of radium, paid for by small contributions of the women of the United States:
Twenty years after they had ceded radium to others by abstaining from patenting their discovery and the processes of its extraction, the Curies’ disinterested action of sharing information and samples was collectively reciprocated when the female populace of the United States gave Marie Curie an equally disinterested gift in return. Yet the disinterestedness that was such a significant part of the interchange between these givers of gifts was in fact a multilayered vortex of symbolic and financial gestures around both radium and Curie.
The Curie “brand” story in the United States — and how it was sold to the public — help show why Marie Curie still has a singular, unique role in the public’s perception of female scientists.
Summary: A fascinating book that would be great for history of science, history of intellectual property, and intellectual property survey classes.