Marie Curie & Her Daughters | Imogen & Isobel Greenberg

Marie Curie is one of my personal heroes.

Ever since my Year 12 science depth-study on her, (which incidentally helped me to top the class and receive my one and only first-in-class medal) I have been constantly drawn to her story. As part of my depth-study research, I read Ève Curie’s bio about her mother, first published in 1937. I remember it as being quite dense, full of scientific stuff beyond my ken. I’d love to read it again with some more life experience under my belt.

But for now, I will settle for versions produced for younger readers.

Bloomsbury has just published this gorgeous biography written and illustrated by Imogen and Isabel Greenberg, two sisters who grew up in Muswell Hill. Marie Curie and Her Daughters is a magnificent retelling of this incredible, inspiring family story. Part narrative, part graphic novel, the words and drawings work together to bring this story alive for modern readers.

The Greenberg’s have crafted a female empowerment story, highlighting all the firsts that Marie clocked up during her lifetime. From her discovery of polonium and radium with her husband, Pierre, to their joint winning of the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics (along with Henri Becquerel who had discovered radioactivity) which made her the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.

in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel.

After the sudden death of Pierre in 1906, Marie continued on alone with her radium work. Her eldest daughter, Irène was becoming interested in science, while the youngest, Ève showed more creative tendencies. In 1911 when she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Marie became the first person to win two Nobel Prizes.

in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.

Marie was appointed Director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris, founded in 1914.

During WWI she established mobile x-ray units (that became known as Petites Curies) with her 17 yr old daughter, Irène, who later won her own Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for the discovery of artificial radioactivity with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie.

Ève may not have won a Nobel, but as a writer and journalist, she worked for the French Resistance during WWII, travelling the world as a war correspondent and lecturing on French women in the war. And alongside her husband, American politician and diplomat Henry Richardson Labouisse, Jr, she accepted a Nobel Peace Prize in 1965 on behalf of UNICEF, of which Labouisse was the Executive Director.

A truly remarkable family indeed!

Marie also has her own Little People, Big Dreams book. This wonderful biography series for kids was created by Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara and translated into English in 2016. There are now over 50 titles in the series.

Marie Curie (2017), like the rest of the books, focuses on her childhood and her dreams, in this case to go to university to study science, even when it was not possible for women to attend university in her home town of Warsaw at that time.

In the back of the book, Vegara has included a timeline with historical photos and a detailed profile of Marie’s life.

Naturally, these books designed for younger readers, gloss over some of the more difficult elements in Marie’s story, including her affair with a married man (which almost derailed her second Nobel Prize ceremony) as well as the personal conflict she went through as less peaceful uses for polonium and radium were devised and as she realised the deadly cost to her own health (and that of her daughter) from working so closely with such toxic materials.

In my 2016 review of Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie – A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss, I waxed lyrical about my love affair with Marie (and the beautiful production of the book) by saying,

It wasn’t the science that grabbed my attention so decidedly.

It was the fact that Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel prize for science and then the first person – male or female – to win it twice. It was rejoicing in a woman tackling a ‘man’s job’ and doing it well – very, very well. It was the romantic working partnership with Pierre. It was the generational love of science they fostered in their daughters and grandchildren as they all followed in their scientific footsteps. It was the complicated, ethically fraught philosophy of discovery, patents, shared knowledge and how to use this new science – for good or for bad.
And it was also the frustration of hindsight. Watching Marie and Pierre work day in, day out with no protection around radioactive substances, knowing what we know now, how they were in fact, hastening their own deaths.

Reading these two picture books, brought back many fond memories of my 17 yr old self’s sense of admiration and possibility that Marie inspired in me. I knew I would never be anything but an amateur scientist, but if Marie Curie could leave the country of her birth to attend university, then I could leave home to attend a university a mere five hours drive away.

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Lurking on my TBR pile is an ARC, Half Life by Jillian Cantor due to be published in April by Simon & Schuster Australia, that claims to be a sliding-doors re-imagining of Marie Curie’s life if she had chosen love over science. Given that neither Marie or myself, believe that she did make such a choice, I’m not sure how I will go with this. But my lifelong fascination means that I will approach the book with hope, whilst fearing the worst!

10 thoughts on “Marie Curie & Her Daughters | Imogen & Isobel Greenberg

  1. And my love for Marie Curie began with a special report I did on her when my second-grade teacher was scrambling around, trying to keep me busy that year. It was my mom who suggested Curie to me as a focus for my research, and I’m not sure about the source of her interest in Curie, but I’ve always been fascinated with her and her family.

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    1. This is the thing that makes me feel sad about the boys schooling. Neither of them have a story like this, where they were inspired to research something or someone by a teacher (Mr Books has his Swallows and Amazons story to tell, so it’s not a gender thing). And when I was in third grade, it was my teacher getting me hooked on Grace Darling and Hellen Keller, that helped me decide at a young age that I also wanted to be a teacher.

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  2. I love this, I too admire her. I remember a NPR special on her where they mentioned how bad the radioactivity was in her journals that they couldn’t be read at the moment. How much she sacrificed.

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    1. Apparently all her journals are kept in a lead-lined box in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Even her clothes and furniture are still radioactive (& probably will be for another 1500 years). Marie also had to be buried in a coffin lined with lead, her body was so radioactive.

      I believe her journals can be read, if you sign a liability waiver and wear protective clothing! Her house and workshop were in use up until the mid-70’s and they were only finally decontaminated in 1991 after locals complained about the high cancer rates in their area.

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  3. My youngest daughter read about Marie Curie last year; her life is fascinating esp for her line of work during the time period she lived. I will check our library to see if they have a copy bc I think she would really enjoy reading another book about her…and being part graphic novel makes it fun for a life she is already familiar.

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      1. Her radioactive journals (stored in a lead-lined box) are available to be read now – if you sign a liability waiver and wear protective clothing – but they will be radioactive for another 1500 yrs!
        Since that time a number of bio’s have been written –
        Marie Curie: A Life by Susan Quinn in 1995
        Pierre Curie by Anna Hurwic in 1998
        Curie: Le rêve scientifique by Loïc Barbo in 1999
        Marie Curie et son laboratoire by Soraya Boudia in 2001
        Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith in 2005
        Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss in 2011.

        I can highly recommend the last one – it would probably be suitable for you too being a blend of graphic and art design (see the link in my post).

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