The above image is a photograph of a portrait of Marie Curie possibly taken in the early 1930s. This photograph used to sit in the office of Dame Caroline Haslett alongside other photographs and documents that were particularly special to Dame Caroline such as photographs of Viscountess Astor, Sir Vincent and Lady de Ferranti and a photograph of the Women’s Engineering Society’s 21st birthday celebration lunch of 1940.
Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Marie Sklodowska Curie, born Maria Salomea Sklodowska, was a Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, which she shared with her husband Pierre Curie and the physicist Henri Becquerel. She was also the first person and only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, the second award being the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In addition to being the first woman professor at the University of Paris, she became the first woman to be entombed in the Pantheon in Paris on her own merits in 1995.
Curie’s achievements included the development of the theory of radioactivity, techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two elements, polonium (named after her native country) and radium.
Marie Curie Material in the IET Archives
The IET’s rare book collections, held in the IET Archives, already contained two works attributed to Marie Curie, which have been catalogued. These works are as follows;
- ‘Thèses présentées a la Faculté des Sciences de Paris pour obtenir le grade de docteur ès sciences physiques, par Mme Sklodowska Curie. Premiere thèse – recherches sur les substances radioactives’, 1903. The cover and title page are shown below.
- ‘Traité de radioactivité’ (2 volumes) by Madame P. Curie, Professor a la Faculté des Sciences de Paris, 1910. The first of these two volumes includes a plate showing Marie’s husband Pierre Curie who had died four years earlier in 1906. That plate is reproduced below.
Both of these works were given by Marie Curie to her friend Hertha Ayrton, the IEE’s first female member, and have been inscribed by Curie. Both of these inscriptions are shown below (1903 inscription on the left and 1910 inscription on the right).
The first inscription says, “A Madame Hertha Ayrton. Hommage d’une sympathie bien sincère M Curie”, which roughly translated means, “in tribute to a friendship, your sincerely”.
The second inscription says, “A Mrs Hertha Ayrton. Souvenir s’amis lié bien sincere M Curie”, which translates approximately to “in memory of close friends”.
The Friendship Between Marie Curie and Hertha Ayrton
The “warm, personal” relationship between Marie Curie and Hertha Ayrton is covered at length in the book, ‘Hertha Ayrton: A Memoir’, by Evelyn Sharp which was published in 1926. The following image showing Mrs Ayton in her laboratory is taken from that book.
The biography says that, “the summer of 1903 was memorable for the meeting in London of Mme Curie and Mrs Ayrton, which resulted in a friendship between the two women physicists that grew stronger with the years and lasted until death put an end to it [Hertha Ayton died in August 1923]. In a later communication to the Press, written to vindicate her friend’s reputation as the actual discoverer of radium, Mrs Ayton tells the following incident:”
“It was in 1900, I think, that, coming into my husband’s sitting-room at the Central Technical College, I found awaiting him M Becquerel, who, after some conversation, asked for an electroscope, which he proceeded to charge. He then took a paper out of his pocket containing a small quantity of powder, which he held at about a foot from the electroscope, which promptly discharged. After charging and discharging it several times, I asked him who had discovered this wonderful stuff, and what it was called. ‘Madame Curie. Radium’, he replied, and dilated on its extraordinary properties till my husband arrived.”
The biography also mentions Hertha Ayrton defending Madame Curie, whenever the opportunity occurred and says, “in 1909, for instance, when Monsieur Curie died as the result of an accident in Paris, and many English newspapers acclaimed him as the discoverer of radium, Mrs Ayrton wrote in a letter to the Westminster Gazette (March 14 1909),”
“Errors are notoriously hard to kill, but an error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat”,
“and she proceeded to give unanswerable proofs, which the editor readily accepted and made a sympathetic comment upon, to show that radium had been discovered by Madame Curie, alone and unaided, though her husband afterwards helped her to extract it from pitch-blende.”
Rediscovered Marie Curie Material in the IET Archives
During a recent recataloguing project involving the IET rare book collections, a further volume by Marie Curie was uncovered. This ‘rediscovered’ book is called ‘La Radiologie et la Guerre’, by Marie Curie and was published in 1921 – the cover is shown below.
Once again the book had been given by Marie Curie to Hertha Ayrton, and the ‘usual’ Curie inscription appears at the front (the same inscription that can be found in the work of 1910 shown earlier). Alongside the inscription is a donation slip that shows that the book was donated to the IEE Library in 1923, the year of Hertha Ayrton’s death, by B Ayrton-Gould (the likely source of the two other Curie works mentioned earlier).
The donor was Barbara Bodichon Ayrton-Gould (1886-1950), the Labour politician and suffragist who was the daughter of Hertha and William Ayrton. It was Barbara Ayrton-Gould, her husband, and Hertha’s biographer Evelyn Sharp, who founded the United Suffragists in February 1914, which was notable for accepting both male and female members.
What was even more exciting was that the book contained a letter from Marie Curie to Hertha Ayrton which had been stuck into the book. The two sides of the letter are shown below.
The letter says;
“Chère amie, je vous ai fait expédies ma petit livre sur “la Radiologie et la Guerre”, que j’ai écrit récemment. L’avez vous recu? Vous y verrez une photographie de sale a rayons X […]. Cette photo a été fait a Amien, dans un hospital […] a fait le service de rayons X pendant quelque temps en 1916. Comment allex vous? Il y a long temps que je n’ai eu de vos nouvelles.”
This roughly translates to;
“Dear friend, I have sent you my small book on ‘Radiology and War’ that I wrote recently. Have you received it? You will see a photograph of the X-ray room […]. The photo was taken at Amiens, in a hospital […] that performed the X-ray service sometime in 1916. How are you? It’s been a long time since I’ve had your news.”
The image referred to in the letter is plate 3 in the book which shows the radiography room, installed in barracks at the no.112 hospital at Amiens. The image is reproduced below.
For anyone with an interest in Marie Curie and the above three works, these can be consulted at the IET Archives by appointment.