Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

What’s in her name?

It must top the list of famous misquotes: Shakespeare’s Juliet did not say “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But she did ask “What’s in a name?” thus pinpointing a problem that still vexes women today. When I turned 40, I rebranded myself from Pat to Patricia, a shift that was personally gratifying yet had no serious effects. But some women have had to contemplate more serious consequences.

There is only one female scientist who is famous throughout the world, but she had several names to choose between and has been represented in various guises. Most commonly celebrated as the double Nobel Prize winner who dedicated her life to science and invented the word “radioactivity,” she has also been castigated as a Jewish whore, a steely obsessive, and a savvy media manipulator. When she visited the United States in two whirlwind trips, she showed the President that she could act as a hard-headed negotiator.

When she married a Parisian, this scientific pioneer patriotically Frenchified her first name, but retained her Polish identity by opting to call herself Marie Skłodoswka Curie. This was no nostalgic whim: because of France’s restrictive legislation on married women’s rights, how she signed herself carried practical implications. French wives were non-people who belonged to their husbands and could not possess property in their own name—so although Skłodowska Curie had discovered radium, she was not entitled to take out patents or profit from any industrial applications.

Appreciating these financial realities casts a different light on Skłodowska Curie’s apparently disinterested determination to share the benefits of her research into radioactivity. She declared it to be a universal property of nature: “There were no patents. We were working in the interests of science. Radium was not to enrich anyone. Radium…belongs to all people.”

That elegant phrasing was put into Skłodowska Curie’s mouth by her self-appointed American publicity agent, an enterprising journalist who identified herself professionally as Mrs William B. Maloney, but is now often patronisingly referred to by her nickname, Missy. After much persuasion, Skłodowska Curie agreed to sail across the Atlantic in 1921, although she was reluctant to appear on public platforms. When she was applauded by 3,500 women in Carnegie Hall, she managed only 27 timid words of thanks.

Marie Curie with her daughters Irène (left; future Irène Joliot-Curie) and Eve (right) in the United States, 1921. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Accompanied by her two daughters, Eve and Irène, the frail physicist was propelled through a gruelling fund-raising tour whose returns far exceeded expectations. The donors were overwhelmingly female, but unlike her European supporters, they welcomed her as a champion in the battle against cancer rather than as a scientist. Weakened by years of exposure to radioactivity, depressed by her husband’s sudden death in a road accident, and demoralised after being hauled through the press for an unwise but passionate love affair, Skłodowska Curie was exhausted long before her seven-week visit came to an end. But she was determined to achieve her ambitious goal: to provide her research institute in Paris with one gram of radium.

And she succeeded. Standing on the White House lawn, she accepted the nation’s gift from President Warren Harding, but he had been taken aback by the terms she imposed. In order to avoid any allegations of financial gain, Skłodowska Curie insisted on receiving the radium itself, not the money it would cost, even though prices were lower in Europe. And in a last-minute legal tussle, she ensured that the radium was given not to her, but directly to her Paris Institute.

Loyal and persistent, Maloney became one of Skłodowska Curie’s few intimate acquaintances. Another was the English physicist Hertha Ayrton, who had abandoned her childhood name Phoebe to adopt the identity of a Teutonic goddess. An ardent suffragist, she was nominated for membership of London’s Royal Society, but turned down on the grounds that she was married to a fellow physicist, William Ayrton.

Speaking to a journalist, Ayrton proclaimed, “I do not agree with sex being brought into science at all. The idea of ‘woman and science’ is completely irrelevant. Either a woman is a good scientist, or she is not.” Many women shared her idealistic vision of science, but over a century later it still has not been fully realized. And unfortunately, names still matter.

Featured image credit: Pierre and Marie Curie in the laboratory, circa 1904. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.