Marie Curie and Her Daughters:

The Private Lives of Science’s First Family

Author: Shelley Emling

Rating: 4.5/5

Marie Curie and Her Daughters-Shelley Emling

Marie Curie is the only woman in history to have won two Nobel prizes, that too in two different fields, physics and chemistry. She is also the only woman in history to be a Nobel Laureate herself and to have begotten another Nobel Laureate in her immediate progeny. This is her story. And as the title suggests, the book focuses specifically on her relationship with her daughters.

Social/Historical context:

When I picked up the book, I was looking for answers to questions like: did she want children or did she simply abide by the family norms of the time? How much time did Marie spend with her daughters? Did her daughters miss their mother? Was she able to take personal interest in the academic progress of her daughters? Did the daughters blame her for being selfish about her work or were they proud of her achievements?

What I learnt was an eye-opener in several aspects. Marie married at 28 and enjoyed 11 years of marital bliss when Pierre, her husband died of a road accident. Marie was left to provide for her two daughters aged 9 years and 2 years respectively. She refused a pension offered to her by the French government after Pierre’s death, saying that she could provide for her family herself. Marie had no qualms about trusting her children to her father- in-law’s care while she followed her scientific pursuits. When her father-in-law died, she appointed a governess for her children and was resolute enough to send her children away from her at several points to keep them safe or to help them focus better on their academics. She never had the time to personally supervise the children but she was constantly mindful of their academic progress. Marie’s first born Irene had a sharp mind and loved academics. She often exchanged letters with her mother containing intriguing scientific problems. 

Writing Style:

The book is written in a very matter-of-fact way, with no frills, romanticizing or rambling descriptions. Emling does an honest job of comparing and highlighting personal details, which have been misstated or overlooked by members of Marie’s family in their own accounts of Marie’s life. To this end, it helped me as an objective reader and gave me a more rounded view of Marie as a highly intelligent and dedicated yet earthly being with her own shortcomings.

My Thoughts:

What do I take away from the book? I have learnt in order to be a good parent you don’t need to bake to cookies for your children, or that you may not even be able to provide a supportive shoulder to your children when they suffer their first heart break. And yet, you can bring up well rounded, healthy individuals, while being fiercely focused on your professional work. It needs great strength of character to fight the odds that Marie did and supreme intelligence, resolve and dedication to achieve what she has in her lifetime. I am filled with awe and admiration for this hero of a woman.

Book Reviewed by Ashmita Saha

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