It is probably hard to believe that a two-time Nobel Prize winner for her work in physics and chemistry, a person who discovered and coined the word “radioactivity”, was rejected by the French Academy of Sciences in January 1911.
Yes, we are talking about the one and only Marie Skłodowska-Curie, a pioneer not just for women in science, but in the field of radioactivity. And yet, when she applied for membership, she was rejected by a margin of two votes – because she was Polish, perhaps Jewish, and a woman. Yes. Marie Curie – rejected by the French Academy of Sciences for being a woman.
Let’s review what Curie achieved prior to her enrollment in 1911:
-Discovered the new elements polonium and radium.
-A Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 – shared with her husband, Pierre Curie – for isolating radium. She was the first woman to win the award.
-Head of the Sorbonne Physics Laboratory.
– Obtained a doctorate in science and a chair at the Faculty of Sciences (the first woman to do so).
Looked like a lock, didn’t it? But unfortunately, the men tasked with accepting her application for membership in the French Academy of Sciences weren’t interested in having a woman as a colleague. As Academy member Emile Hilaire Amagat said, “Women cannot be part of the Institute of France.” Instead, they introduced radio pioneer Edouard Branly, mainly because Branly was a devout Catholic with the Pope’s own endorsement. And also a guy.
While the religious factor is dirty enough in itself, the possibility of Curie being Jewish as an excuse for not accepting her application sounds exactly like that – an excuse. (Actually, her mother was also Catholic and her father was not religious.)
As Wired notes, this Academy snub didn’t sit well with everyone in France; the progressive press defended Curie, highlighting the sexist and prejudiced decision. However, this being 1911 and all, there was enough conservative support for Branly that the decision stood.
So, in response, Curie did what any of us would have done – she threw herself into work on radioactivity and won a second Nobel Prize in Chemistry that same year. This has made her the only person so far – let alone the first woman – to be recognized for her achievements in more than one field of science.
Curie was never admitted to the French Academy of Sciences, and it took until 1962 to finally induct a woman – Marguerite Perey, a French physicist who discovered the element francium and a student of none other than Marie Curie.