“Why was Madam Curie called „polish sl*t“ by the media?“, someone asked me on Quora. Given that I have been a great admirer of Marie Curie, probably the greatest physicist that ever lived, ever since I read a biography about her when I was still in my teens, I went back to the root of the problem and discovered that the right-wing French press attacked her in 1910 when she put herself forward as a candidate for a vacant seat in the French Academy of Sciences.
The right wanted her rival to win, a man named Edouard Branly, who was 66 at the time, mainly because they didn’t want a woman to enter the prestigious and still all-male Académie.
They felt France had been snubbed in 1909 by the Nobel committee when it awarded the prize in physics to Gugliemo Marconi instead of Branly. Both were famous for their pioneering work on wireless telegraphy.
Branly also had close ties to the Catholic church. France at the time was bitterly divided between conservative Catholics and freethinkers like Curie. Right-wing antisemetic newspapers and journals, first and foremost the daily Excelsior, ran fake stories about her, including allegations that she was Jewish and not truly French, which would have disqualified her from taking a seat in the French Academy. Branly ultimately won the election, and Curie immersed herself in her work.
But that wasn’t the only time Curie had to struggle with scandal. After the death of her husband Pierre in 1906 in a traffic accident (he was run down by a horse-drawn cart), she became romantically involved with Paul Langevin, a fellow physicist, who was unhappily married to a former pupil with whom he had four children.
Madame Langevin began divorce proceedings in the summer of 1911, and the press got hold of intimate letters between the two, some of them obvious forgeries. Anti-Semitic newspapers called her a „foreign Jewish home wrecker“ who had disrupted the life of a good Frenchwoman. Others spread the rumor that the affair had begun before Pierre’s death and that the accident was in fact a suicide. A mob gathered in front of her house in Sceaux, forcing her two little daughters to flee to the house of friends in Paris. Langevin fought a duel with one of the journalists involved, which ended in the harmless exchange of shots.
While all of this was going on, Marie Curie received notice that she had been awarded an unprecedented second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time in chemistry. However, events at home had taken a toll; she suffered a breakdown and entered a nerve clinic under an assumed name.
The affair with Langevin petered out, and she went on to found the famous Radium Institute in Paris before dying in 1934 of a blood disorder caused by her constant exposure to radioactivity.