Obsessive Genius (Review)

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Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie
Barbara Goldsmith, 2004
320 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
May, 2014
More than 100 years on, Marie Curie is still the preeminent woman of science, taking her place alongside the likes of Rutherford, Einstein, Ferme, and Bohr (her contemporaries). Her achievements are numerous—and all the more dazzling because they were accomplished in the face of near poverty and an oppressively sexist culture.

This is the struggle told by Barbara Goldsmith in her lucid, wonderfully written biography. The author digs beneath the standard legend—created by headlines, biographies, and history books—to present a more personal portrait of a woman driven by obsession and "melancholy."

If you're unfamiliar with Curie's record, here's a brief rundown: she discovered radium (and polonium); she coined the term "radioactivity"; she was the first woman to earn a doctorate at the Sorbonnne, a teaching chair there, and a Nobel Prize (1903); and she was the first person (man or woman) to win a second Nobel (1911). During World War I she developed portable X-ray machines and carted them to the frontlines, saving lives and preventing untold misery.

What makes Goldsmith's account so rich is her use of diaries and letters that had been off limits for 60 years. The papers reveal much about this small-boned woman, who was besieged by long bouts of cripling depression and who was absent for months on end, even years, from the lives of her two daughters.

The discovery of radioactivity led the Curies and other scientists to recognize its potential destructiveness as a weapon—all hoped it would be used solely for peaceful means. Passionately idealistic, neither Marie nor Pierre lived to see the atomic bomb explode on Japan.

This is a fine, absorbing biography of Marie Curie and her life, as well as a riveting history of the very beginnings of the nuclear age.

See our Reading Guide for Obsessive Genius.

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