The French Academy of Sciences turns down the membership application of Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie.
A healthy dose of sexism, racism and chauvinism, all alive and well in the rarified air of the fin de siècle
French scientific fraternity, conspired to deny Curie the seat, which was awarded instead to Edouard Branly
. He was a radio pioneer with the distinct advantage of being more French, more Catholic and, most importantly, more male than Marie Curie
In denying Curie's nomination, the Academy was willfully ignoring a gold-plated resume: Curie shared the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics for her work in isolating radium (she shared it with her husband, Pierre, and Henri Becquerel), and was a leading proponent of radium's therapeutic value.
Beyond that, she was already the head of the physics laboratory at the Sorbonne, had earned a doctorate in science and was a professor of general physics in the Faculty of Sciences, becoming the first woman to ever hold the position.
however — Curie was Polish, rumored to be Jewish (an erroneous assumption; actually, her mother was Catholic and her father an atheist), and a woman — outweighed her qualifications, at least among those who counted. As one Academy member, Emile Hilaire Amagat, stated flatly: "Women cannot be part of the Institute of France."
There was also a lot of sentiment at the Academy for Branly, whose work in wireless telegraphy had been overshadowed by the Italian Guglielmo Marconi
(driven home by Marconi winning a Nobel Prize in 1909), raising nationalist hackles back in Paris. Branly was also helped enormously by the fact that he was a physics professor at the Catholic University in Paris, deeply devout, and enjoyed the backing of the pope.
The jousting between Curie and Branly for the single open seat at the Academy of Sciences became fodder for the French press, with liberal newspapers lining up behind the freethinker Curie, and the conservatives throwing their support to Branly. Social realities being what they were, the outcome was never in doubt.
Curie reacted to the sorry affair by throwing herself into her work. Vindication
came later in the year, when she won her second Nobel, this time for Chemistry, for her work with radioactivity. She later founded the Radium Institute in her native Warsaw.
The snub by the Academy of Sciences says more about its members and their prejudices
than it does about any deficiencies on Curie's part. Curie the scientist was highly regarded by her peers, and she held numerous awards and degrees, not to mention influential posts with other, apparently less judgmental, organizations.
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