The Swedish Academy tried to get the Polish woman to renounce the award after learning that she had a relationship with a married physicist younger than her, a bomb in the Parisian press at the time.
Pierre and Marie Curie form the most famous marriage of the history of science. In 1906, just three years after having won the Nobel Prize in Physics together for his research on radiation, death separated them in the streets of Paris: a horse carriage he took Pierre ahead.
The widow was only 38 years old and had an extraordinary reputation for having become the first woman to receive an award Nobel. His scientific career continued to bear extraordinary fruit, so much so that in 1911 he would become the first person to receive two awards from the Swedish Academy, this time, the of Chemistry “For the discovery of radium and polonium, the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable chemical element”.
However, everything was about to go wrong before receiving this recognition and the reasons have nothing to do with science. Marie Curie was in a relationship with Paul Langevin, a physicist who had been her husband’s student and what was married.
Although they tried to keep the relationship in secret and rented an apartment for their meetings, Langevin’s wife knew the infidelity and decided to make it public, offering as proof letters that the lovers had exchanged. Wife outraged he wanted a divorce, custody of the children and money.
The news was a bomb in the press of the time. in his book Radioactive, the writer Lauren Redniss tells how the prestigious Curie quickly became the bad movie for having seduced a married man. They began to attack her because of her Polish origin and a rumor even circulated that she was bean. As if that were not enough, he even had to endure a manifestation at the door of your house.
The committee of Nobel had already decided, but wanted to give reverse to avoid scandal. The award ceremony and dinner with the King of Sweden could become too embarrassing for the puritanical society of the time.
The reaction in Stockholm
So Svante Arrhenius, a Swede who had won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry years before, wrote a letter to Marie Curie asking her to will stay in France. “No one can calculate what could happen here,” he argued. and made him one recommendation very explicit: “I hope you send a telegram,” he asked, “to say that does not want to accept the award before Langevin’s trial proves that the accusations against him are baseless.”
Instead, his friend Albert Einstein was of his part: “Go to Stockholm! I am convinced that you should despise this ruckus. If the mob keeps bothering you, stop reading that crap. Leave them to the vipers they were written for“.
So the winner sent another letter to Sweden to make things clear with a response as logical as it is forceful: “The award was given to me for the discovery of radium and polonium. I think there isn’t no connection between my scientific work and the facts of my private life“. So Marie went to the ceremony, in her speech she praised the figure of the late Pierre and the dinner went off as normal.
Langevin was divorced, but the damage had already been done and the love relationship could not continue, although they always maintained contact and friendship.