The Age of Curie

Making Marie Curie: Intellectual Property and Celebrity Culture in an Age of Information
By Eva Hemmungs Wirten
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015, 248 pp., $35.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Sally Gregory Kohlstedt

Why not the Age of Curie? Citing polls and other evidence of the persisting fame of Marie Curie throughout the twentieth century to the present day, Eva Hemmungs Wirten responds that Curie, because gender intervenes, is not as easily generalizable as Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and a few other men whose names designate an era. Puzzling over that exclusion alongside the very evident fame of a woman whose name inevitably leads polls naming women scientists results in a highly focused account of how the persona of Curie and her intellectual property intertwined—what Wirten terms the cultural construction of Marie Curie. With two Nobel Prizes in hand (in 1903 shared with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, and independently in 1911), Curie was seldom out of public view. How she managed her celebrity, working to balance privacy with the very strategic use of her visibility for particular causes, frames Wirten’s account; she often finds that persisting interest in not only the persona but also her personal life was a distraction difficult to ignore.

Readers should note that Wirten has already shown a deep interest in the concept of intellectual property in her book, Terms of Use: Negotiating the Jungle of the Intellectual Commons (2003). She seems to have been drawn to Curie because the scientist had both positioned herself in relationship to the idea of proprietary rights to radium and, later in life, became active in the discussion about the property rights of intellectuals. Although the book is somewhat bifurcated, as the subtitle suggests, with attention to the ways in which Curie worked during the first third of the twentieth century both to shape her scientific and public persona and to frame the broader subject of scientific intellectual property, Wirten sees a close connection between these two endeavors. A quite specific link is created when, in the 1920s, Curie is drawn into official international discussions about the issue of intellectual property at the same time that she becomes even more visible internationally through an extensive tour of the United States. In the last decade of her life, Curie quite adroitly managed her personal and professional identities, revealed as the book follows along parallel and then intersecting paths.

In the early twentieth century, intellectual property (whether operating through the legal regulation of patent, trademark, or copyright) was widely discussed, as rules were put in place and later manipulated within and across national boundaries. For scientists educated in the nineteenth century, like the Curies, the academic norm to embrace “science for science’s sake” and to welcome open exchange of information was pervasive—but the principle became less tenable in a competitive environment of publishing priority and corporate secrecy. Thus, at the turn of the century, the academically oriented Curies chose not to patent radium and even readily shared information about its preparation and effects. In Marie’s biography of her husband, Pierre Curie (1923), she takes appropriate credit for the “general scientific movement” in the dissemination and application of their work and emphasizes that the couple refused to draw any profit from the discovery of radium. She wrote, <div class="wrbciteblock">We took no copyright and published without reserve all the results of our research, as well as the exact processes of the preparation of radium. In addition, we gave to those interested whatever information they asked of us.</div>

Academic scientists in the early twentieth century valued such disinterestedness and open intellectual exchange—although, as Wirten points out, according to property law in France at the time, because Marie was a married woman, her property rights would have accrued to Pierre. According to Helena M. Pycior, in her article “Reaping the benefits of collaboration while avoiding its pitfalls: Marie Curie’s Rise to Scientific Prominence,” (in Social Studies of Science [1993]), Curie was astute about demonstrating her independent intellectual achievements and published some results in her own name, even as Pierre’s results on radium were always published with joint authorship. The decision to be open about their work was mutual, and indeed “I” and “we” occur quite interchangeably in Marie’s discussion of lives that were intimately intertwined. Nonetheless, their informal possessiveness with regard to radium would remain evident throughout their careers and become more complicated as an elaborate industry grew up around the discovery and its applications.

One counterpart to the selfless sharing of information about radium was the problem of acquiring that valuable substance for further research. Thus when the journalist Missy Meloney offered to coordinate a US trip in 1921 for Marie, by this time widowed, with the promise of securing from admirers a gram of radium for her research, a new alliance was created. Publicizing the significant and generous openness of the famous physicist, Meloney stressed both the exceptional intellectual achievements of the two-time Nobel Prize winner and the petites curies, mobile x-ray units that had been deployed at the front lines during World War I, with Curie herself involved in training soldiers how to use them. The previously reclusive Curie emerged as a woman of multiple dimensions and intentions, even as she tried to keep her personal life private.

The challenges in an “age of information” proliferated, and in the 1920s Curie engaged closely with two specific, interrelated issues regarding intellectual property. One was providing open access to scientific ideas and data through an international bibliography, and the other was establishing the rights of those who made creative discoveries. In the aftermath of World War I, the League of Nations sought to disestablish arbitrary and incompatible laws with more universal principles. Curie, along with eleven other scholars and diplomats, including Albert Einstein, was named to the League’s International Commission on Intellectual Cooperation in 1922.

The group identified a number of concerns. Perhaps the most agreed upon, although difficult to implement, was that of the creation of a scientific bibliography that would be consistently maintained, complementing other bibliographical efforts already in place, often on the national level. Updating access to publications throughout the world would minimize duplication and establish individual priority. More challenging was the issue of scientists’ right to benefit from their discoveries. French intellectuals such as the physicist Paul Langevin believed that scientists’ creative work was similar to that of artists in its moral and practical value. The French government had already recognized that artists often did not reap the profits from the resale value of their work, and established the droit de suite—an extended right to benefit from such sales. Recognizing how much corporations, including the radium industry, benefited from scientific discoveries, some scientists sought a similar solution. Members of the international commission, however, had several concerns about how to apply such a right and what it would mean for the field.

In what Wirten presents as a curious reversal of the early decision by the Curies to share their research results relating to radium, Marie Curie advocated more protection of scientific intellectual property. Wirten ponders the question of what motivated Curie’s shifting position, given her longstanding interest in the intellectual commons. Certainly her struggle to gain adequate research support, which led her to the American tour, might have been a factor. French law did more than the British and American systems to protect individual rights, so the precedents Curie knew best may also have contributed to that position. Even in France, however, there was not a uniform stance, and some colleagues did not support Curie’s direct request for support before the Academy of Medicine in 1931. What Wirten calls Curie’s “impossible notion of scientific property” was not achieved in France or by the commission, and thus the outcome remains a kind of enigma in the biography of Curie.

The role of patents changed in the twentieth century, as industrial leaders positioned themselves to take advantage of scientific discovery. Moreover, scientists often patented instruments, if not their discoveries, as had Pierre Curie, providing important income to his wife and daughters after his death. Thus, creating mechanisms to gain financially for personal needs or additional research was an idea scientists themselves put in play. Counterarguments were strong, however, given the longstanding norm of sharing research outcomes evidenced in the publication activities of scientific societies, the cumulative and collaborative nature of much scientific work, and the complexity of how and whom to charge for use of a scientific discovery. Curie’s support for some better acknowledgement of scientific innovation is clear, but how she debated these issues during the meetings of the commission is not recorded.

This book is not a biography. Susan Quinn has already written the most authoritative account to date, Marie Curie: A Life (1995), and there are numerous other essays and books that examine Curie’s life and times. Wirten provides an extensive and useful bibliographical essay as a guide through that literature. What this volume offers is insight into how Curie herself took charge of her intellectual property, including her own persona—both shaping and reflecting a rapidly changing world, in which a new capacity for celebrity raised fresh challenges about the management of information. It is the interweaving of the persona Curie cultivated, together with the conscious role she played on the international stage through her participation in the International Commission, Wirten argues, that established Curie’s prominence in the historical record of twentieth-century science. Those wanting to learn more about Curie’s scientific achievements will need to read one of the longer biographies, but this account offers a fresh perspective on Curie’s strength as an institution builder, a networked collaborator, and a woman quite aware and protective of her own intellectual property. In sum, her intellectual achievements and career contributions together offer a profile that indeed justifies thinking of the early twentieth century as the Age of Curie.

Sally Gregory Kohlstedt is a historian of science at the University of Minnesota. She studies on science as it intersects with various publics in museums, schools, and the media and recently published an edited volume with David Kaiser, Science in the American Century (2013).

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