A visit to the Curie Museum/Institute of Radium
October 5, 2017 9:08am CST
I visited the Curie Museum in Paris for the first time yesterday. I studied not far from there in the 1980’s, and I never had the idea to visit it. It is on a science campus and I was thinking that a science student card was needed to enter. There were guards on any entrance of my faculty at the time, maybe because this faculty was known to host the most active far-right extremists in France. If you ask me what I was doing there, it was because they had/have the best library for compared laws in France, and I had no way to collect law data from other countries through internet in the 1980’s. Another motivation would have been to meet young girls from rich families that their parents were sending there for a year to find a PhD student to marry, but I had not thought at this bonus. However, coming from a provincial university where far-right students were dangerous nuts less civilized than in Paris, and not knowing how I would be welcomed, I went there with a suit and a tie under my beard, but I realized quickly that Assas had not only far-right students : if Marine Le Pen studied there, it was also the case for our previous socialist president Hollande and for many French ministers from all political parties. I noticed yesterday that the guards were still present, now with a light blue uniform looking a bit like an US policeman uniform... Nothing like that on the Curie campus. I had brought my IDs, and was thinking that I would perhaps not be admitted, and I saw nobody at the gate. This campus hosts some of the best French students in Chemistry and Mathematics, and I perhaps crossed several future Nobel prizes, apparently it is less sensible than to host future politicians. Speaking of Nobel prizes, Marie Curie still owns a record : she is the only person who got 2 Nobel prizes in 2 different scientific domains, in physics in 1903, shared with Henri Becquerel and her husband Pierre, and in chemistry in 1911. She has been the first woman to receive a Nobel prize and a Davy Medal (in 1903). She was also the only woman to be invited to the first Solvay Congress in 1911, with people like Planck, Einstein or Rutherford. It is weird to realize how small was the Institute where she worked. It is a small house inside the campus with a small garden behind where there are today a few benches and a statue of her with her husband. On the balcony, there is a real-size photo of her from the 1920’s looking at this garden from this same balcony. It is touching. There are two main parts in this museum, a brand new large room telling the history of her researches and showing several of her instruments, and an old part which is the most emotional : her office has been kept like it was, and also her laboratory, reconstituted after a complete decontamination in 1981. She was working only on the medical aspects of radioactivity, and was hoping to cure any cancer with it. There is an explanatory board telling that she raised two times funds in the USA, each time to buy 1 gram of radium for her studies. At her death she gave one of these grams to the Institute, provided that her daughter Irène would be authorized to continue to work with it. Irène Joliot-Curie received another Nobel prize in chemistry with her husband, the year after the death of her mother, in 1935, to have discovered natural radioactivity. Irène and her husband have been members of the Atomic Energy Commission that developped the first French atomic bomb (the first miligram of Plutonium in France was produced in a Joliot-Curie factory in 1949), but there is not a word about it in the museum, that insists only on the medical aspect targeted by Pierre and Marie Curie. The second gram of radium collected with US funds was offered to the university of Warsaw : although she studied and worked only in France, and received the French citizenship, Marie Curie never forgot her Polish origins, and she also called one of the radioactive elements that she discovered «polonium». Both Marie and Irène died from leucemia due to radioactivity... The visit of this historical place is really interesting, and I recommend it. It is opened from Wednesdays to Saturdays during the academic year, and on Wednesdays and Saturdays during academic holidays. The entrance is free.
11 people like this
@JohnRoberts Only in the official part opened to the public. The entrance was not far from our home. I was offered to visit the "underground" catacombs, but I refused. Now, it is fashionable to go there, and there is even a special police in the unopened parts of the catacombs, it was not at this time.
The story of the Curie Institute is interesting. It was created by the university on the proposal of Emile Roux, who was directing the Pasteur Institute and would have himself deserved a Nobel prize in Medicine to have discovered the first serum against diphtheria. I am proud of my country to have trained and kept her in France. Today many talented French scientists are forced to migrate because they do not find jobs in French universities.
@topffer You are right to be proud of your country. Italy has the same situations, the scientists and researchers migrate, but for Italy it has always been the case if you look at the geniuses of the past. My cousin is a scientific researcher, he works in Austria.
@LadyDuck It is a sad situation, due to the lack of money to recruit searchers. Marie Curie has been helped by the Rotschild foundation in the 1920's and was raising funds for her researches... France trains good scientists, and it has a cost for the state because college studies are (quite) free, so it is stupid to not provide them a job. I have two archeologists friends who are working in the USA. One had married an American, it was a good reason to settle there, but the other one left because the work he was expecting in a French college was not coming,and he had good proposals in Canada and the USA... The brother of my sister-in-law is an engineer and works in Washington DC since more than 20 years. He will never come back.
The lab has been completely dissassembled to decontaminate it in 1981 in order to open it to the public. It is what I read, I had no Geiger counter with me. Anyways we receive natural radiations everyday, more or less depending where we live, and spending an hour there cannot add a lot. I would be more reluctant to work in this museum.
• El Paso, Texas
Yeah, I wouldn't want to work there either @topffer and I still wouldn't want to visit it. What is in the natural world is one thing but when mankind tampers with stuff like that it becomes different. I don't trust what humans do in reference to chemicals.
• United States
I had not known there was a museum dedicated to the Curies. But this is also the location of where their research was conducted or was it moved there? And an entire science campus was constructed around the institute (how appropriate, well as long as all was decontaminated!). I wonder why her daughter is not mentioned in the museum, but perhaps the focus is solely on the discoveries of Pierre and Marie. Oh I would totally take advantage of going to such a museum (is this like a university?). I graduated from college life a long time ago, but it's only been in the past decade or so that I have begun to explore various college campuses with a fine tooth comb . . . only to discover there is so much that I didn't realize was there - and why had I not ventured these things sooner!
She was not rich when she came in France... like many students. She got a special prize targeted to help poor students during her studies. After her Nobel prizes, I would not tell that she was rich, although Nobels are receiving good checks, but she had very good wages for a college scientist in France.
It is only in the 1920's that Marie Curie suspected that radioactivity could be also dangerous for health. Her coffin is now in the Pantheon of our great "men" (she was the first woman admitted there), and they put another lead coffin around when they realized that her body had been mummified by radiations.