Owning your science - and your self

Marie Curie was a huge celebrity during her lifetime and is still regarded as one of history's most inspiring female scientists. In a new book, Eva Hemmungs Wirtén details the emergence of Marie Curie –the icon and the brand – and the interests that keep her on top.

Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize twice. In "Making the Marie Curie. Intellectual Property and Celebrity Culture in an Age of Information", Eva Hemmungs Wirtén takes a closer look at how Curie’s icon status was constructed. But it is just as much a story on views of ownership – of science and of the early twentieth century woman.

Eva Hemmungs Wirtén is professor of mediated culture at Linköping University. For more than fifteen years she has done research on the cultural history of copyright, but has increasingly taken an interest in the role of patents and intellectual property rights in research and science. The book at hand is the result of three years of research on Marie Curie and is based on correspondence, contemporary media coverage and Marie Curie's own writings.

In 1898 Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie announced that they had discovered radium. This new chemical element was a sensation: it glowed in the dark and could be used to treat cancer. But the Curies chose not to patent their discovery.

“It’s an act that seems a bit odd today, when we have become accustomed to a system where as much as possible is patented, even by universities. The Curies wanted to keep the knowledge of radium open”, says Prof Hemmungs Wirtén.

While Marie Curie was a formidable name in the scientific world, as a woman she had little power in the society she worked in. She had no property rights or voting rights. Against this background we can consider Marie Curie's decision not to patent radium. Given that she was not able to own anything, she had nothing to lose.

“Under French law Marie Curie was not a person. As with children and the mentally ill, married women were considered incapable. But how could an incapable woman become the world’s most famous?”

By way of Marie Curie's career, Prof Hemmungs Wirtén takes the reader on a journey through modern science and the emergence of the information society. She also gives an insight into how Marie Curie gained celebrity status in the early 1900s – a celebrity that has not diminished. Poland, her former homeland for which she named a chemical element (polonium), and France, her home for most of her adult life, both try to bask in her glory. Institutions, museums and archives help to maintain the Marie Curie brand. She is the "most inspirational female scientist" as voted by New Scientist magazine readers, and children read about her in school.

“An important aim of my book is to show how the Marie Curie actively created his own persona and how consciously she worked to become 'Marie Curie'. It does not make her less of a role model, but it presents a different and rather unknown side of the world's most famous female scientist,” says Prof Hemmungs Wirtén.

The book:
Making Marie Curie: Intellectual Property and Celebrity Culture in an Age of Information. Publisher: University of Chicago Press.