Nobelist Marie Curie Has Affair with Physicist Paul Langevin Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Marie Curie’s alleged romantic involvement with Langevin became a public scandal when his estranged wife encouraged a French newspaper to publish excerpts from Curie’s letters to Paul Langevin, thus igniting a fierce controversy that nearly ruined Curie’s career. Curie was attacked not only as a home breaker but also a Jew who had defiled a Christian home. Curie, however, was not Jewish.

Summary of Event

Marie Curie, one of the world’s most famous scientists, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 with her husband, physicist Pierre Curie, and scientist Henri Becquerel. Pierre’s sudden death in a carriage accident in 1906 left Marie bereft. She was supported during this time by one of her husband’s closest colleagues, Paul Langevin. Still relatively young at the age of thirty-eight, Curie became romantically involved with Langevin, even though he was married and the father of four children. [kw]Curie Has Affair with Physicist Paul Langevin, Nobelist Marie (1910) [kw]Langevin, Nobelist Marie Curie Has Affair with Physicist Paul (1910) Curie, Marie Langevin, Paul Curie, Marie Langevin, Paul [g]Europe;1910: Nobelist Marie Curie Has Affair with Physicist Paul Langevin[00130] [g]France;1910: Nobelist Marie Curie Has Affair with Physicist Paul Langevin[00130] [c]Public morals;1910: Nobelist Marie Curie Has Affair with Physicist Paul Langevin[00130] [c]Sex;1910: Nobelist Marie Curie Has Affair with Physicist Paul Langevin[00130] [c]Women’s issues;1910: Nobelist Marie Curie Has Affair with Physicist Paul Langevin[00130] Langevin, Jeanne

Marie Curie.

(© The Nobel Foundation)

Curie empathized with Langevin’s troubles at home: He told her of an unsympathetic wife who had no understanding of his work or of its importance. Curie’s intensive involvement in his domestic difficulties drew her into a scandal that threatened to disrupt her work as a scientist and to ruin her public reputation.

Curie’s personal story is appealing. She had grown up in Russian-occupied Poland and was denied access to higher education. On her savings from seven years as a governess, and with the help of her sister Bronia, she traveled to Paris, where she not only learned the language but also became an outstanding student and scientist and a colleague of Pierre Curie. The couple became famous for their scientific achievements and for their selfless devotion to the cause of science—refusing, for example, to patent or to profit directly from their most important discovery, the element radium.

The years between 1906 and 1910 had been stressful for Curie not only because of the loss of her husband and research partner but also because she took care of his ailing father (he died during this time as well) and coped with the responsibilities of a single mother. Curie had two young daughters, Irene and Eve, and as a devoted parent she worried over their childhood illnesses and their education (she set up a separate school for her children and the children of her colleagues). Curie, too, came to rely heavily on Langevin, a scientist she deeply respected for his work on sonar (a system that determines the position of unseen underwater objects) that developed from Pierre’s experiments with crystals. Langevin and Curie taught science at a girls’ school outside Paris.

As a woman who kept her own counsel and shared confidences only with her husband, Curie was susceptible to a person such as Langevin, who had an easy way with women and did not hesitate to tell Curie about his own domestic troubles. At one point, he came to his laboratory with bruises he said had been inflicted by his wife. A shocked and outraged Curie sent Langevin a letter suggesting that he separate from his wife, Jeanne.

Jeanne Langevin sensed the growing intimacy between her husband and Curie. On the alert to confirm her suspicions, Jeanne intercepted the Curie letter advising Langevin to leave her, and also found other intimate messages between the two. With this evidence in hand, Jeanne threatened to have the letters published in the newspaper her brother edited. She then blackmailed Curie, who had earlier given Paul five thousand francs.

In spite of Curie’s efforts to appease Jeanne, excerpts from the Curie letters were published in 1910. Curie was attacked as a home breaker and a foreigner who had taken advantage of her privileged position in France. Even more scurrilous were charges that the “Jewish” Curie had defiled a Christian home. (Curie was not Jewish.)

Curie was now a cause célèbre and the focus of xenophobic groups. Conservative newspapers attacked her morality and suggested she leave the country. Angry mobs protested her behavior, appearing at her laboratory and her home. An incensed Paul Langevin engaged in a duel with a newspaper editor—although no one was hurt.


Curie issued a statement in 1911, deploring efforts to connect her public and private lives. She refused to believe that her scientific work would be compromised by the slander. However, her colleagues in the scientific community did little to support her. Even so, she was awarded a second Nobel Prize in 1911. When the Nobel Academy asked her to not attend the ceremony (fearing public protests), she appeared nevertheless, refusing to behave as though she had done anything wrong.

It is perhaps this courageous and defiant act that helped to restore Curie’s public reputation. After all, it was her indomitable character and rectitude that had contributed so much to her prestige and made her one of the world’s most admired individuals. Although Curie never publicly acknowledged her affair with Langevin, she prudently cut off intimate contacts with him—a tacit acknowledgment of the impropriety of continuing a relationship that had aroused so much public ire.

Although the Curie-Langevin affair continued to be a public controversy until 1913, winning the second Nobel Prize enhanced Curie’s standing—as did her efforts on behalf of France in World World War I[World War 01];and Marie Curie[Curie] War I. She was instrumental in establishing an ambulance corps with mobile x-ray units, so that soldiers on the battlefield could receive immediate and expert medical care. This unflagging effort on behalf of her adopted country did much to restore and augment Curie’s reputation.

Had Curie not maintained her proud, unbending persona during the scandal and had she not attempted to placate public opinion, the damage to her reputation might have been much greater. Instead, the affair became a lamentable but understandable lapse in an otherwise exemplary career.

Biographers have varied in their treatment of the affair. Curie’s daughter, Eve, did not allude to it in her biography of her mother, and other biographers have given the affair only brief attention. Some have doubted that Curie and Langevin were lovers, although biographer Susan Quinn established that the couple rented a flat near the Sorbonne so they could meet, which certainly suggests an intimate and illicit liaison, judging by the standards of the time. Other biographers have been keenly interested in how the affair revealed their subject’s personality and have devoted entire chapters to the scandal. Curie, Marie Langevin, Paul

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brian, Denis. The Curies: A Biography of the Most Controversial Family in Science. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2005. Surveys the most notable biographies of Marie Curie but also takes into account subsequent generations and how both the Curies and their biographers have treated the affair with Langevin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curie, Eve. Madame Curie: A Biography. Translated by Vincent Sheean. 1938. New ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 2001. Although Eve does not discuss the Langevin affair, she provides an intimate and eloquent view of her mother’s personality that no biographer or student of Curie can afford to overlook.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Giroud, Françoise. Marie Curie: A Life. Translated by Lydia Davis. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1986. A good narrative work that includes a discussion of the Langevin affair and how Curie’s reputation survived this temporary setback.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldsmith, Barbara. Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. A careful look at the woman as well as the scientist, this biography draws on archival material newly released and on interviews with Marie Curie’s family.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey. Marie Curie: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. A comprehensive biography that includes discussion of the sexism Curie faced and of the Langevin affair. Contains an annotated bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Quinn, Susan. Marie Curie: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. One of the most thorough discussions of the Langevin affair. Draws on extensive primary sources, including Curie’s letters to Langevin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rollyson, Carl. Marie Curie: Honesty in Science. New York: iUniverse, 2004. One of the few children’s biographies of Curie that deals with the Langevin affair. Includes extensive commentary on other Curie biographies, and features study questions.

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Categories: History