A Tale of Two Sisters: Eve and Irene Curie
Marie Curie is a household name in the right sorts of households, the woman who walked into the fraternity of nineteenth century physics and carved out a legend for herself. Her name is synonymous with radioactivity, not just because she invented the term “radioactivity” but because the unit of measure for it is her last name. Curie is still the only person to receive two Nobel Prizes in different sciences, work that did not come without a steep price. She died at age 66 due to complications of decades of exposure to radiation. Her journals and papers are still so radioactive today that they are stored in lead lined boxes and cannot be handled without protection. But Marie’s history is relatively well known, still taught in the history books, the subject of several films. Her two daughters on the other hand are a story waiting to be told.
Irene and Eve were born seven years apart in France, right around the turn of the century. For a couple of years, their education was seen to by a commune of geniuses, as the Curies and several other notable intellectuals simply took turns teaching all of their respective children. Imagine being home schooled by your friends’ parents, all of whom used Nobel Prizes and the like as paperweights. The two sisters diverged early, Irene following her parents into science, Eve turning to the humanities.
When the First World War scorched the north of France, Irene joined her mother in the hospital tents, using primitive X-ray machines to locate shrapnel in wounded soldiers, a torrent of radiation burned into patient and doctor for every life saved. Irene was the scientist, following closely in her mother’s footsteps, specializing in radioactivity and winning her own Nobel Prize in 1935 for managing to transmute elements from one to another. It was alchemy made reality, though stained with radioactive instability.
Eve was the black sheep of the family, an artist instead of a scientist. The two sisters took care of their mother in the last years of her life, as she succumbed to aplastic anemia finally in 1934. While Irene spent the years after the death of their mother making her own name in nuclear physics, Eve wrote the first biography of Marie Curie.
Irene and her husband were pioneers in the research that proved nuclear fission possible, and when Hitler invaded Poland, they broke with their long standing rule of always sharing their findings, never patenting them out of respect for the need for science to be wholly open. They hid their fission research in a vault for the duration of the war. By this point, Irene began to get sick, and was convalescing in Switzerland when France fell to the Germans. Throughout the course of the war, she crossed the border into the occupation to visit her children, before finally managing to smuggle them back with her to Switzerland.
Eve’s experiences during World War II were even more adventurous. She fled to England when France fell, and joined the Free French forces there. Gaining access from her mother’s name that would have been barred to nearly anyone else, she set out on a world tour of the allied war zones. Visiting the front and writing dispatches from Africa, Asia, and the Russian Front, she compiled fascinating interviews with both common soldiers and leaders who would become household names after the war. Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, Zou Enlai, Churchill, the Shah of Iran. It was like Forrest Gump if the protagonist had twice the IQ. The dispatches were published in a volume called Journey Among Warriors, was nominated (though it lost) for a Pulitzer, and sadly faded out of print after the forties. Sixty year old copies can still be tracked down used from either Amazon or musty old book stores.
The dangers of early research into radiation doomed Irene to a young death, of leukemia at age 58, which doesn’t seem exceptionally young until one realizes that her younger sister outlived her by another fifty years.
Eve married an American diplomat in 1954, a man who in 1965 was appointed to head UNICEF. During her time as the “first lady” of UNICEF, she visited over a hundred countries. He received a Noble Prize on behalf of the organization the same year. Which led to Eve’s frequent joke that “there were five Nobel Prizes in my family. Two for my mother, one for my father, one for my sister and brother-in-law and one for my husband. Only I was not successful.”
Eve died in 2007 at the age of 102, having seen the span of the twentieth century.
This is a story that would make a fantastic movie, though it has somewhere in the neighborhood of a zero percent chance of ever happening. The story has a great tension between the scientist and the artist, set against the backdrop of revolutions in science and two World Wars. So, it’d be totally easy to make on a small budget. The actresses are the main thing, two female leads able to convincingly play quite a range of years. The two that spring to mind immediately are Kate Winslet (as Eve) and Helena Bonham Carter (as Irene). The bulk of the movie, the middle hour or so, should focus on the World War II period, the period when the sisters are apart, letting the structure of the film progress from sisters together, apart, together, and finally the survivor toiling on alone.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.