In November of 1911, an angry Albert Einstein wrote to Marie Curie to tell her how upset he was with criticism in France over the possibility of her being inducted into the French Academy of Sciences. In a newly discovered letter, Einstein expresses his support of the renowned scientist who was facing withering criticism over her ethnicity and personal life.
Marie Curie was an acclaimed scientist at the time, and continues to be well known for her work even by school children today. She held the distinction of being the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in physics in 1903 for her work with her husband in the field of radiation. In 1911, she again won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, making her additionally the first woman, and the first person, to win two Nobel Prizes. She is also the only person to win the Prize in more than one science and only woman to win in two fields.
Curie was being considered as a candidate for a seat in the Academy. The other candidate was Edouard Branley, a scientist who had worked with Marconi in the invention of the wireless telegraphy.
The attacks on Curie that incensed Einstein began as soon as it became known of her interest in the Academy. Curie was criticized by right-wing newspapers for being Jewish, an atheist, and because she was having an affair with a married man estranged from his wife. A report by the Daily Mail tells of a French newspaper’s astonishment that a woman would be considered for the Academy, and went on to say that an analysis of her facial features and handwriting was an indication that she was secretly Jewish.
Marie Curie and Albert Einstein had met previously. Einstein respected the work she had done with her husband and other prominent scientists. The criticism angered Einstein so much that he wrote to encourage her to ignore the critics. As a Jew, Einstein had experienced discriminatory treatment in Germany before he arrived in the United States, and so was sensitive to prejudice of all types. Antisemitism was an issue at that time in France as it is today.
In his letter, beginning with “Highly esteemed Mrs. Curie,” Einstein said, “I have come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty, and that I consider myself lucky to have made your personal acquaintance in Brussels.”
Einstein went on to describe her critics as reptiles, and told her to ignore “that hogwash.” His support continued in later years when Einstein wrote of Curie, “Her strength, her purity of will, her austerity toward herself, her objectivity, her incorruptible judgement— all these were of a kind seldom found joined in a single individual…”
Ultimately, Curie missed her appointment to the Academy by a very narrow margin. This did not discourage her, however, and Curie went on in further work to help to develop portable X-ray equipment that was used in World War I in treating wounded soldiers. However, Albert Einstein’s letter was a protest of the kind of ethnic and gender discrimination that existed then and continues to be an issue today.