Pierre Curie in profile
A few days before his death, Pierre was cautiously optimistic about the progress he and Marie were making in their attempt to make precise measurements of the radioactive gas that radium emitted. He also thought of returning to the studies of crystal symmetries he had set aside when their joint work began. (Photo ACJC)

A Fatal Accident

LIFE WAS SEEMING A BIT ROSIER to Pierre Curie in the spring of 1906. During the family's recent Easter holiday in the country, he had enjoyed watching the efforts of 8-year-old Irène to net butterflies and of 14-month-old Eve to keep her footing on the uneven turf. More crucially, perhaps, Pierre had become involved in his work again.

Pierre Curie's agenda for Thursday, April 19, 1906, was that of a man fully engaged in both professional and social life. After a luncheon of the Association of Professors of the Science Faculties, he was scheduled to go over proofs with his publisher and to visit a nearby library. He was looking forward to entertaining a number of fellow scientists at the Curie home that evening.

PIERRE CURIE WAS NOT FATED to complete that day's activities. After working in the laboratory all morning, he braved the heavy rain, umbrella in hand, and traveled across Paris to his luncheon meeting. There he spoke forcefully on a number of issues that concerned him, including widening career options for junior faculty and drafting legal codes to help prevent laboratory accidents.

After the meeting was over he headed out toward his publisher in the rain, only to find that the doors were locked because of a strike. Hurrying to cross the street, he was run over by a horse-drawn wagon with a load of military uniforms, weighing some six tons. He was killed instantly.

painting of Paris street on a rainy day
When Pierre's father learned that his son had been killed crossing a Paris street in traffic on a rainy day, he said, “What was he dreaming of this time?” (Painting by Childe Hassam, 1893)

“He wasn't careful enough when he was walking in the street, or when he rode his bicycle. He was thinking of other things.” --Pierre Clerc, the Sorbonne lab assistant who identified Curie's body
MARIE DID NOT LEARN the news that would transform her life until that evening. In shock, she began to attend to the necessary arrangements. She sent Irène next door to spend a few days with the neighbors, telegrammed the news to her family in Poland, and arranged to have the body brought to the house. Only after Pierre's older brother, Jacques, arrived the next day from Montpellier did she break down briefly. The news of Pierre Curie's death was carried in newspapers around the world, and Marie was inundated by letters and telegrams.

The day after the funeral was notable for two reasons. Encouraged by Jacques, Marie returned to her work. Also, Jacques informed Marie that the French government proposed to support her and the children with a state pension. Marie was adamant in her refusal, insisting that she was perfectly capable of supporting herself and the children.

“Crushed by the blow, I did not feel able to face the future. I could not forget, however, what my husband used to say, that even deprived of him, I ought to continue my work.”

If Marie was firm in rejecting the government's offer of support, she was less certain how to respond to an unexpected offer from the Sorbonne. On May 13, 1906, the university invited her to take up Pierre's academic post. By doing so, she hoped, she could one day establish, as a tribute to Pierre's memory, a state-of-the-art lab such as he had never had. It was not enough to be a teacher and researcher. She would have to learn how to create a scientific institution.

Life Goes On

Marie Curie at the time of Pierre's death

(above) Marie on the balcony of the Dluski apartment on rue d'Allemagne, Paris. In the diary Marie began 11 days after Pierre's death, she described putting a copy of this picture in Pierre's coffin: “it was the picture of the one you chose as your companion....” (Photo ACJC)

READ Curie's words

Curie family gravestone
Curie family gravestone. Pierre was buried with his mother in the Curie family plot in Sceaux, on the outskirts of Paris, where eventually his father and Marie joined them. Many years later Pierre and Marie were reinterred in the Panthéon, the national sepulcher for the most eminent French citizens. (Photo ACJC)
© 2000 - American Institute of Physics