Images of Marie Curie: How Reputational Entrepreneurs Shape Iconic Identities

Lisa Alaimo, Lori Chambers, Antony Puddephatt


Marie Curie holds iconic status both within the scientific community and in the wider cultural imagination and collective memory. The first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize and the only woman to achieve such an honor twice, Curie is widely celebrated as a female pioneer in the sciences and is held up as a model for all, but particularly women, to emulate. She is revered not only as a ground-breaking scientist, but also as a devoted wife and mother who fostered intellectual passion in her own children, one of whom became the second woman to be honored with the Nobel Prize in Science. Echoing Eva Hemmungs Wirten, we argue that the evolution of Curie’s status over time offers an opportunity to use meta-biography to understand the layered nature of her reputation. We draw on Gary Alan Fine’s theory of reputational entrepreneurship to understand her legacy as a product of collective historical memory. Curie’s legacy was not pre-determined by the fact that she was a successful scientist; in fact, she was shunned by the public in France in 1911 after it was revealed that she, a widow, had engaged in an affair with a fellow married scientist. A meta-biographical analysis reveals considerable effort was put into reputation building by her Curie herself, her commercial sponsor, and family members. To ignore the earlier iterations of her reputation is to underestimate the challenges she faced as a woman in male-dominated science and in a society that judged her by a sexual double standard. Meta-biography, in conjunction with theories of intellectual reputation building and collective memory, allows us to unearth the complicated layers of Curie’s story. It also tells us a great deal about the [sexist] society in which Curie and her supporters had to forge her reputation.


Curie; women; science; reputations; biography

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Copyright (c) 2018 Lisa Alaimo, Lori Chambers, Tony Puddephatt

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