The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science (2010).

Author:Nelson, Cameron R.
Position:Book review

The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science (2010)

Julie Des Jardins

The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 312 pp.


The tales of science learned as school-aged children are often focused on outcomes, rather than the lives of the scientists whose work produced these results. Understandably, these results are used to teach theories and laws of science; however, our scientific education is short sighted when it lauds the end result without regard to the sacrifices made by the pioneers of science. In particular, women's scientific accomplishments and sacrifices made to achieve success are often misunderstood and less prominent than those of their male contemporaries. In The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science, Julie Des Jardins documents holistic stories of women scientists, exploring not only their particular scientific achievements, but also their personal and professional challenges. As it provides an important perspective on the professional and academic challenges of the culture of research itself, this text has particular value for research leaders, executives, administrators, and managers.


The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science appeals to both the research scientist and the historian alike. Des Jardins deftly describes each woman's scientific contributions in a manner that honors the research conducted, while remaining accessible to those more interested in the historical aspect of each woman's story. To tell the stories of women seemingly connected only by a shared gender and interest in disparate scientific fields, Des Jardins organizes this book into three historical periods, roughly spanning the twentieth century: 1) Assistants, Housekeepers, and Interchangeable Parts: Women Scientists and Professionalization, 1880-1940; 2) The Cult of Masculinity in the Age of Heroic Science, 1941-1962; and 3) American Women and Science in Transition, 1962-.

In the first section of the book, Des Jardins describes precisely the titular difficulty that has plagued women in science for decades. In her work, Marie Curie deliberately focused on "pure science," rather than humanistic or ideological applications for radium. As Des Jardins describes, Curie believed that her work with radium should not be a possession of an agenda or cause beyond science itself. Yet, as Curie embarked on an American tour to raise funds for her work, there was concern that the public would not embrace a woman working for science itself. A public relations strategy took hold that recast Curie's motivation from science to charitable benevolence, forcing Curie to be seen through the lens of the cultural norm of the time. This carefully crafted combination of...

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