Thursday, 5 July 2012

The Paris Archives: The Death of Pierre Curie

Inspired by my previous Paris Archives post on road-traffic accidents in the city, reader Cynthia hoped that I would be able to unearth more details on the incident that claimed the life of Nobel prize winner Pierre Curie in 1906.

"When I was last in Paris I went to the little museum based in what was their laboratory and workroom and purchased a biography of Madame Curie. However, I have not been able to find out very much about the circumstances of Pierre's death, except that it was an accident in the street. Could you find out more?", she asked. 

Given that it was an accident that involved a well-known personality and included many gruesome and maudlin elements, it should come as no surprise to learn that the incident was indeed widely covered in the press - and often in extreme detail!

Le Matin, Friday April 20th, 1906

Although Pierre Curie's death was a major news story on April 20th - the day after the accident - it was not the day's headline and was somewhat overshadowed by the terrible San Francisco earthquake that had occurred the same day. Nevertheless, it was front page news in just about all of the major French titles. One newspaper though went a little bit further than all the others in its reporting.

All newspapers explained in detail the events leading up to the accident, the accident itself and its aftermath, but only Le Matin provided readers with a photo of the horse and cart involved as well as a hand-sketched map of where the accident took place. (Click here to read the full story in Le Matin).

The 'killer cart', with a cross indicating which wheel 'crushed the skull of Mr Curie'.
As the map below shows, the accident took place on the Rue Dauphine, at its angle with the Quai des Grands Augustins and opposite the Pont Neuf. According the Le Matin, this crossroads was one of the most notorious blackspots for pedestrians in the city, despite the fact that at all times there were two police officers posted here to control the traffic.

For the newspaper, the danger came from the fact that a downhill slope leads from the Pont Neuf directly into the Rue Dauphine, and that vehicles often found it difficult to stop in time when confronted with careless pedestrians.

And it seems that there was no doubt that Pierre Curie had been careless. According to one website, colleagues and family seemed instantly to understand how such an incident could have happened. Pierre Clerc, one of Curie's lab assistants stated to Police that Curie “wasn't careful enough when he was walking in the street, or when he rode his bicycle. He was thinking of other things.” This was an opinion shared by Pierre Curie's father who when told of his son's death could only cry “what was he dreaming of this time?

So what exactly did happen at this point on the afternoon of April 19th 1906? One of the key factors seems to have been the rain that had been falling heavily that day. Pierre Curie had been at a lunch with colleagues, and was in a hurry to get to another appointment with his editor on the Quai Conti. As he arrived at the intersection with the Rue Dauphine, he tried to quickly run across the road, but unfortunately his momentum took him straight into the path of a horse and cart. After being hit by one of the horses, he slipped onto the road and under the wheels of the cart, which killed him instantly (for a particularly gruesome account, read the article published in L'Humanité).

The map in Le Matin, describing the 'théatre de l'accident' (a phrase that outlines perhaps its dramatic nature for readers) contains two possible paths for Curie, one in front of a carriage travelling towards the Pont Neuf, and one behind it. This would become a key point of the investigation as if Pierre Curie had run out from behind a carriage, the driver of the horse and cart could not have been expected to see him and to stop in time. This scenario was later confirmed by eyewitness accounts.

When the accident occurred, Pierre Curie was just an anonymous city pedestrian, but according to L'Humanité he was immediately recognised. They quote the passer-by as saying "Mais c'est M. le Docteur Curie, l'inventeur du radium, qui vient d'être écrasé", which would seem a rather strange and precise thing for someone who had just witnessed such a terrible event to say. Nevetheless, once this fact had been established, the emotion was all the greater at the scene.

Newspaper accounts of the incident did not end there though, but continued with details on how news of the scientist's death was broken to his family. Pierre Curie lived with his wife Marie, their two daughters, and his father in a house on the Boulevard Kellermann (since demolished) at the extreme limit of the city. When the police (and presumably journalists) arrived, only his father was home, but all of these people waited patiently until Marie finally came home from a day out with her eldest daughter, future Nobel prize winner Irène.

Le Matin - once again - reports that when she was told the news, Marie did not immediately react at all, and seemed not to have heard. Although she did break down afterwards, she also remained remarkably composed, ordering the Police to bring her husband's body to the house and not to perform an autopsy (which she pointed out would be completely pointless).

She was also very clear in her instructions in the days afterwards, respecting Pierre's wishes that there should be no special events or ceremonies following his death. Indeed, she ensured that he would be buried in the family tomb in Sceaux, that only family would be admitted to the very private funeral and that people should send neither flowers nor crowns. Nearly ninety years later though, Pierre and Marie were of course moved to the Pantheon.

Marie also refused the French government's offer of a pension, but did accept the offer from the Sorbonne University to take her husband's post, becoming the institution's first female professor. The accident - though a terrible event she never truly recovered from - in some ways forced her from her husband's shadow, and she accomplished many further remarkable things in the fields of physics and chemistry - all proudly with her husband's name - until her own death nearly 30 years later.


Richard Ewen said...

Very interesting article. Pedestrian accidents still happen all too frequently with the same disregard for crossing the street safely. People are even often killed trying to cross freeways. What a way to become the first female professor at the Sorbonne!

chasing lightning bugs said...

what a fascinating tale. thank you for the research. i love your blog.

cynbook said...

Adam, I had no idea my inquiry would have such an interesting and sad story behind it. Thank you so much for all the research. I will print it out and add to my book about M. Curie.

Paris Rendez-vous said...

Fantastic post Adam....rue Dauphin will never seem the same to me now. J'adore votre make Paris so much more interesting. A bientot.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing...

Nzwan said...

Watch the movie last nite Madame Curie on TCM. Amazing.... and sad how this grest man lost his life... brought tears to my eyes.... carved the future for great Science... Thanks....

wayne said...

Thanks for this article. I recently found out my mother who died 13 years ago or so was the reincarnation of Marie Curie. I just cried out feelings from the day Pierre died that I absorbed from my mother...she indeed was a chemist when she was my mother...but put family over career....I know who Irene is too...a high school classmate of mine....souls travel together sometimes...

Ivica said...

An interesting side note, in William Gibson's novel "All Tomorrow's Parties" it is suggested that Mr. Curie's death has some particular historic importance, which is never specified. After reading the blog post, I am certain that what connects this unfortunate event to the plot of the book is the other piece of news related to San Francisco (the location where the events in the novel take place).

philippe said...

My grandparents were contemporary of this event and always said to their daughter (my mother) that Pierre Curie was worried by the fact that Marie deceived him (a love affair with a lab's guy). For that reason, he crossed without paying attention...
offical version / unofficial ...
what's your own oppinion about that ?

Anonymous said...

Quite possible that's how many distractions play factors in everyday momentary decisions and accidents.

Hels said...

The death of Pierre Curie was a tragedy, just like everyone else who needlessly dies in road accident. But he was sooo famous as a professor, writer, researcher, Nobel Prize winner and husband of a genius. So why did his death receive so little public attention? And why were the funeral and burial so secretive? Not because of personal modesty, surely.

If it happened today, I would be guessing that the Russians poisoned him or the Americans shot a missile onto his carriage.

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