the web site of Austin-based writer Eileen Mcginnis.


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“Thank You for Being a Friend”: Marie Curie, Hertha Ayrton, + the Physics of Friendship

"Tracked down by physical ills and human baseness, [Curie] hid herself like a beast at bay…. In the summer her friend, Mrs. Ayrton, received her and her daughters in a peaceful house on the English coast. There she found care and protection."    - Ève Curie, Madame Curie (1937)


We’re supposed to present our best, most air-brushed and accomplished selves online, but here’s the ungainly truth: my husband and I are failing at friendship.

For the past two years, Sol and I have invited fellow parents-of-young-children to casual dinners at our house, park playdates, etc. in hopes of extending our social circle in Austin. Occasionally, these get-togethers actually happen! And they’re often nice, if distracted, exchanges with other grown-ups. But it takes thought and effort for these gatherings to materialize, and rarely does anyone reciprocate our invitations.

I understand that the best-laid plans are quickly felled by the fourth case of pink-eye this year or a toddler meltdown on the front lawn as you’re heading out the door. That parents by definition have busy lives, with little attention and energy left over for their possible romantic partners, let alone other adults.

I’m starting to wonder, though – is it us?

I have this idealized image of future BFFs who breezily stop over at a moment’s notice for lazy summer night barbecues (never mind that it’s 100+ degrees here in August and nobody would actually want to be outside near a grill). We kvetch over cocktails while our kids run around in the yard, stay up past their bedtimes, and grow up to squabble like siblings.

Here’s the core of this fantasy: it’s easy. Unlike everything else about being a parent. A natural intermingling of families and lives. The vibe is relaxed, which is why my imagination sets this friendship in a clichéd white middle-class suburban summer.

The friendship between physicists Marie Curie and Hertha Ayrton did not unfold in a context of simplicity or ease. There was death. Drama. Scandal.

Yet, I find myself longing (absurdly) to rent a vacation house with Hertha, Marie, and their daughters, on the English coast, in the summer of 1912.

How do you write about an icon like the two-time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie? A scientist whose mythology is so dazzling that it has actually become a stumbling block for future generations of women drawn to science? (Historian Julie Des Jardins refers to this phenomenon as the “Madame Curie complex.”)

In this case, you side-step the challenge by (1) referring readers to an excellent biography of Pierre and Marie and (2) focusing on Curie’s friend Hertha instead. 

Hertha Ayrton in her home lab.

Hertha Ayrton in her home lab.

I first heard of the British physicist and inventor Hertha Ayrton via this dry observation of hers, penned when she took to the Westminster Gazette to defend Curie’s reputation:

Errors are notoriously hard to kill, but an error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat.

Ayrton was responding to accusations that Marie’s discovery of radioactivity had been overstated, that she had piggybacked on Pierre’s research and reputation.

But the quote beautifully encapsulates a more general tendency known as the Matilda effect: the historic misattribution, underreporting, or neglect of women scientists’ contributions relative to their male colleagues.

This quote also gets at the root of a deep sympathy between Hertha and Marie, two scientists married to men working in the same field. The respectful collaboration they found with their partners was, needless to say, not reciprocated in the larger world. Ayrton, for example, was the first woman proposed as a fellow to the Royal Society, but she was ultimately denied membership on the basis of her marital status. After a bitter and slanderous campaign against her in the press, Curie lost her bid for the post of physicist at the French Academy of Sciences.

Widowed in 1906 and 1908, respectively, Marie and Hertha created a fledgling family of their own. They attempted, at least for one short summer, to replicate the support that their partners had provided.

Curie and Ayrton first met in 1903, when Pierre and Marie traveled to the Royal Institute in London. From that time on, Hertha and Marie kept in touch regularly, and Ayrton had visited Curie in Paris.

But it was in 1912 that Marie would come to rely most heavily on Hertha’s friendship.

The French press had recently exposed Curie’s affair with the unhappily married Paul Langevin (a former protégé of Pierre's). In the resulting backlash, colleagues attempted to dissuade her from traveling Stockholm in December 1911 to receive her second Nobel, this time in chemistry (though she also had the support of famous friends). The scandal reached a fever pitch when an angry mob threatened Curie and her daughters at their home in Sceaux, forcing them to flee to Paris.

In the aftermath, Curie suffered from depression and illness. So, Ayrton hatched the plan for Marie’s trip to the British seaside. She made all of the travel arrangements for Curie’s visit to Highcliffe, in Dorset, without attracting unwanted press attention.

The house in Highcliffe where Curie and Ayrton stayed together in 1912.

The house in Highcliffe where Curie and Ayrton stayed together in 1912.

The women were soon joined by Marie’s daughters – 14-year-old Irène and 7-year-old Ève, along with their governess. Hertha’s twenty-something daughter Barbara, now a suffragist in her own right, would also join them. Another visitor was fellow suffragist Evelyn Sharp, who would write a biography of Ayrton in 1926. As Sharp remembered it:

We were a merry party in spite of many preoccupations: the children saw to that. Irène Curie already showed promise of the genius for mathematics one would expect to find in one bearing her name … little Eve, adored by her mother and spoilt by everyone else who came under her sway.

The scene that unfolded was this idyllic mix of math and motherhood, sun and solidarity. Still not strong enough to work after her kidney operation, Marie could focus on her daughters; she kept a personal journal with observations about their progress and personalities. Hertha also bonded with the girls, conversing about advanced math with Irène and accompanying the lively Ève on piano. 

Their two months together had the intended restorative effect. Later that year, in December 1912, Marie would resume observations in her lab notebook for the first time in fourteen months.

It's not surprising that Ayrton played such a strong, sustaining role for her friend Curie in a time of vulnerability. What strikes me about Ayron’s life story is that it was so woman-centered.

Ayrton was born Sarah Phoebe Marks in 1854. Her mother was British; her father, a Jewish refugee fleeing persecution in tsarist Poland. As a teenager, Sarah changed her name to “Hertha,” which means “earth goddess” in German. Her friend Ottilie had initially given her the nickname, after the ambitious heroine of a feminist novel.

As a young suffragist, Hertha met the women’s rights activist Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, who would fund Ayrton’s higher education in math at Girton College, Cambridge. 

Hertha's daughter Barbara (left), taking up her mother's suffragist mantle.

Hertha's daughter Barbara (left), taking up her mother's suffragist mantle.

In 1884, Hertha began taking courses in electricity given by the widower William Ayrton, an electrical engineer and physics educator. They married a year later, and Hertha became a stepmother to William's 4-year-old daughter Edith. In 1886, the couple also had a daughter of their own. Hertha named her Barbara, in honor of her feminist patron.

Hertha's scientific accomplishments were numerous. Working with her husband, Hertha made independent discoveries about electric arcs, which were used at the time in street lights; she developed the theory connecting the length of arc with pressure and voltage. In 1899, she read her paper on electric arcs before the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE). She was the first woman ever to do so, and was soon elected its first female member.

A prolific inventor, Hertha also took out some 26 patents in her lifetime. Her work as a physicist and an inventor sometimes dovetailed in fascinating ways. For instance, her study of the formation of sand ripples by oscillations of water led her to develop a device called the Ayrton fan, used in World War I to push deadly gases out of the trenches.

Despite her devotion to science, Ayrton never abandoned the feminist ideals of her youth. Her home in London would become a refuge and gathering place for suffragists. Her stepdaughter Edith would help to found the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage. Ayrton's daughter Barbara would live up to her namesake, becoming a militant suffragist jailed for her activities and, in the 1940s, a Labour Party politician.

After that 1912 summer of sisterhood, Curie and Ayrton would continue to correspond until Hertha's death in 1923. 

Reading about Curie and Ayrton’s friendship made me want to redouble my efforts to find community. Maybe there weren't any direct links between their relationship and their creative output (Ayrton and Curie's research areas were quite different). But in more subtle ways, they prove the value of adult friendships for our ability to face professional and personal challenges.   

So here it goes:

Any given Sunday, we serve a family-style dinner at our Central Austin bungalow around 6 pm. Dessert and/or alcohol are always welcome. Come as you are.

P.S. I've had the  Golden Girls  theme song playing in my head THIS ENTIRE TIME...

P.S. I've had the Golden Girls theme song playing in my head THIS ENTIRE TIME...



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