Madame Curie and the Spirits

What Are We to Make of the Strange Alliance Between a Nobel Prize Winning Scientist and a Notorious Medium?


The contrast between the medium and the female scientist in attendance at her séance could hardly have been great­er.

The year was 1905, the place the Psychological Institute in Paris, France. The medium was Eusapia Palladino, the dominant European psychic of her day and the first to be examined exhaustively by many of the world’s leading scien­tists.

The female attendee was Marie Curie, the first woman to achieve worldwide fame as a scientist, and, in 1903, co­winner with Henri Becquerel and her husband Pierre of the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on radioactivity. (In 1911, Madame Curie would receive a second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, for discovering radium and poloni­um and for isolating radium.)

Eusapia Palladino, born in 1854 in the mountain village of Minervo Murges, Italy, could neither read nor write. In childhood she hit her head so badly that there was a hole in her skull which pulsed when she was in a trance; accord­ing to the savants, the fall was responsible for her fits of hysteria, sleepwalking, epilepsy and catalepsy. Her mother died giving birth to her, her father was murdered when she was eight, and her grandmother abused her and put her out to work as a servant girl when she was 14. Eusapia spoke a gutter Italian and, when in trance, a bizarre mixture of Italian and French that was almost incomprehensible. Tempestuous, usually in a towering rage, this non-educable psychic hated to bathe, loved to drink, and was constantly seducing sailors.

The world-famous scientist who held Eusapia’s hand at the seances in 1905 couldn’t have been more different. Marie Curie, née Manya Sklodowska, was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1867. She was raised by loving, highly intelli­gent, and cultivated parents; her mother was a gifted pianist and headmistress of a girl’s school, while her father was an impoverished scientist and an underinspector and teacher in a Russian government-run high school. As an adult student in Paris, Marie spoke, read and wrote Polish, French, Russian and German and had in-depth knowledge of other languages. She finished first in her master’s degree physics program at the Sorbonne at age 25 and second in the math program for a second master’s degree at age 26; both times she was the first woman to complete the pro­gram. She completed a doctorate from the Sorbonne at age 36—but almost as an afterthought, since her major scien­tific discoveries were behind her. Marie moved with ease amongst the greatest minds of her time. Though unortho­dox and liberated in all her thinking, she conducted herself with propriety—except for one passionate love affair, two years after her husband’s death, with the brilliant but married scientist Paul Langevin. She authored several books, including her autobiography in English.

Marie Curie was pretty; Eusapia Palladino was not. The wisp of a Polish girl had a porcelain complexion, gossamer ash blond hair, high cheekbones, and intense grey eyes that were kind when they were not lost in thought. Marie’s perfect posture brought out the fetching slimness of her figure—slender ankles, slender wrists and a very narrow waist. A certain austerity, even a grimness, came to mask her features and slow her gait as she grew older, but she never lost the delicate beauty of her physical appearance.

Eusapia Palladino, on the other hand, was physically unattractive. She was short, tended to fat, swathed herself in black and walked with a waddle. Her mouth was twisted in a permanent downward curve that expressed—disdain? sarcasm? suffering? Nobody knew. Her eyes, sunk in a double-chinned bulldog face, crackled in their depths with a sinister fire that presaged her sudden explosions of fury. Eusapia’s unchained sexuality gave her a vibrant allure, but the scientists searching for occult energies in her found this easy to ignore.

What did Eusapia Palladino do? Things that made her seem to come from a different planet in comparison with Marie Curie. Deborah Blum describes her activities in Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (Penguin, 2006): “She made furniture fly. She caused marks to appear on paper by merely extending her hand. Tied to a chair, she caused fingerprints to appear in a smooth block of clay across a room….During one séance in Genoa, lights glittered overhead like dancing fireflies. One light settled on the palm of an observer, a German engineer…” Eusapia made objects appear out of nowhere; she aurally channeled utterances from the spirits; she performed automatic writing; she extended her body “ectoplasmically,” touching others with non-material arms.

She did much more, and she did it all intermittently, unexpectedly, never under duress—and, not infrequently, fraudulently. To the end of their days, the distinguished scientists in attendance remained bitterly divided about the nature of her achievements.

Why did Marie Curie become involved with this? Deborah Blum answers the question on the Op Ed Page of the New York Times for December 30, 2006:

“The scientific study of the supernatural began in the late 19th century, in synchrony with the age of energy. It’s hardly coincidental that as traditional science began to reveal the hidden potential of nature’s powers—magnetic fields, radiation, radio waves, electrical currents—paranormal researchers began to suggest that the occult operated in similar ways.

“A fair number of these occult explorers were scientists who studied nature’s highly charged circuits. Marie Curie, who did some of the first research into radioactive elements like uranium, attended seances to assess the powers of mediums. So did the British physicist J. J. Thomson, who demonstrated the existence of the electron in 1897. And so did Thomson’s colleague, John Strutt, Lord Rayleigh, who won the 1904 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work with at­mospheric gases.

“Rayleigh would later become president of the British Society for Psychical Research. And he would be joined in that organization by other physicists, including the wireless radio pioneer Sir Oliver Lodge, who proposed that both telepathy and ghostly appearances were achieved through energy transmissions connecting living minds to one an­other and perhaps even to the dead.”

We have an eye-witness account of a Eusapia Palladino séance that Marie Curie attended. (She and her husband Pierre attended a number in 1905.) It comes from Charles Richet, Nobel Prize Winner in Physiology in 1913 and a leading contemporary European researcher into occult phenomena:

“[The seance] …took place at the Psychological Institute at Paris. There were present only Mme. Curie, Mme. X., a Polish friend of hers, and P. Courtier, the secretary of the Institute. Mme. Curie was on Eusapia’s left, myself on her right, Mme. X, a little farther off, taking notes, and M. Courtier still farther, at the end of the table. Courtier had ar­ranged a double curtain behind Eusapia; the light was weak but sufficient. On the table Mme. Curie’s hand holding Eusapia’s could be distinctly seen, likewise mine also holding the right hand….We saw the curtain swell out as if pushed by some large object….I asked to touch it….I felt the resistance and seized a real hand which I took in mine. Even through the curtain I could feel the fingers….I held it firmly and counted twenty-nine seconds, during all which time I had leisure to observe both of Eusapia’s hands on the table, to ask Mme. Curie if she was sure of her control…. After the twenty-nine seconds I said, ‘I want something more, I want uno anello (“a ring”).’ At once the hand made me feel a ring….It seems hard to imagine a more convincing experiment… In this case there was not only the materialization of a hand, but also of a ring.”

What was Marie Curie’s reaction to this seance? We don’t know. But we do know the reaction to Eusapia Palladi­no’s seances of her husband, Pierre Curie, a scientist whose distinguished accomplishments in the fields of piezoelec­tricity, symmetry in physical phenomena, magnetism and, later, radioactivity, made him a power in his own right. Maurice Goldsmith writes: “The Curies, especially Pierre, believed in spiritualism….Pierre felt Palladino worked ‘un­der [scientifically] controlled conditions.’ After a séance at the Society for Psychical Research—where in a brightly lit room ‘with no possible accomplices’ he watched as tables mysteriously lifted into the air, objects flew across the room, and invisible hands pinched and caressed him—he wrote George Gouy, ‘I hope we are able to convince you of the reality of the phenomena or at least some of them.’

“A few days before his death Pierre had written of his last Palladino séance, ‘There is here, in my opinion, a whole domain of entirely new facts and physical states in space of which we have no conception.’ In 1910, four years after Pierre’s death, when Marie was rejected by the Academy of Sciences, Henri Poincaré wrote that Pierre’s spirit had come to Marie and tried to comfort her by saying, ‘You will be elected next time.’”

There was a moment when a belief in the afterworld seemed to burst suddenly, achingly, out of Marie Curie. This was when Pierre, whom she passionately loved, and who by every account was an exceptionally good man as well as an exceptionally good scientist, died suddenly in a traffic accident, in Paris on April 19, 1906. He had slipped while ab­sentmindedly crossing a street in the rain; his head was crushed beneath the wheels of a heavy carriage and he died almost immediately. He was 47.

Marie never came close to recovering from this loss. Twenty-four years later, when she sat down to reconstruct a chronology of her life, she wrote that on April 19, 1906, “I lost my beloved Pierre, and with him all hope and all sup­port for the rest of my life.” In the days following Pierre’s death, she wrote in a private diary (which became public knowledge only many years later) heart-wrenching words which—albeit torn from her in a moment of awful shock— suggest her belief in the spirit world was more than passing:

“I put my head against [the coffin.],” she wrote. “I spoke to you. I told you that I loved you and that I had always loved you with all my heart…. It seemed to me that from this cold contact of my forehead with the casket something came to me, something like a calm and an intuition that I would yet find the courage to live. Was this an illusion or was this an accumulation of energy coming from you and condensing in the closed casket which came to me…as an act of charity on your part?”

She added: “I sometimes have the absurd idea that you are going to come back. Didn’t I have it yesterday, when hearing the sound of the front door closing, the absurd idea that it was you?”

The death of Pierre Curie was the greatest tragedy of Marie Curie’s life. She bore it with a grim and bitter forti­tude. She had been schooled in fortitude; tragedy was almost the lot of every Pole in Europe in the nineteenth centu­ry. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Poland had been ceded to Russia, Prussia and Austria. Russia abol­ished Poland’s name and for the next century sought to absorb the country into itself; the Poles would not regain their sovereignty until the end of World War I. Two unsuccessful uprisings against the Russians, carried out in 1830, and in 1863, made matters worse. The vindictive Russians did not allow higher education for Polish women; Marie, thirsty for knowledge, pursued her education in clandestine “flying” classes or by herself. Eking out enough money through governess jobs to come to Paris, she spent her years of study in an unheated garret room, subsisting on small portions of tea, chocolate, bread and fruit and sleeping only a few hours at a time as she studied day and night.

Achievement brought awards and grants her way. But her heroic years of endeavor had steeled her against adversity, even while they taught her to discount nothing and to reach out in every direction; if this hardheaded woman of gen­ius chose to spend precious time with Eusapia Palladino, perhaps that’s an invitation to us to give this unruly medi­um of genius at least the benefit of the doubt.

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