In Science We Should Be Interested In Things, Not Persons

Marie Curie? Pierre Curie? Ève Curie? Marie Mattingly Meloney? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Gossip about people is extraordinarily popular. A famous scientist once criticized this attitude as follows:

In science, we must be interested in things, not in persons.

This statement has been attributed three members of a renowned French family: Marie Curie, Pierre Curie, and Ève Curie. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1923 Marie Curie published a biography of her husband Pierre Curie who had died in 1906. An English translation appeared in the same year. The introduction was penned by journalist Marie Mattingly Meloney who attributed the quotation to Marie Curie. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

It is with much hesitancy that I venture to write a preface to this book. She once chided me, in her gentle way, for an article in which I had stated facts with some feeling—although the facts praised her. “In science,” she said, “we should be interested in things, not persons.”

Interestingly, Marie Curie attributed the notion under examination to Pierre Curie within the pages of the biography: 2

In his scientific relations he showed no sharpness, and did not permit himself to be influenced by considerations of personal credit or by personal sentiments. Every beautiful success gave him pleasure, even if achieved in a domain where he felt himself to have priority.

He said: “What does it matter if I have not published such and such investigations, if another has published them?” For he held that in science we should be interested in things and not in persons.

QI believes both Marie Curie and Pierre Curie employed the saying, and it is difficult to assign a priority. Perhaps it is best to ascribe the remark to both.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In April 1923 Marie Curie published an article titled “Pierre Curie Intime” (“An Intimate Picture of Pierre Curie”) in “Revue Politique et Littéraire: Revue Bleue” (“Political and Literary Review: Blue Review”). The piece contained material that also appeared in the biography. Here is an excerpt in French containing the attribution to Pierre Curie: 3

Dans ses relations scientifiques, il n’avait aucune âpreté et ne se laissait pas influencer par l’amour-propre et le sentiment personnel. Tout beau succès lui faisait plaisir, même dans un domaine où il s’attendait à avoir la priorité.

Il disait : « Qu’importe que je n’aie pas publié tel travail si un autre le publie », et pensait qu’en matière de science l’on doit s’intéresser aux choses et non aux personnes.

In June 1923 a translation of the Curie’s article appeared in “The Living Age” of Boston, Massachusetts. Here is a slightly longer excerpt presenting a different English rendition: 4

In scientific matters he had no bitterness and he did not let himself be influenced by self-esteem and personal prepossession. Any fine success pleased him, even if it was in a field where he reckoned on being superior.

He said, ‘What difference is there if I have not published the work as long as someone has?’ He thought that in scientific matters you should be interested in things, not in persons. All ideas of rivalry were so distasteful to him that he even condemned them in the form of examinations or rankings in schools, as well as in the form of distinctions and honors.

In May 1924 “The Clinique” printed an article by Anne Mansfield Swett in which she reviewed Marie Curie’s biography of Pierre Curie. Swett ascribed the quotation to Marie: 5

Madame Curie’s attitude to science is told in her own words, “In science we should be interested in things, not in persons,” and in explaining the fact that she and her husband had no patents to protect their rights to the processes by which radium is produced, she said, “There were no patents. We were working in the interests of science. Radium was not to enrich any one. Radium is an element. It belongs to all people.”

In November 1937 a brief article in “LIFE” magazine mentioned that Eve Curie had written a biographer of her mother Marie Curie. The magazine attributed the saying to Marie: 6

For, though the Curies have thrice shared the Nobel prize for their work on radium and radio-activity , they loathe public appearances and honors. Their motto is that of Marie Curie: “In science we must be interested in things, not in persons.”

In December 1937 Eve Curie published an article about her mother, Marie, in “Marianne: Grand Hebdomadaire Politique et Littéraire Illustré” (“Marianne: Major Illustrated Political and Literary Weekly”). Eve attributed the saying to Marie Curie. Here is the pertinent passage in French followed by a translation: 7

. . . d’une seule phrase qu’elle répétera souvent comme une devise et qui peint caractère, existence, vocation, d’une phrase qui en dit plus long qu’un livre, Marie met fin à la conversation :
« — En science, nous devons nous intéresser aux choses, non aux personnes. »

. . . a single sentence that she will often repeat like a motto and which paints character, existence, vocation, a sentence that says more than a book, Marie ends the conversation:
“ — In science, we must be interested in things, not in people.”

The 1941 book “Famous Women of France” by Charles R. Bagley included a chapter about Marie Curie. A footnote ascribed the quotation to Marie Curie based on the biography by Eve Curie: 8

“En science, dit-elle, nous devons nous intéresser aux choses, non aux personnes.” Madame Curie, p. 181

In conclusion, journalist Marie Mattingly Meloney credited Marie Curie with the saying within the introduction to the English edition of Marie Curie’s biography of Pierre Curie in 1923. Marie Curie attributed the notion to Pierre Curie in the body of the 1923 biography. Later, in 1937 Eve Curie penned a biography of her mother, Marie Curie, and she attributed the remark to Marie.

QI believes both Marie Curie and Pierre Curie employed the saying, and it is difficult to assign a priority. Perhaps it is best to ascribe the remark to both.

(Great thanks to Sue Ferrara whose inquiry about a thematically similar remark attributed to Marie Curie led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1923, Pierre Curie by Marie Curie, Translated by Charlotte and Vernon Kellogg, Section: Introduction by Mrs. William Brown Meloney (Marie Mattingly Meloney), Quote Page 12, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1923, Pierre Curie by Marie Curie, Translated by Charlotte and Vernon Kellogg, Chapter 4: Marriage and Organization of the Family Life, Quote Page 90, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1923 Avril 7 (1923 April 7), Revue Politique et Littéraire: Revue Bleue, Volume 61, Number 7, Pierre Curie Intime par Marie Curie de l’Académie de Médecine (Marie Sklodowska), Start Page 217, Quote Page 221, Column 2, Bureau des Revues, Paris, France. (RetroNews: Le site de presse de la BnF) link
  4. 1923 June 9, The Living Age, Volume 317, Number 4118, An Intimate Picture of Pierre Curie by Madame Curie, (From La Revue Bleue, April 7, Paris Literary and Political Bimonthly) Start Page 583, Quote Page 587, Column 2, The Living Age Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1924 May, The Clinique, Volume 45, Number 5, Here and There by Anne Mansfield Swett (Review of “Pierre Curie” by Marie Curie), Start Page 220, Quote Page 220, Peerless Quality Press, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1937 November 22, LIFE, Eve Curie Writes a Biography of Her Mother, Quote Page 75, Column 2, Time-Life, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1937 Décembre 15 (1937 December 15), Marianne: Grand Hebdomadaire Politique et Littéraire Illustré, Madame Curie par Ève Curie, Start Page 11, Quote Page 11, Column 1 and 2, Paris, France. (Gallica BNF)
  8. 1941, Famous Women of France by Charles R. Bagley (Professor of French, Dartmouth College), Chapter 7: Madame Curie (1864-1934), Quote Page 149, Reynal & Hitchcock, New York. (Verified with scans)