‘Like a beast at bay': Marie Curie’s secret stay in Highcliffe
Ian Stevenson recounts the little-known story of Marie Curie's secret stay at Highcliffe
Published in December ’12
The pale, rather gaunt widow attracted hardly a glance from other holidaymakers enjoying the sand, sea and sun at Highcliffe in the summer of 1912. She was only 44, but looked older. Her hair was already turning grey and a kidney operation a few months earlier had left her thin and weak.
Hundreds of people must have passed by her on the beach or cliff top during her two-month stay at Highcliffe. None recognised the frail figure in a long black dress as one of the most famous women in the world, Madame Marie Curie.
Being incognita was vitally important to Marie, the brilliant pioneering scientist, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person to win it twice. For she had come secretly to Highcliffe not just for her health but also to escape from French newspapermen who were hounding her over claims of a scandalous love affair.
Marie’s much-needed break had been arranged by Hertha Ayrton, a valued friend in England. Hertha’s appearance, with her mass of frizzy black hair and sparkling green eyes, could hardly have been more different from Marie’s as they regularly walked together on Highcliffe beach and along the cliff top. But the women had much in common.
Both were physicists and the widows of physicists. Marie had two daughters, Hertha a daughter and a step-daughter. Another link was their Polish ancestry. Marie was born and raised in Poland, later going to study, live and work in France. Hertha was born in England to a Polish father who had fled from Tsarist persecutions against Jews in Poland.
The women had first met in 1903 when Marie visited the Royal Institution in London with her French husband, Pierre. That was the year the Curies jointly won the Nobel Prize for physics. Their discovery of radium – a radioactive metallic element found in pitchblende and other minerals – and the effect of radiation on cells was to revolutionise the treatment of cancer.
After Pierre’s tragic death in 1906, when he was knocked down by a horse-drawn wagon in Paris, Marie carried on their research and went on to win the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1911 for her work on isolating radium and studying its chemical properties.
Hertha had done ground-breaking research work on the hissing caused by an electric arc and on how sand ripples are formed at the seaside. Although she had full encouragement from her husband – and former tutor – Professor William Ayrton, she constantly came up against gender prejudice in getting her work recognised. And that was another link with Marie Curie.
When Pierre Curie died, many English newspapers acclaimed him as the discoverer of radium. Hertha wrote to the Westminster Gazette: ‘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.’ She proceeded to show that radium had been discovered by Marie – alone and unaided – though her husband afterwards helped her to extract if from pitchblende.
Hertha, writing in French, had kept in touch with Marie since their first meeting and had visited her in Paris. So she had great sympathy for Marie when in 1911 she was battling against ill-health and scandal. French newspapers had discovered that Marie was having an affair with a married colleague, Paul Langevin, a former pupil of her late husband. Some that had once extolled her now branded her as a Polish temptress and a home-wrecker.
Because of the scandal, some people tried to discourage her from going to Sweden in December 1911 to collect her Nobel Prize. But she insisted: ‘I cannot accept the principle that the appreciation of the value of a scientific work can be influenced by the distortion and slander concerning my private life.’
Overwork and the anguish caused by the Langevin affair had already debilitated Marie when she went to Sweden. She returned in excruciating pain from a serious kidney infection – possibly a symptom of radiation sickness – but she was considered too weak to survive an operation, so it was postponed.
Hertha Ayrton, knowing the stressful problems that Marie was facing, had been pressing her for some time to come for a holiday in England. In February 1912, she wrote to Marie: ‘I shall take a house by the sea in Devonshire or Cornwall for the months of August and September, so you and your daughters will be able to have two months of sea bathing…..
‘You will not need to come to London before going there. I will meet you at Dover, or whichever port you come to, and we will all travel along the coast… in this way no one will know anything about your visit and if you come under another name you will be absolutely safe from intruding visitors…. If we can quite re-establish your health during your visit it will be a real joy to me.’
Marie had her kidney operation in March, soon after receiving Hertha’s letter. After a stay in a sanatorium she felt just about strong enough at the end of July to take up Hertha’s offer of a clandestine holiday in England. The destination was not to be Devon or Cornwall but the Mill House at Highcliffe, hidden away in the wooded Chewton Glen. The building, originally the 18th-century Chewton Mill, had been extended into a spacious house when it ceased to be a working water-mill in 1906.
Marie, travelling alone as Madame Sklodowska, her maiden name, crossed the Channel on the Calais-Dover ferry and was escorted to Highcliffe by Hertha. Her daughters, Irène, just coming up to fifteen, and seven-year-old Eve, who were then on holiday on the Brittany coast with their Polish governess, joined Marie a short while later.
No friend was better suited than Hertha to offer secret shelter and nursing care to Marie. As a leading campaigner for women’s rights, Hertha had made her house in Norfolk Square, near London’s Hyde Park, a haven for suffragettes. Many suffragettes arrested for their ‘Votes for Women’ activities went on hunger strike in prison. Instead of force-feeding them as was done initially, the Government adopted a ‘cat and mouse’ policy of releasing them when they were near starvation, then re-arresting them after they recovered. Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, the movement’s main leaders, who were so weak that they left prison on stretchers, were among the so-called ‘mice’ nursed back to health by Hertha at her home.
Apart from Hertha and the three Curies, the holiday party at Highcliffe included Miss Manley – an English governess for the children and, at times, Hertha’s daughter Barbara, a militant suffragette who had recently spent time in Holloway Prison. Another guest was Evelyn Sharp, who would later write a biography of Hertha with the dedication: ‘To Marie Curie – This memoir of her friend.’
‘We were a merry party in spite of many preoccupations: the children saw to that,’ Evelyn recalled in her book. ‘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.’
In France, Marie’s illness and her need to hide away from the newspapers had meant long separations from her daughters, who were cared for by their governess. Now, at Highcliffe, she could enjoy time with them and record their progress in a notebook. ‘Irène learns English and is in good health,’ she wrote. ‘Eve takes bathes in the sea despite the cold.’
The amiable Hertha took to the children, holding adult discussions on mathematics with the serious Irène and giving piano accompaniment for the lively Eve to sing French songs. Marie’s health slowly improved in the refreshing sea air, though she was still in pain. In a letter from the Mill House dated 19 August, she told Ellen Gleditsch, her Norwegian laboratory assistant and friend: ‘Unfortunately I am still suffering and can’t write at length.’
Importantly for her peace of mind, she remained just another holidaymaker at Highcliffe. ‘Her secret was so well preserved (naturally, in a household accustomed to sheltering “mice”!) that no
newspaper discovered her presence in England,’ wrote Evelyn Sharp.
Two years after that memorable Highcliffe holiday the First World War erupted in Europe. Both Marie and Hertha used their different skills to help Allied troops. Marie, who had found that X-rays could locate objects such as shrapnel inside a body, established a fleet of X-ray vans that helped to treat wounded troops. She drove the vans to the front herself. Hertha invented the Ayrton fan, a flapping device used to clear battlefield trenches of noxious gases and bring in currents of fresh air. It was credited with saving many Allied lives during gas attacks.
After the war, Hertha and Marie exchanged letters right up until Hertha’s death in 1923 at the age of 69. Marie was 67 when she died in 1934 of leukaemia, possibly a result of repeated exposure to high levels of radiation during her research.
Just a year later her daughter Irène and son-in-law Frédéric Joliet-Curie won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. They had discovered artificial radioactivity and shared the prize for their synthesis of new radioactive elements. Marie’s other daughter, Eve, became a journalist and later toured the world with her American diplomat husband, Henry Labouisse, after he became executive director of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). In a remarkable link with his wife’s family, one of Labouisse’s first tasks on his appointment was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of UNICEF in 1965.
The Curie girls never forgot Hertha Ayrton’s kindness to their mother at Highcliffe. In her biography of Marie, Eve recalled her suffering in 1912: ‘Tracked down by physical ills and human baseness, she 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.’