Marie Curie, who won two Nobel Prizes but battled discrimination in the male-dominated scientific community, was installed with her husband, Pierre, in the Pantheon on Thursday, becoming the first woman, on her own merit, to be entombed with the “great men” of the French republic.
To the elegiac music of violins, the Curies’ simple oak caskets were carried on the shoulders of young science students down a long, white carpet to the steps of the nation’s most sanctified final resting place.
Marie and Pierre Curie, known for their pioneering work in radioactivity at the turn of the 20th Century, were the 70th and 71st French luminaries to pass through the imposing columns of the Pantheon to be interred, beneath the inscription that still reads: “To the Great Men, a Grateful Nation.”
President Francois Mitterrand praised the accomplishments of the Curies in an emotional speech on the cold spring evening, addressing a crowd of about 1,000 that included 91-year-old Eve Curie, the couple’s lone surviving daughter.
The president, who decided last year to transfer Madame Curie’s remains to the Pantheon, praised “the exemplary battle of one woman who decided to fight in a society dominated by men.”
“My hope is that equal rights for men and women will progress everywhere in the world,” Mitterrand added, “because I find undignified, in a civilized society, the preference given to men for the last 30 centuries.”
Also on hand for the ceremony, the first of its kind in six years, were Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac and Lech Walesa, president of Poland. Marie Curie was born to the impoverished Sklodowska family in Warsaw in 1867 and worked as a teacher and governess before moving to Paris to join her sister.
The two caskets were ushered into the rotunda, where they will lie in state beneath the grand dome until Saturday, when they will be entombed in crypt No. 8. The couple originally were buried in the Paris suburb of Sceaux.
In the Pantheon, they join a wide variety of men from all disciplines, including authors Victor Hugo and Emile Zola, French revolutionary Honore Gabriel Riqueti de Mirabeau, philosopher Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire, World War II resistance fighter Jean Moulin and Felix Eboue, the first black governor in the French African colonies.
The only other woman buried in the Pantheon, Sophie Berthelot, was allowed to be interred next to her husband, chemist Pierre Eugene Marcelin Berthelot.
When Mitterrand announced his decision to install Marie Curie in the Pantheon last year, he said it would recognize “the important place of woman in our society.” In fact, France remains in many ways a male-dominated society, and the country has fewer women in positions of political power than most other major European countries.
Marie and Pierre Curie were two of history’s most famous scientists, doing work that would later help modern scientists understand the atom and its potential power.
Before they met in 1894, Pierre Curie had distinguished himself in the study of crystals and their electrical potential. He later joined his wife’s work. Together they discovered radium and polonium.
They shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics with A. Henri Becquerel.
Three years later, Pierre Curie, at age 46, was accidentally killed by a wagon on a Paris street.
Marie Curie responded by immersing herself in her work, becoming head of her husband’s laboratory and the first woman lecturer at the Sorbonne, though she could never be elected to the male-only French Academy of Sciences.
She was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1911 for isolating pure radium and, during World War I, helped develop the use of X-rays in medicine. She devoted the rest of her life to studying radioactive materials and their medical applications, and died on July 4, 1934, at age 66, of leukemia, which was most likely contracted during years of exposure to radiation.
The Curies will join two centuries of France’s most distinguished citizens in the Pantheon. It was built on the Left Bank by Louis XV, in honor of Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris.
The king had intended that it be a church, but, when it was completed in 1791 after the French Revolution, Genevieve’s body was removed from it and burned. And the new French Parliament turned it into a secular necropolis, installing the body of Mirabeau as its first permanent resident.
During the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte and Napoleon III, the Pantheon was returned to service as a church. But since the transfer of Victor Hugo’s body there in 1885, it has remained a mausoleum.
Today, the vast underground crypt holds, among other things, the heart of Leon Gambetta, the 19th-Century French statesman (the rest of his body is in Nice), and “the spirit” of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of “The Little Prince,” who disappeared in his plane while flying a mission in World War II.