On March 12, 1962 a revolution shook the French Académie des Sciences. The first woman. Marguerite Perey (1909–1975), discoverer of the alkali metal francium (atomic no. 87), the last naturally occurring element to be discovered, was elected (Fig. 1 & 2) to the venerable institution. It was founded by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s Finance Minister in 1666, and regrouped with four other academies into the Institut de France. Although the rule of procedures of the institute did not exclude the nomination of women, until 1962 no woman had ever held a seat at any academy. Marie Curie (1867–1934) herself had lost the election by only two votes in 1911 but was elected in 1922 to the Académie Nationale de Médecine, which is not included in the Institut de France.
Furthermore, Irène Joliot-Curie (1897–1956), Madame Curie's daughter and 1935 Nobel Chemistry laureate never became an academician. Irène’s husband and 1935 Nobel Chemistry co-laureate, Frédéric Joliot-Curie (1900–1958), was elected to the seat occupied for 29 years by édouard Branly (1844–1940), his mother-in-law Marie Curie’s competitor in 1911.
The misogyny of the French Académie des Sciences was shared by other institutions. Until today only three women, in addition to Marie and Irène Curie, have received Nobel prizes in physics or chemistry:
- German-born American Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1906–1972) in physics (1963),
- Egyptian-born British Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910–1994) in chemistry (1964) and
- Israeli Ada E. Yonath (b. 1939) in chemistry (2009).
Another prominent figure in the field of radioactivity, Lise Meitner (1878–1968), was nominated unsuccessfully for the Nobel award 20 times in physics and 21 times in chemistry.
In 1939 the discovery of francium remained completely unnoticed by the public. Laymen had enough anxieties with the political situation.
The headlines announcing the “First Woman Academician” overlook two details. Perey was elected as a corresponding (correspondant) rather than full member. These second-rank members have no “academician seats” or other prerogatives of full members such as using the official title of académicien.
On the other hand, they have the right of censorship for the acceptance of papers submitted for publication in the weekly Comptes Rendus of the Académie.
Furthermore, the title académicienne allotted to Perey in the media without further details was misleading. The title is implicitly reserved for the 40 “immortal” members of the Académie Française, the most prestigious branch of the Institut de France, which gives “a faithful picture of the talent, intelligence, culture, literal and scientific imagination that make France.” Pictures of the “immortals” and members of other academies in green dress with cocked hat, cape and sword are quite familiar. At present, and after election of Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat (1978), there have been a dozen women elected among the 180 titular members of the Académie des Sciences, while six women became “immortals.”
In the previous 13 years two events had lifted Perey from anonymity to worldwide fame. In 1949 a Chair of Nuclear Chemistry was created for Marguerite Perey at the Université de Strasbourg, and she was nominated Professor and Director of the Nuclear Chemistry Laboratory, whereupon she recruited Jean-Pierre Adloff as her first research student (Fig. 3). Suddenly, elected as first woman corresponding member of the Académie des Sciences in 1962, she became famous with the revelation of her work with Marie Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie at the Institut de Radium, the discovery of a new element, and her suffering caused by radiation (Fig. 4).
The “Marie Curie syndrome” was particularly acute because of Perey's assumed role as Curie’s “personal laboratory assistant.” She used to say, “I owe everything to Marie Curie,” and during her entire life she retained an immense gratitude and devotion to her mentor’s memory.
During Perey’s last years she reminisced often about her time with Madame Curie. She was one of the few survivors to have worked with the great female scientist.
In 1962 the election at the Académie was announced in huge titles: “Heroine of radiology, first woman at the Academy of Sciences, became infirm at the service to science”; “A martyr in science”; “The most extraordinary and moving figure in the contemporary science.” But the discovery of francium itself had been forgotten!
Comic books and children’s books illustrated Perey’s saga more or less accurately and insisted on her difficult childhood, her courage, eagerness to learn, her disease and discovery, as examples of her integrity and humanity.
Perey was honored with many national distinctions and scientific awards, such as the Lavoisier Prize from the Académie des Sciences, Lavoisier Medal of the Société Chimique de France, and the Grand Prix of the city of Paris.
In 1966 the 300th anniversary of the Institut de France was celebrated with pomp in the presence of President Charles de Gaulle. Perey used the occasion to make her official entrance at the Académie des Sciences. At that time she was still the only woman among the five academies that constitute the Institut de France. Perey said, “I have the impression to have broken the last doors that were still closed for women.”
After Perey's election it might be expected that other female nominees would follow. Nevertheless, it was not until 16 years later (March 13, 1978) that Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat (b. 1923) was elected, also as a corresponding member.
The following year she was appointed as a full member and thus became the very first woman to hold a seat at the Académie.