See that woman? That is not Marie Curie.
I mean, it is Marie Curie, but only in a sense.
If you type “Marie Curie” into Google image search, you’ll likely see this colorized photo pop up several times in the results. You might even find the original black and white. Go ahead. Try it. You’ll see this picture on postage stamps, in meme photos, and even in the form of a Marie Curie bobblehead doll (one of which I own), all purported to be the one, true Marie Curie.
But it’s not her. I know this because I met this Marie Curie, just last week.
Her name is Susan Marie Frontczak. She performs as Maria Sklodowska in a living history stage show called Manyathat tours around the world, bringing Madame Curie’s science and soul to life.
The photo shows Susan striking a thoughtful, Curiesque stance, dressed in her period-appropriate Curie garb (It was Marie who famously said “I have no dress except the one I wear every day. If you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark so that I can put it on afterwards to go to the laboratory.”) The photo was posted to the web a few years ago, and thanks to that game of internet telephone known as “attribution-free viral image sharing” she has, in a very real way, become Marie Curie. At least in the eyes of Togo.
And Mali, and Zambia, and Guinea-Bissau, and the Republic of Guinea. All have released stamps using Susan’s photo as “Marie Curie”, often alongside real photos of Marie Curie, who Susan looks remarkably like, but not so close that one would be confused when looking at their pictures literally side by side.
Susan has also been immortalized in science’s Last Supper (below), sandwiched between Galileo and J. Robert Oppenheimer, playing the part of the apostle James (son of Alphaeus, not the Zebedee one). It occurs to me that I have no idea which Redditor or other meme-oriented individual originally made this Last Supper image. The irony does not escape me.
Susan’s trademark pose, with extended right arm holding aloft a mysterious blue liquid we can assume represents that mere tenth of a gram of radium chloride Curie painstakingly extracted from one ton of pitchblende, complete with the thousand-yard stare of Nobelian gravitas, is carved daily by Chinese factory workers into top-heavy, spring-necked plastic figurines. Ah, to be immortalized in bobblehead form, on someone else’s bobblehead!
Did I mention no one has paid Susan for any of this?
This is an entertaining, but all-too-typical tale of the Modern Internet™. Susan doesn’t make a ton of money from her show, and I wonder how much she’s missed out on with people using her likeness without permission? I wonder how many other artists we could put in Marie’s … I mean Susan’s place, who lose out daily as their work is posted online without links or permission, spreading out of control like a radium-induced cancer?
Susan would like to adapt Manya into a film some day, to help spread Marie Curie’s legacy worldwide to new audeinces. Maybe Togo, Mali, Zambia, and the various Guineas could see it in their pilfering philatelist hearts to send her a small donation? And maybe we can all be a bit more careful in the future, and treat these wonderfully creative science artists a bit nicer, and show them off, instead of showing off ourselves?
I mean, what would Marie Curie do? I asked her, last week. She said she’d like to be recognized.
Stamp and portrait images courtesy of Susan Marie Frontczak