Nell Gwyn, Mistress of King Charles II of England

Nell Gwyn

Because Nell had her horoscope cast, we happen to know exactly when she entered the world. She was born on February 2, 1650 at 6:00 AM, probably in Oxford. She was the younger daughter of Helena Smith and Captain Thomas Gwyn possibly of the Royalist Army. We don’t know if her parents ever married but we do know Captain Gwyn ended up in debtor’s prison in Oxford. Helena moved back to London, taking her two daughters with her. Neither Rose nor Nell were educated and couldn’t even write their names. Helena was a drunk and ran a bawdy house near Coal Yard Alley in Covent Garden where her girls poured drinks for customers and may have even worked as child prostitutes. Nell also worked selling oysters and cinders, becoming a real life Cinderella.

When the Monarchy was restored under King Charles II after the fall of Oliver Cromwell, one of the first things Charles did was reinstate live theater which had been banned under Cromwell. Charles established the Theater Royal in Drury Lane as his own company which was run by Thomas Killigrew. Charles II was the first King to actively attend the theater. As part of the enterprise, he licensed the theater to allow women to act women’s parts where they had been played by men before. This allowed women to have a genuine occupation as actresses.

In 1662, Nell became the mistress of a man named Duncan. She soon tired of him but not before he got her a job selling oranges to the crowd at the theater in Drury Lane. After about a year of selling oranges, Killigrew noticed Nell with her delightful and fun personality and ability to mock the actors. He introduced her to two actors in the company, John Lacy and Charles Hart, who immediately began to train her. She had an affair with Hart that was followed closely by the London population. By November 1664, Nell was acting and by the following April, she was a household name.

King Charles II of England

Most actresses of the time were dark eyed and dark haired. Nell was different because she had red hair and hazel eyes. She was very proud of her dainty feet and pretty ankles and never missed a chance to show them off. Diarist Samuel Pepys wrote volumes about Nell and it’s because of him we know so much about her. Nell didn’t care for serious, dramatic, or heroic roles. She really excelled at comedy, as if she was born to play it. She also loved to swear.

In June of 1665, bubonic plague raged in London and the King’s court moved to Oxford. The theaters closed and the actresses and actors were called to Oxford. For the next eighteen months, we don’t know Nell’s whereabouts or what she was doing but Thomas Killigrew was making extensive improvements to the theater in Drury Lane during the break. From September 2-6, 1666 the Great Fire of London demolished much of the city. The theater finally reopened in October and Nell was back on stage.

In March of 1667, Charles was at the theater when Nell made her debut in the play “Secret Love, or The Maiden Queen”. Nell caught the eye of the Duke of Buckingham, who immediately came up with a scheme. He wanted to tempt the King with the fascinating Nell Gwyn in an effort to lure the King away from his dominating, long- time mistress, Barbara Castlemaine, Duchess of Cleveland. Buckingham appointed himself as Nell’s manager. The King asked for Nell but she demanded £500 for the trouble of becoming the King’s mistress. Charles refused to pay. But she did receive invitations to star in court performances. Soon Nell and Charles were getting on famously. She didn’t become his mistress right away, preferring to be friends first and continuing her acting career. Eventually she relented but remained on stage for three more years.

Nell established herself as the King’s “country mistress” and even taught him how to fish. By the spring of 1669, they would attend horse races at Newmarket which they did for the next 14 years. Charles commissioned Christopher Wren to build a large house for himself and a modest house for Nell in Newmarket. Two other retreats visited by Nell and the King were a house in Bagnigge, near Kings Cross and Windsor. On summer mornings they would swim in the Fleet River, a tributary of the Thames. In 1669, her acting career was beginning to wind down and during the summer, Nell saw more and more of the King. It was during this time she became pregnant with her first child by the King. The boy Charles was born on May 8, 1670.

Nell Gwyn

From the time of the fall of Barbara Castlemaine to the coming of Charles next demanding mistress Louise de Kéroulle in 1670, Nell was Charles main mistress. Louise had been in the employ of Charles’ beloved sister Minette. When Minette died after the Secret Treaty of Dover had been signed between Charles and Louis XIV of France, Charles requested that Louise come to England. He had met her during the secret negotiations. Louise was to become Nell’s greatest rival for the King’s affections. She was something of a snob and was easily irritated with Nell. Nell took great delight in outwitting and humiliating Louise. Both women were unique and seemed to satisfy Charles in different ways.

Four months after the birth of her first child, Nell was back on stage. This was highly unusual and attests to her need to maintain some independence for herself. She moved into a small rented house in Pall Mall. Even with the birth of a child, the King was not forthcoming with benevolent gifts. But she did want to be near Whitehall where the King was. At the same time he gave Barbara Castlemaine titles and huge sums of money. He also moved his wife, Catherine of Braganza into Somerset House. Now Louise and Nell could share the King to everyone’s entertainment.

Nell’s return to the stage was successful. She loved to end the show by reciting the epilogue and then dancing a jig to the delight of the crowd. Even though Nell threatened to keep acting, it appears she didn’t return after 1671. She retired at the age of 21 after a spectacular and dramatic career. Shortly thereafter, she moved into a splendid house at 79 Pall Mall. It was originally leasehold but Nell persuaded the King to give it to her outright a few years later. The house had a fair garden that was next to St James Park, close to Whitehall which could be seen in the distance. Thus she and the King could remain close. On Christmas Day 1671, Nell gave birth to her second son, James, named after the King’s brother.

Nell’s home at 79 Pall Mall became her own salon. She wasn’t interested in politics so she invited those she liked and who amused her. She had music, skits, card playing and gambling, soirees and supper parties. After the parties, her guests would end up rambling in St. James Park. Her most magnificent possession was her bed. It was fashioned from Nell’s favorite metal and was designed by Nell herself. This four poster ornate bedstead included figures representing Nell and Charles was made of silver. She was very proud of her petticoats and loved showing them off and she also liked to dress in men’s clothing. Nell would travel around town in her sedan or coach and people would wave and greet her. The people loved her and would often leave flowers at her door. She loved to attend the theater and keep up with her old friends. Her sons never lacked for anything. She was sometimes invited to attend state dinners.

In the summer of 1673, Charles created Louise Duchess of Portsmouth. Nell was furious. She still had no title and her boys had nothing. In December 1675, Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin, the last of Charles great mistresses arrived at court. She eclipsed Louise basically driving her from court. Hortense was Nell’s new rival for the King’s affections. Finally, in December 1676, Charles named Nell’s eldest son Baron Heddington and Earl of Burford. He gave the two boys the surname of Beauclerk.

Nell’s son, Charles Beauclerk, Duke of St. Albans

In 1677, several attempts were made to lure Nell back to the theater but she refused. In January 1678, her house in Pall Mall was burgled and much of her silver stolen. In June 1678, she sent her son James to Paris for his education. In 1679, her mother died in a drowning accident followed by the first signs of a long deterioration of the King’s health with his first attack of an ague. Later in the fall, Nell fell from a horse in Newmarket. And at the age of 30, libels began to write of the loss of her looks. In May of 1680, Nell fell seriously ill, probably from syphilis or gonorrhea and Charles had another attack of ague. About a month later she learned of the death of her son James in Paris. Charles made a gift to her of Burford House near Windsor and she began remodeling.

Nell Gwyn

From 1681 until the King’s death, Nell led a quiet country life at Burford House and followed the King and the court as it traveled. Charles’ health was declining. He suffered from venereal disease and the proscribed panacea at the time was treatment with mercury. In April 1681, he gave Nell the lease to Bestwood hunting lodge near Sherwood Forest. In January 1684, Charles made their son Charles Duke of St. Albans. Charles also had plans to make Nell Countess of Greenwich but it never happened. In January of 1685, Charles became fatally ill and died on Feb. 6. Nell was at a complete loss emotionally and financially. King James II, Charles brother, finally gave her and her son some income.

Nell lived on quietly. She became ill, probably from the effects of venereal disease and suffered for 30 months before dying on November 14, 1687. The funeral took place on November 17 at St. Martins before a packed crowd. Nell always remained faithful to the King. He was her greatest friend.

Resources: “Nell Gwyn: Mistress to a King” by Charles Beauclerk, “King Charles II” by Lady Antonia Fraser

© 2012

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Gerty Radnitz Cori – Nobel Prize Winning Biochemist

In the late 19th century after universities began admitting women, there were still challenges to overcome. Most secondary schools for girls focused on social graces and being a good conversationalist but didn’t prepare them for entrance to the university. When Gerty Radnitz at 16 decided that she wanted to go to medical school, she was completely unprepared. She overcame this disadvantage to become the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine and the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Gerty Theresa Radnitz was born August 15, 1896, in Prague which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her family was Jewish and moderately well off. Her father, Otto Radnitz, was a chemist who invented a method for refining sugar and managed several beet sugar refineries. The oldest of three girls, Gerty was tutored at home until the age of ten when she went to finishing school. Recognizing her talent, her uncle who was a physician encouraged her to go to medical school. With the help of family and tutors, over the next two years she accumulated the equivalent of 5 – 6 years study in Latin, mathematics, physics, and chemistry in preparation to take her entrance exams. She passed and at 18 enrolled at the German branch of the Charles Ferdinand University at Prague.

During her first year of university, Gerty discovered two things that changed her life: biochemistry and Carl Cori. Carl was the son of Carl Cori, a physician, and Martha Lippich. His father went on to get a doctorate in zoology and do research at the Marine Biological Station in Trieste where he was the director. He often took the younger Carl with him on field expeditions to do research and gather specimens. Trieste, in what is now northern Italy, was a diverse area where Carl was exposed to people of different backgrounds and developed what he called “immunity to racial propaganda.” The fact that Gerty was Jewish and he was Catholic didn’t bother him at all, but it would play a role later in their lives.

For two years they studied together and enjoyed taking trips for hiking or skiing, until in 1916, Carl was drafted into the Austrian army. In 1918, assigned to a field hospital for infectious disease, he saw first hand the effect of disease on the troops, as well as the impact of the Influenza pandemic sweeping the world. The Cori family had a history of scholarship, with a number of professors on both sides of the family. This combined with his sense of helplessness in the face of disease contributed to his desire to do research. Once the war was over, Carl and Gerty were reunited and received their medical degrees in 1920. They also published their first joint paper, beginning a collaboration that would last for their entire careers.

After receiving their degrees, they traveled to Vienna where they were married, and Carl and Gerty were both able to obtain positions doing post-doctoral research. The post war years were difficult. Research was a low priority and supplies were hard to obtain. Carl was one of the few able to do research, because his father sent him a bag of frogs. Gerty worked in pediatrics doing research on thyroid and blood disorders. The conditions were poor, however. She worked only for meals which were not very nutritious, causing her to develop a vitamin A deficiency. The fact that Gerty was a woman and Jewish, even though she had converted to Catholicism when she married made finding a position very difficult. Carl became even more uneasy about the situation in Europe when he was required to prove his Aryan ancestry for a position at Graz. They began considering moving to the United States.

Photo from the Smithsonian Institution Archives via Wikimedia Commons

After working in different cities, Carl in Graz and Gerty in Vienna, any position would only be acceptable to Carl if he could obtain a position for Gerty as well. Carl and Gerty Cori were ideally suited as research partners. William Daughaday of Washington University School of Medicine said “Carl was the visionary. Gerty was the lab genius.” In personality, they were the reverse of Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie. Carl was somewhat shy, relaxed, and a slower more contemplative thinker. Gerty was outgoing, vivacious, and a brilliant quick thinker. She was also more ambitious than Carl and more demanding in the lab.

Finally, in 1922, Carl obtained a position at the Institute for the Study of Malignant Disease (later renamed the Roswell Park Memorial Institute), in Buffalo, New York. Gerty was given a position as an assistant pathologist. Although they worked in different labs, they continued the practice of publishing papers together, even though Gerty was told more than once to stay out of Carl’s lab. Eventually, the benefit of allowing them to work together was acknowledged and the breach in protocol was overlooked. During their time in Buffalo from 1922 to 1931, Carl and Gerty established their reputations and became US citizens.

Gerty and Carl were primarily interested in studying insulin and the production of energy in the body. If you remember your high school biology, the Cori cycle explains how the body breaks down glycogen into glucose for use in muscles and converts lactic acid back into glycogen for storage in the liver. The discovery and explanation of this process in 1929 would be the basis for their Nobel Prize in 1947. This research, however, wasn’t a good fit for the work being done at the Institute, which was primarily focused on cancer research, so together the Cori’s began looking for other positions.

In spite of the fact that Gerty had published frequently, individually in addition to jointly with Carl, he began to receive job offers, not Gerty. Most of these offers, including those from Cornell and the University of Toronto, did not include a possibility for positions for her. At the University of Rochester, Carl was offered a position under the condition that he stop collaborating with his wife. Gerty was even taken aside and told that she was hindering his career because it was “un-American” for a husband and wife to work together. In fact it was very common for women to work in conjunction with their husbands during this time, although it was usually as low or unpaid “assistants” meaning that the wife rarely received recognition for her contribution. This was unacceptable to both Carl and Gerty.

Finally in 1931, they received job offers from the Washington University medical school in St. Louis. Even though Carl became the chairman of the pharmacology department, Gerty was only offered a position as a research associate at one-fifth the pay. Still they were able to collaborate and would remain at Washington University for the remainder of their careers doing groundbreaking research in glycogen utilization and with enzymes. During World War II, the demand for women scientists increased due to the reduced work force and Gerty finally became a full professor.

From left to right Dr. Carl F. Cori, Dr. Joseph Erlanger, Dr. Gerty T. Cori, and Chancellor Arthur H. Compton. Photo taken in 1947.
Copyright © Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine

Gerty and Carl were supportive of other scientists as well, hiring women and Jews when other universities and even other departments at Washington refused to do so. Eventually, the work done in their lab resulted in eight Nobel Prizes, including a joint prize for Carl and Gerty in Physiology and Medicine. Over time, Carl became more involved in writing, directing research of students, and administration, and running the lab became exclusively Gerty’s domain. As with many passionate people, she was not always liked or easy to work for. She demanded precision. The work and the results demanded it.

Both of the Coris impressed others with their depth of knowledge about a wide range of topics. For most of her time at Washington, Gerty had 5 – 7 books delivered weekly to her from a local lending library. Every Friday she would prepare her list for the next week. She loved history and biography, while Carl was a poet and read archeology and art. She was the one who constantly read journal articles and kept people in the lab up-to-date on new findings in biology and related fields.

The Coris worked hard, but also tried to leave work at the lab. They entertained, kept a garden, and continued enjoying the outdoors. It was on a mountain climbing trip in 1947 that Gerty first fell ill and they discovered she had a disease that would eventually take her life. Her bone marrow was no longer producing red blood cells. She worked almost to the end. Her only concessions to the disease were taking time out for the blood transfusions that were necessary, and setting up a cot in her office where she would lie down to do her reading. Gerty Cori died at her home on October 26, 1957.

Resources
Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmark

Posted in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Female "Firsts", Nobel Prize, Scientists, United States | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Indra Devi, the First Lady of Yoga

Indra Devi

In a huge departure from the women I usually write about, I’d like to introduce our readers to a woman who practiced the ancient discipline of yoga. Yoga was the domain of men from its inception. The earliest visual evidence of yoga comes from about 2500 BC. Men were the teachers and practitioners of yoga from that point until the early 20th C. And then, it took a persistent and assertive woman to break the barrier.

Eugenie Peterson was born in Riga, Latvia on May 12, 1899. Her father was Vasili Peterson, a Swedish bank director and her mother was Alejandra Vasilyevna, a Russian noblewoman who worked as a theater actress under the name Labunskaia. Eugenie was to go to school in Petrograd and then went to study theater in Moscow. When she was fifteen, she came across a book “Fourteen Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism” by Yogi Ramacharaka née William Walker Atkinson (1862-1932). Ramacharaka was an American attorney who left his practice to join the religious New Thought movement at the turn of the century. She also read a book by the poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore. Eugenie became so excited reading these books; she vowed to go to India someday.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, there was brutal civil war. Eugenie fled to Latvia, then Poland and ended up in Berlin in 1921. Because she was a trained actress and dancer she joined a theatre troupe and traveled all over Europe. In 1926, she learned there was an upcoming congress of Annie Besant’s Theosophical Society in Ommen, Holland and decided to go there. One evening at the congress, she heard the renowned yoga master, poet and philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti chanting in ancient Sanskrit. She was instantly moved. She was to say later her time at the congress changed her life.

In 1927, Hermann Bolm, a wealthy banker asked her to marry him. She agreed if with the caveat that he pay for a trip to India for her before they were married. He agreed and she spent three months in India. When she came back, she returned the engagement ring, telling Bolm her place was in India. She sold what jewels and furs she had and returned to India. Under the stage name of Indra Devi, she became a rising star as a dancer and actress in Indian films. During a social gathering, she met Jan Strakaty, the commercial attaché to the Czechoslovak Consulate in Bombay. They were married in 1930. Through him she met the Maharaja and Maharini of Mysore, who maintained a yoga school in their palace where Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya taught.

Indra became a colonial socialite attending receptions, balls, and horse races. She tried to meet Indians of all castes and ranges. She became friends with Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru. Her husband was very open and understanding, even though she was violating social convention. This lifestyle soon took its toll on her and she began experiencing chest pains. She spent four years taking unsuccessful treatments for her condition. A yoga practicing friend of hers suggested she try practicing yoga.

She approached Krishnamacharya. He refused on the grounds she was a Westerner and a woman. The Maharaja finally intervened and Krishnamacharya agreed to take her on as a student. She met every challenge: strict discipline, long hours of practice, diet restrictions, no use of a stove to keep warm. She had to keep up with all the requirements of the male students. The master admired her zeal so much he took her on as a private student. Some of her fellow students were to become the great masters: K. Pattabi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar. She experienced a complete recovery from her heart ailment.

In 1938, her husband learned he would be transferred to China. Krishnamacharya urged Indra to teach yoga. In 1939, she opened a yoga school in Shanghai in the home of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, wife of the nationalist leader and a yoga enthusiast. She had American and Russians students come to her school. They began calling her “Mataji” which means mother.

Indra returned to India after the war and wrote her first book “Yoga, the Art of Reaching Health and Happiness”, believed to be the first book on yoga written by a Westerner to be published in India. She was also the first Westerner to teach yoga in India. In the meantime, her husband returned to Czechoslovakia where he died in 1946. Indra departed for Shanghai to retrieve her belongings and couldn’t decide whether to go back to India or go to the United States.

Her decision was to go to the United States. About a year later she opened a yoga school in Hollywood. In an effort to publicize and spread word about yoga, she cultivated movie stars and other famous people to come to her school. Gloria Swanson, Yehudi Menuhin, Pandit Nehru, Ben Gurion, Roman Navarro, Jennifer Jones, Greta Garbo and Robert Ryan were just some of her students. She became friends with Elizabeth Arden, the expert cosmetologist who incorporated yoga into her health spa programs. Indra wrote two more books, “Forever Young, Forever Healthy” and “Renew Your Life by Practicing Yoga” which soon became best sellers. They were sold in 29 countries and translated into ten different languages.


In 1953, she married Dr. Sigfrid Knauer, a distinguished physician and humanist. She became an American citizen in the mid-fifties and her name officially became Indra Devi when she put it on her passport. Dr. Knauer bought her a twenty-four room estate in Tecate, Mexico where she gave training courses in yoga. She began speaking at conferences and on television and radio to spread word about the benefits of yoga and writing more books. She went to the Soviet Union in 1960 and tried to convince the government that yoga was not a religion and should be practiced there. It was finally legalized in Russia.

In 1966, she became a follower of Sathya Sai Baba. She began calling her yoga Sai Yoga. In 1977, Indra’s husband died. She was traveling the world lecturing and teaching, aided by her fluency in five languages: English, Spanish, Russian, French and German. In 1982, she travelled to Argentina and fell in love with the country. Her popularity was immense and she was to spend the rest of her life there. In 1988, she created the Fundacion Indra Devi which exists to this day. In 1989, the first national conference was held in Russia with Indra Devi, B.K.S. Iyengar and Guru Bhajan. In 1999, over 3,000 guests attended a party celebrating her 100th birthday. As she became older she still traveled but began to slow her pace. In 2002, her health was to worsen and she was to die peacefully in Buenos Aires on April 25, 2002. She was cremated and her ashes scattered over the Rio de la Plata.

Selected works of Indra Devi: “Yoga for Americans”, “Yoga for You”, “Pilgrims of the Stars”, “Sai Baba and Sai Yoga”

(c) 2012

Posted in Activists, Educators, Female "Firsts", Germany, Russia, United States, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Irène Joliot-Curie – For the Joy of Science

In 1925, Irène Curie walked into an auditorium of 1000 people to defend her dissertation. This was big news because she was the daughter of two time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie. The pressure could have been enormous, but as usual Irène was calm, confident, and dressed unfashionably! From an early age, Irène had dealt with her parent’s fame both positive, such as when at the age of six she calmly told the reporter who came to the house that her Nobel Prize winning parents were at the laboratory, and negative when a classmate handed her a newspaper article about her mother’s affair with Paul Langevin. She had come to see fame as something external and of no real importance. She didn’t pursue her research for fame, but for the sheer joy of the science itself.

At first glance, Irène was a quiet, shy child, some might even say somber, but as time would show, she just had little energy or attention for things that in her mind didn’t matter or that bored her. Born in September of 1897, her parents Pierre and Marie Curie were in the midst of their most intense period of research. In spite of this, she was a wanted and welcome addition to the family. Limited time and resources, however, did mean that the young parents needed help, and this came in the form of Pierre’s father, Eugene Curie. Pierre’s mother died shortly after Irène was born, so Eugene moved into the house to take care of her.

Eugene was a more openly affectionate person than either Marie or Pierre, and gave Irène, and later her sister Eve, born in Paris in 1904, much of their emotional foundation. Irène later said that many of her values and beliefs about religion and politics came from her grandfather rather than her mother. When Pierre died in 1906, Marie was so distraught that she wouldn’t let his name be spoken around her. Eugene helped the girls by talking to them and teaching them about their father. After Eugene died in 1910, Marie, Irène, and Eve became much closer and remained close for their entire lives.

Irene Curie as a child with her mother and sister Copyright © Association Curie Joliot-Curie

In spite of a more reticent personality, Marie and Eugene agreed on many things. Because of his unique personality and abilities, Pierre’s parents had home-schooled him, and Marie felt that the same approach would be better for Irène. To supplement the public school, she organized a cooperative among other scientists and academics to provide classes in their homes for their children. The subjects ranged from mathematics and science, to literature and art. Emphasis was put on creativity, play, and self-expression. Other physical and practical activities weren’t neglected either. Marie made sure the girls learned to cook, knit, and sew, as well as to swim, bicycle, and ride horseback. Irène was especially athletic. She took long backpacking trips during the summer, frequently swam the Australian crawl in the Seine, and could dance until early in the morning. It didn’t phase her that backpacking and the Australian crawl were considered men’s sports.

From an early age it was clear that Irène was very much like her father. Among her friends she was calm and relaxed, but she was less comfortable with strangers, rarely smiling in public. Her thought process was much like his as well, not as quick as Eve, but a deep analytical thinker. It was also clear that Irène would be good at science. After the cooperative ended, Marie continued to teach Irène mathematics to give her the foundation she needed, even sending problems back and forth in the mail when Marie was away at conferences. After a couple more years in public school, Irène finally entered the Sorbonne to study science.

In 1914, World War I interrupted Irène’s studies. Marie had written to Irène saying that she hoped they could both be of service, so when her mother developed a mobile x-ray unit, she went into the field to help operate and maintain them. But to say that she helped her mother is to greatly understate the situation. The need was so great that they worked independently of each other. Irène went to the front to set up, repair, and operate the units. Often they were used during surgery to help locate shrapnel in the body. When she wasn’t at the front trying to convince experienced military surgeons that a teenaged girl knew more about x-rays and geometry than they did, she was training other technicians. In spite of spending her eighteenth birthday alone at the front, she seems to have handled this time with composure and a confidence that is rare, although her mother never doubted her. Irène later said, “My mother had no more doubts about me than she had about herself.”

Irene and her mother Marie Curie working at a hospital in Belgium in 1915 Copyright © Association Curie Joliot-Curie

Once the war was over, Irène returned to the Radium Institute, run by Marie, to continue her research and study. Here in 1924, just before receiving her doctorate, Irène met Frédéric Joliot. Two years her junior, Frédéric was outgoing and charming. According to their daughter Hélène, they were “opposites in everything.” He was from a big family, had a wide variety of interests, and was much more sociable than Irène, but they shared some very important things. They loved outdoor sports, had similar political views, and loved science. When they were married in October of 1926, they had lunch at Marie’s apartment and went back to work.

Irène and Frédéric worked together for the rest of their lives and collaborated on their most important work. As with other creative teams, their approaches were very different. He moved quickly from one idea to the next, taking creative leaps, while Irène was slower in her thought process, but moved steadily toward logical conclusions. Several times they made important discoveries, but didn’t interpret the information correctly. One of these experiments was similar to that done by Otto Hahn which was interpreted by Lise Meitner leading to Hahn’s Nobel Prize. Finally, in 1935, Irène and Frédéric Joliet-Curie received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of artificial radioactivity.

In the intervening years, Irène had given birth to a daughter, Hélène in 1927, and to a son Pierre in 1932. She loved being a mother and in many ways was traditional, but she maintained her career. Although Marie died in 1934, she had lived long enough to see the experimental results that she knew would ensure her daughter a Nobel Prize. So in 1935, their lives were marred by only one thing – the growing Fascist threat in Europe.

After 1935, Irène and Frédéric no longer collaborated directly in their work. Frédéric took a position at the Collège de France where he worked in nuclear physics, building a cyclotron and raising funds for scientific research. In this position he became very powerful and contributed greatly to France’s ability to produce nuclear energy. Irène became a professor at the University of Paris, but continued as the research director at the Radium Institute. She also got involved in politics and joined several women’s rights organizations.

Irene and Frederic Joliot in 1934 photo by GFHund for Wikipedia

When the Popular Front, an anti-Fascist coalition, was elected in 1936, Irène was offered and accepted the position of under-secretary of scientific research, making her one of the first women cabinet members in France. As the war progressed, Frédéric joined the resistance and eventually, the Communist party because it was the most active anti-Fascist group in the country. Irène’s activity, however, declined. For almost twenty years she had suffered from tuberculosis and was having to take more and more time away from work and in the Alps on the “rest” cure. Finally, Frédéric, as head of his resistance organization, was forced to go underground and arranged to have Irène and the children smuggled into Switzerland, on June 6, 1944.

After the war, Frédéric was considered a hero, and appointed head of France’s Atomic Energy Commission with Irène as a commissioner. Irène was able to obtain streptomycin to cure her tuberculosis and continue her work for women’s rights and as director of the Radium Institute. For a while things were good, but by 1950, the Cold War was gaining ground and anti-communist sentiments were growing. Both Irène and Frédéric found themselves out of favor and for the first time outside the scientific community. Frédéric was fired from the Commission, and unable to obtain other scientific work, began to work for peace organizations. Irène was at least able to continue her work at the Institute, but the years of work had taken another toll.

Like Pierre and Marie before them, Irène and Frédéric were both suffering from the effects of prolonged exposure to radiation. Their health declined steadily in the 1950s. Even though Marie continued to work and worry about Frédéric’s health, she was finally unable to ignore the effects. On a trip to the Alps, Irène became ill. Returning to Paris, she checked in to the hospital and on March 17, 1856, Irène died of leukemia. Frédéric was too ill to see her for more than a few minutes. He died two years later. By this time the worst of the red scare was past and they were both honored with national funerals. They had spent their lives doing what they loved.

“I discovered in this girl whom other people regarded somewhat as a block of ice, an extraordinary person, sensitive and poetic, who in many ways gave the impression of being a living replica of what her father had been. I had read much about Pierre Curie. I had heard teachers who had known him talking about him and I rediscovered in his daughter the same purity, his good sense, his humility.” ~ Frédéric Joliot-Curie about Irène

Resources
Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith
Marie Curie – early life
Marie Curie – scientific discoveries and Nobel Prize

Posted in France, Nobel Prize, Scientists | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments

Mary Boleyn

Possible portrait of Mary Boleyn

Most people know the story of Anne Boleyn, the second of King Henry VIII’s six wives. Few people know that Anne had an older sister Mary who was the mistress of two kings. There’s a reason she’s not well known.

The best evidence that can be found suggests Mary Boleyn was born c. 1500, probably at Blickling Hall in Norfolk. Her father was Thomas Boleyn, an influential courtier of King Henry VII and King Henry VIII. Her mother was Lady Elizabeth Howard, Countess of Wiltshire and the eldest daughter of Thomas Howard, the second Duke of Norfolk. The Boleyn children received an adequate education, being taught to read, write, arithmetic, genealogy, to speak French, music, riding, hunting and hawking.

In 1513, Mary’s younger sister Anne was sent to the court of Margaret of Austria as a ladies maid, effectively passing over Mary as the elder sister. But Mary’s turn came in 1514, when Henry VIII’s sister Mary went to France to marry the French King Louis XII. Mary was to be a chamberer to the new Queen. Chamberers served their mistress in the privacy of the chamber, performing tasks beneath the dignity of the ladies-in-waiting. Mary Tudor was married in October but was Queen of France for only eighty two days. Louis XII died on January 1, 1515, leaving Mary Tudor stranded in France. Mary Boleyn’s time working for Mary Tudor ended in March of 1515, when Mary Tudor married the Duke of Suffolk and returned to England.

During this six month period of the wedding and Mary Tudor’s departure for England, Mary Boleyn probably had a short affair with King Francois I of France. Francois was tall and handsome, much like King Henry VIII and he was a notorious womanizer. Some would say debauched. The evidence was scanty so the affair was probably short lived and discreet. But Mary’s parents and her sister Anne probably knew about it. What is certain is Anne stayed on in France to serve the new Queen Claude and Mary disappears from the record until 1520.

King Francois I of France

There is some scant evidence that Mary was sent to a friend of her father’s in Brie, France, possibly in punishment for her behavior at court. She may have waited out her time there until a marriage was arranged which finally did happen in 1520. Mary’s father and possibly King Henry VIII himself arranged for Mary to marry William Carey. Carey was a cousin of the King and a privileged and intimate member of his household, holding the position of Esquire of the Body. It appears that both Mary’s family and William’s family would benefit from the match. They were married on February 4, 1520 at Greenwich Palace with the King in attendance.

Mary Boleyn’s first husband, William Carey

While we don’t know the exact date of the commencement of King Henry’s affair with Mary, it is likely to have begun about 1522. Mary participated in a pageant during a celebration for the Spanish ambassador in March of that year and may have caught the eye of King Henry with her dancing. It is possible that Mary did not go the King’s bed willingly, wanting to honor her marriage vows. Whatever happened, Mary and Henry began an affair which may have lasted until 1525.

The affair between King Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn was conducted so secretively the few people probably knew about it and the evidence for the affair is scarce. There is no doubt there was an affair, even if we don’t know the exact dates or details. During Mary’s marriage to William Carey she was to have two children: Katherine, born in March or April of 1524, and Henry, born c. March 1525. There is evidence indicating a strong probability that Katherine was Henry VIII’s child although he didn’t acknowledge her as his daughter. Because Mary was married at the time of the births of her children, they were legally considered William Carey’s children.

Mary’s daughter, Katherine Carey who bears some resemblance to King Henry VIII

Henry VIII exhibited a pattern of moving on from mistresses when they became pregnant. More than likely, when Mary was expecting Katherine, Henry moved on to someone else. Certainly by February of 1526, he was openly courting Mary’s sister, Anne. There doesn’t appear to have been any great gifts to Mary or her husband William that weren’t actually earned. The last grant given to William Carey was his appointment as Keeper of the manor, garden, tower, etc. of Pleasance, East Greenwich and of East Greenwich Park on May 12, 1526. By 1527, Carey was a moderately rich man in terms of assets but didn’t have much in the way of income. To Carey’s great misfortune, he fell ill with the “sweating sickness” in the great outbreak of the disease on June 28, 1528. Mary was a widow with no visible means of support and in debt. Her husband’s estate went to her three year old son.

King Henry was compelled to force Mary’s father to take her in at the family castle of Hever. King Henry gave the ward ship of Mary’s son Henry to Anne Boleyn. Eventually the King granted Mary an annuity of 100 pounds (32,000 pounds by today’s standard) so she was able to have a comfortable existence in her father’s home with her daughter.

In October of 1532, King Henry arranged to meet King Francois I of France at Calais, taking Anne Boleyn and about 2,000 attendants. Mary Boleyn was included in the ladies who accompanied Anne. Mary took part in a masque during the visit, dancing before Henry and Francois. During this visit, Mary may have met William Stafford who was part of the King’s retinue. In January of 1533, Anne Boleyn was pregnant and Henry married her secretly. Anne appeared in public for the first time at Easter as Queen and Mary was appointed one of her ladies-in-waiting. While attending Anne’s coronation as Queen in June, Mary may have come into contact again or for the first time, with William Stafford. By September of 1534, Mary appeared at court, visibly pregnant and had to confess she had married William for love. She hinted that William fell in love with her first. As he was twelve years younger than Mary, it could just be that Mary felt appreciated and loved for the first time and was willing to risk the shame and embarrassment of an ill-advised marriage.

Mary was banished from court and soon became impoverished. She wrote a pitiful letter to Thomas Cromwell, King Henry’s principal secretary, begging for help. Cromwell gave no help. Mary and William lived the next six years in obscurity and poverty. Where they lived is not known but there is evidence that William was a soldier at the garrison of Calais and they may have lived there until Mary’s father died in 1539 and she came into her inheritance. It was probably a good time for a Boleyn to be out of the country because her sister Anne and the Boleyn family had a spectacular and tragic fall in fortune during this time.

After a long wait, Mary finally received her inheritance in April of 1540. William Stafford had a good and long career in the King’s service. Mary was to die on July 19, 1543 of unknown causes. It is also unknown where she was buried. As the reader can see, there are many unknown details of the life of Mary Boleyn.

Resources: “Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings” by Alison Weir, “Henry VIII: King and Court” by Alison Weir
Anne Boleyn

(c) 2012

Posted in England, France, Queens and Rulers, Scandalous Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments