Author(s): Per Olov Enquist
Having been diagnosed with hysteria in 1878, Blanche Wittman was committed to Salpetriere Hospital for sixteen years. Under the care of the famous M. Charcot she was regularly displayed before a public audience in a cataleptic state. Over time the nature of her participation in these demonstrations changed, as did her relationship with M. Charcot, until eventually she graduated from patient to assistant. On leaving the hospital, she was hired by Marie Curie to work in her Paris laboratory, where, on 17 February 1898, after successful experiments conducted with the mineral pitchblende, radium was discovered. So enchanted was Marie by its soft blue glow that she took to keeping a glass vial of radium salts at her bedside. For Blanche, the effects were more brutal; exposure to radiation necessitated the amputation of all her limbs, save one. Marie did not escape tragedy altogether; her husband and collaborator Pierre was weakened by illness and subsequently killed having wandered in front of an oncoming horse and cart. Following Pierre's death Marie embarked on an ill-fated love affair which, in 1911, almost cost her a second Nobel Prize.