From The Editor | January 24, 2024

Love In The Lab: 3 Couples Who Were More Than Just Lab Partners

John Oncea

By John Oncea, Editor

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When the scientist in Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science” exclaimed, “Good heavens, Miss Sakamoto, you're beautiful!” it didn’t mark the first time love found its way into a lab. Couples have been mixing amor and research for centuries and here, we take a look at five famous pairings – some of which resulted in Nobel Prizes!

“Love is in the air, everywhere I look around,” sang John Paul Young back in 1977.* “Everywhere” even includes the lab, where researchers and scientists have been making romantic breakthroughs right alongside their scientific ones.

Quick. How many married couples have been nominated for and won Nobel Prizes? That would be six: Marie and Pierre Curie, Irene Joliot-Curie and Frederic Joliot, Gerty and Carl Cori, Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, Mary-Britt and Edvard Moser, and the most recent laureates, Esther Duflo-Banerjee and Abhihit Banerjee.

An additional 17 couples have been nominated but have not won the coveted Nobel Prize, including the first couple nominated, Edwin and Lucia Ames Mead, as well as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Franklin Delano and Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, and Juan Domingo Peron and Maria Eva Duarte-Peron.

In physics, Pierre Connes and Janine Roux-Connes were nominated for their development of the Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy method while Bernard Pullman and Alberte Bucher-Pullman were nominated in chemistry for their contributions to the application of quantum chemistry to predicting the carcinogenic properties of aromatic hydrocarbons.

Let’s take a look at five of the science community’s most famous couples, whose love ranks right up there with pop culture couples such as Bennifer, Brangelina, and today’s hottest duo: Traylor.**

* It’s also in every sight and every sound, in the whisper of the trees, in the thunder of the sea, in the rising of the sun, and when the day is nearly done. Who knew?

** On a personal note, my nephew, Dan, and his girlfriend, Izzy, are, of course, Dizzy.

The Sum Of All Our Evolution, Our Thinking, And Our Accomplishments Is Love

Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze was about 13 years old when she married 28-year-old Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry. Their marriage was an arranged one, negotiated after Marie-Anne received a marriage proposal from the 50-year-old Count d'Amerval, writes Scientific Women.

Marie-Anne’s father Jacques “tried to object to the union but received threats about losing his job with the Ferme Générale. To indirectly thwart the marriage, Jacques Paulze made an offer to one of his colleagues to ask for his daughter’s hand instead.”

This colleague was Antoine, who accepted the proposition, and he and Marie-Anne were married on December 16, 1771. “The Lavoisiers used Marie-Anne’s dowry to construct a well-equipped laboratory for their studies, writes Abclonal Technology. “It was a time before Nobel Prizes, but the Lavoisiers secured their spot as the first great couple in science.”

Antoine “was soon appointed to a government post at the Arsenal and began his rise through the chemical ranks,” writes Linda Hall Library. Madame Lavoisier, as Marie-Anne was better known, was Antoine’s “competent assistant in nearly all of his experiments; in addition, she provided the illustrations for most of his published works, including the revolutionary Traité élémentaire de chemie of 1789.” During their time in the lab together, the Lavoisiers reinterpreted how oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide interacted with each other with Antoine, in 1778, proposing the oxygen theory of combustion.

The Lavoisiers’ work laid the foundation for modern chemistry, and their contributions are widely recognized in the history of science. Unfortunately, Antoine – a member of the Ferme-Générale, a tax collection agency – “was arrested along with the other administrators during the Reign of Terror and executed by guillotine on May 8, 1794, at age 50,” Linda Hall Library writes. “As a countryman said at the time, ‘It took only a moment to cause this head to fall, and a hundred years will not suffice to produce its like.’”

Madame Lavoisier defended her husband, pointing out he was the greatest chemist that France had ever produced, to no avail. Making matters worse, her father also was executed the same day.

“Marie-Anne was outraged that other high-ranking scientists, such as Gaspar Monge and Count Fourcroy, had not come to her husband’s defense, and historians have shown that her bitterness was well-grounded,” writes Linda Hall Library. “Marie-Anne was 36 when Antoine was executed; she would live another 42 years and become quite prominent in Parisian society.

“She even briefly married another scientist, the American/Englishman/Bavarian whirlwind, Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, but their marriage was tempestuous and short-lived, their discord no doubt aided by the fact that even in her new marriage, she refused to be called by any other name than Madame Lavoisier, for she carried on the battle for Antoine’s reputation until her death.”

The Greatest Science In The World, In Heaven, And On Earth Is Love

Marie Sklodowska was born in 1867, 31 years after Madame Lavoisier died. She and her sister “attended the Floating University, which was an illegal night school, to progress their education,” the Library of Congress writes. “She then worked as a governess for a few years before following her sister to Paris where she could study at the Sorbonne, also known as the University of Paris.”

It was at the Sorbonne where Marie was introduced to Pierre Curie, professor of the School of Physics, in 1894. A year later, they were married and began their reign as the King and Queen of French science. “The Curies worked together investigating radioactivity, building on the work of the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen and the French physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel,” Scientific Women writes.

“By July of 1898, they had successfully isolated a new element from pitchblende, a uranium ore, which Marie named “polonium,” after her cherished homeland (of Poland), Linda Hall Library writes. “Six months later, they discovered another new element in pitchblende, this one much more radioactive than uranium itself, and this element they named radium. The discovery was announced just after Christmas, 1898, a scant three years since Roentgen had given the world a Christmas present of X-rays.”

In 1903, the Curries, along with Becquerel, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for their discovery. “Because she was a woman,” notes Discover Magazine, “Marie was originally excluded from the award. To his everlasting credit, Pierre complained and, with the aid of sympathetic Nobel committee members, ensured Marie was rightfully acknowledged. She became the first woman — and the Curies the first married couple — to win a Nobel.”

Pierre and Marie were at the point “were blissfully happy” but tragedy would soon strike.

“Three years (after winning the Nobel Prize), Pierre was dead, the result of a tragic accident,” writes Linda Hall Library. “He was crossing the Rue Dauphine in Paris, near the Pont Neuf, when he was run over by a horse-drawn cart. Knocked to the ground, his head was crushed by a cartwheel, and he died instantly. He was only 46 years old, and he left behind not only his wife Marie, but two daughters: Irene, born in 1897, and Eve, born in 1904.”

Marie was appointed as Pierre's successor by the Sorbonne. In 1911, she won a second Nobel prize, making her the first woman and the first person to win two Nobel awards. Despite the loss of Pierre, she continued to do productive work for several more decades, as did her two daughters. However, life was never the same again after his passing.

“Marie died of aplastic anemia in 1934, the result of continuous radiation exposure for well over 30 years, at a time when radiation danger was not understood, and radium was thought to have beneficial therapeutic value,” Linda Hall Library writes. “Marie once described how wonderful it was, in the early years, when she and Pierre would go to their lab at night; all the tubes and capsules of samples would be shining with an ethereal gleam, which Marie described as a lovely sight, the tubes glowing like tiny fairy lights.”

The Curries “shared a common dream and passion which was one of the reasons for their powerful bond,” writes the Library of Congress. “It’s easy to admire them for their commitment to each other and science.”

Pierre sent love letters to Marie and, in one of them, wrote, “It would, nevertheless, be a beautiful thing in which I hardly dare believe, to pass through life together hypnotized in our dreams: your dream for your country; our dream for humanity; our dream for science.”

Science Teaches To Think But Love Teaches To Smile

Many couples worked together in the lab after the Curries including their daughter Irene and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie. They shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for their discovery of artificial radioactivity.

Around the same time, Gerty and Carl Cori were making significant contributions to the field of biochemistry. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1947 for their work on the catalytic conversion of glycogen.

But the final couple of focus here is more recent: a Norwegian pair known for their groundbreaking work in the field of neuroscience, particularly for their discoveries related to the brain’s navigation system.

Edvard Moser was raised on the isolated Norwegian islands of Haramsøya and Hareidlandet to which his parents moved from Germany following World War II. May-Britt Andreassen also was raised in a scenic, sparsely populated area: the town of Fosnavåg on the Norwegian island Bergsøya.

The two met, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), at the Ulstein Vidaregåande Skule, a prestigious high school where they were in the same physics and chemistry classes. “I remember him as the brightest in the class but shy,” May-Britt says of Edvard.

They reconnected in Oslo after Edvard’s compulsory year-and-a-half of military service following graduation in 1981 and were married four years later when both studied psychology at the University of Oslo.

Both initially focused on mathematics, statistics, and programming and “were interested in behaviorism, now more commonly known as behavioral psychology and its systematic approaches. Although they appreciated that behavior could be broken down into elementary laws, they sought explanations that involved underlying neural mechanisms.”

“Their first lab work, on hyperactivity in rats, taught them behavioral theory and experiment design,” the Nobel Prize site reports. “But they wanted to go inside the brain. They implored neurophysiologist Per Andersen to take them on, even though they were psychology students. Swayed by May-Britt’s determination, he sent the students on a quest: he would accept them if they built a water maze lab from scratch. Together, they did, and with Andersen’s guidance, they studied the hippocampi of rats navigating their maze.”

The Mosers completed their Ph.D.s in neurophysiology in 1995. Following their postdoctoral training in Edinburgh, they joined neuroscientist John O'Keefe at University College London. During the 1970s, O'Keefe discovered that specific neurons in a rat's hippocampus were activated when the rat was in certain locations within a room. He concluded that these “place cells” formed a map of the room.

The couple moved on, accepting assistant professor positions and a lab at the University of Science and Technology in Trondheim in 1996, and started trying to find the origin of O’Keefe’s place-cell signal. “They placed electrodes in the hippocampus of a rat that fed into a computer, mapping onscreen the exact spot where the rat was when each neuron fired,” reports the Nobel Prize site. “This way they could watch the rat brain at work.”

After about a decade of research, May-Britt and Edvard published a groundbreaking paper on the discovery of grid cells in 2005. This led the couple to identify “neurons that they dubbed border cells, which fire near environmental boundaries. They also found that the brain’s sense of direction is hard-wired according to a minimum of four distinct senses of location and that memories are organized into 125-millisecond bites.”

May-Britt and Edvard were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2014, along with John O'Keefe, for their contributions to the understanding of the brain’s “inner GPS.” Though they divorced two years later, the couple continues to work in steadfast pursuit of their shared passion: uncovering the workings of the brain.

“We have a common vision, and it is stronger than most,” says May-Britt. The Moser's research has implications not only for understanding basic brain functions but also for potential applications in fields such as neuroscience, psychology, and neurology.