Marie Curie, born Maria Salomea Skłodowska, was a self-sacrificing genius with an incredible work ethic and a complete disdain for money. She was also radioactive.
To this day, Curie’s papers (including her cookbooks) are considered too dangerous to handle due to their levels of radioactive contamination. Her notebooks are sealed in lead-lined boxes, and those who wish to check them must wear protective clothing.
Marie Curie was a person of firsts. She was the first woman in France to earn a Ph.D. (in Physics, 1903). The first woman to win the Nobel Prize (in Physics in 1906, sharing the prize with her husband, Pierre Curie, and physicist Henri Becquerel for their pioneering work in the field of radioactivity).
The first person and the only woman to win the Nobel prize twice (a second Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1911 for discovering the elements radium and polonium – named after Marie’s home country of Poland – and for the isolation of radium). The first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris in 1906. The first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris in 1995.
The Curie family has received the most Nobel prizes to date. Ève Curie Labouisse, Marie Curie’s second daughter, joked about this legacy:
There were five Nobel Prizes in my family, two for my mother, one for my father, one for [my] sister and brother-in-law and one for my husband. Only I was not successful.
Irène Joliot-Curie, Marie Curie’s first daughter, received the Chemistry Prize in 1935 together with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie. Henry Labouisse, Ève Curie’s husband, was the director of UNICEF when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965 on UNICEF’s behalf.
I recently finished Ève’s fascinating biography about her mother, aptly called Madame Curie: A Biography. There were a plethora of captivating insights into the life of a most remarkable woman. The recurring theme across the memoir was Marie’s intense passion for science above anything else.
Her husband, Pierre, was equally devoted to scientific research. For example, this is how Pierre proposed to Marie: “It would…be a beautiful thing,” he wrote, “to pass through life together hypnotized in our dreams: your dream for your country; our dream for humanity; our dream for science.”
As a woman, Marie was supposed to delight in taking care of her family, not chasing new chemical elements. And so, in 1903, the Nobel Prize was initially offered to only Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel for their combined, though separate, work on radioactivity.
However, it was Marie who discovered that atoms weren’t indivisible as previously thought and then hypothesized that new elements much more radioactive than those previously discovered must exist. And it was Marie who isolated radium salts after years of back-breaking work in an improper shed. Also, Marie herself coined the term of radioactivity.
For these reasons, Pierre initially rejected the Nobel Prize unless Marie got it as well. After the Nobel prize, it was only Pierre who got offered a teaching job at the Sorbonne. He hired Marie as the official head of his laboratory.
It was suggested to Pierre and Marie to create patents for their innovations. Such patents would have brought a massive wealth as millions of people use their discoveries today (cancer treatments, medical instruments or food sterilization, carbon dating, nuclear power plants, etc.) Marie replied to such ideas: “Radium was not to enrich anyone. Radium is an element. It belongs to all people.”
After Pierre’s unexpected death in 1906 (accidental death, he fell beneath the wheels of a horse-drawn vehicle), Marie was offered her husband’s teaching position at the Sorbonne, becoming the first woman to teach there. Ève discovered in her mother’s diaries how Marie found solace in science after Pierre’s death: “I am working in the laboratory all day long, it is all I can do: I am better off there than anywhere else.”
During World War I, Ève wrote,
The hospitals, both at the front and behind the front, were almost unprovided with X-ray equipment. By a spontaneous transposition of her scientific knowledge, Marie foresaw what the horrible carnage would require: a large number of radiological stations must be created at once. And in order to follow the movements of the armies with some flexibility, light equipment would be necessary.
Marie outfitted portable X-ray vehicles to treat the wounded soldiers and transport the injured from the front lines to the hospitals. These vehicles, known as petites Curies (“little Curies” in French), were ordinary automobiles where Marie installed X-ray equipment. In Marie’s words, “the use of the X-rays during the war saved the lives of many wounded men; it also saved many from long-suffering and lasting infirmity.”
After World War I, Marie Meloney, a leading journalist from the United States, asked Marie during an interview: “What would you like to possess most?”
And Marie answered gently: “I need a gram of radium to continue my researches, but I cannot buy it: radium is too dear for me.” In the 1920s, when the interview took place, one gram of radium was $100,000 (over $1,000,000 today).
At this point, I had to stop reading the book and think of the situation’s absurdity. The discoverer of radioactivity who freely shared all required information about radium’s isolation and purifying processes couldn’t afford the financial means to acquire one gram of radium to continue her research.
Marie Meloney made a promise to Marie Curie that she would obtain one gram of radium for her. Marie Meloney conducted a United States nationwide campaign that successfully raised the necessary money “primarily by means of small donations and the help of many women throughout the country.”
Marie travelled with her daughters, Irène and Ève, to the United States, where Marie was presented with the precious gram of radium. True to her nature, when Marie discovered that the radium gift had been made to her, she insisted on updating the legal papers to donate the radium to her laboratory. Marie’s reason was that in the event of her death, the radium should be used by her laboratory and not sold by her family.
Nevertheless, although Marie did acquire the radium for her study, this doesn’t diminish from the cruel misfortune where a researcher or a laboratory that made a phenomenal discovery can’t afford to continue their research when they could have patented their findings. Ève asked these haunting questions:
How can one not be obsessed by the idea that a simple signature given on a patent years ago would have been altogether more effective?
How can one avoid thinking that a rich Marie Curie could have given laboratories and hospitals to her country?
Had twenty years of struggle and difficulties given Marie any regret?
Had they convinced her that by disdaining wealth, she had sacrificed the development of her work to a chimera?
Marie replied to these questions in her journal:
A large number of my friends affirm, not without valid reasons, that if Pierre Curie and I had guaranteed our rights, we should have acquired the financial means necessary to the creation of a satisfactory radium institute, without encountering the obstacles which were a handicap to both of us, and which are still a handicap for me. Nevertheless, I am still convinced that we were right.
Humanity certainly needs practical men, who get the most out of their work, and, without forgetting the general good, safeguard their own interests. But humanity also needs dreamers, for whom the disinterested development of an enterprise is so captivating that it becomes impossible for them to devote their care to their own material profit.
Without the slightest doubt, these dreamers do not deserve wealth because they do not desire it. Even so, a well-organized society should assure such workers the efficient means of accomplishing their tasks in a life freed from material care and freely consecrated to research.
In his book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates talks about the importance of government funding to provide financial support to research institutes.
Reiterating Marie’s view, governments should make “bigger bets on high-risk, high reward R&D projects… We need governments to commit to funding mega-scale projects (in the range of hundreds of millions or billions of dollars) that can advance the science of clean energy (my note – or any other vital science for humankind). And they need to commit to funding them for the long haul so that researchers know they’ll have a steady flow of support for years to come.“
The selfless acts of Marie’s generosity remind me of researcher and virologist Jonas Salk that developed the polio vaccine. When he was asked who owns the patent of the vaccine, he replied:
“Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
Had Salk patented the polio vaccine, he would potentially have amassed around $7 billion.
Nowadays, Katalin Karikó, the biochemist that developed with her colleague Drew Weissman the technology for the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, is in a few ways similar to Marie Curie. Over long years, Katalin’s work was stalled because of a lack of money. She first saw how mRNA worked in 1989. In her words: “That was when I knew it would be something. We couldn’t get money then because it was too novel.” It wasn’t until decades later that she could have a chance to obtain a significant finding in mRNA research.
I can’t but wonder where our world would be without Marie’s intense labour for years in a shed doing thousands of crystallization processes to separate radium from pitchblende. Where would we be if Jonas were to put a patent on the polio vaccine? Where would the vaccine research be without Katalin’s obsessive and tireless work about mRNA?
Perhaps those inventions would have been attained by others. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Because for every Marie, Pierre, Jonas, Katalin, there are legions of other science dreamers that never had and never will have a real chance of a breakthrough. And if they do have a chance, their work might still be largely ignored. The reasons for these conditions are unfortunately too many: money, cultural settings, discrimination, indoctrination, prejudice, etc.
Today, we know better, but Marie and her family took no precautions in handling radioactive substances. Marie kept a sample of radium next to her bed as a nightlight. She also carried vials of radium in her lab coat’s pockets.
In all the pictures that remained of Marie, Pierre, Irène or her husband Frédéric, they are shown handling laboratory instruments and substances with bare hands.
As a testament to the dangers of touching the unknown, Marie died at age 66 of aplastic anemia (a medical condition often caused by radiation exposure).
Irène died at 58 years of leukemia, most likely due to her work that involved overexposure to radiation.
Frédéric survived his wife, Irène, only by two years and died at 58 years of liver disease, possibly caused by radiation.
Ève, the only member of her family who did not choose a scientific career, died at 102 years. Nonetheless, all were dreamers that left the world a better place.
In the end, Ève captured the selfless vision of her parents best when she described what they did after they refused to patent their discoveries:
They had chosen forever between poverty and fortune. In the evening, they came back exhausted, their arms filled with leaves and bunches of field flowers.
Previously published here.
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