I thought it fitting in the month in which we celebrate both International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, to take a moment to acknowledge the contribution of Marie Curie to cancer treatment.
Madame Curie was born Maria Sklodowski in Poland, in 1867 and was one of the first female scientists to win worldwide fame, and indeed, one of the great scientists of this century. She is most famous for being the co-discover (with husband Pierre) of the radioactive elements polonium and radium, and as the first person to win two Nobel prizes.
Madame Curie’s life story is a story of personal determination and dedication to science. As a child she dreamed of becoming a scientist like her father, but his death impoverished the family, making her dream more difficult. Marie became a governess, financing her sister’s studies to become a doctor. Later, her sister returned the favour, helping Marie study at the Sorbonne University to become a physicist and chemist. It was there that she met and married Pierre Curie, a well-known physicist.
After the sudden death of her husband, Marie showed her strength of character once more, refusing a government pension and instead taking his place as a professor at the University of Paris, becoming the first woman to teach there. She also managed to raise her two small daughters (Irène, who was herself awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935, and Eve who became an accomplished author) while continuing her brilliant career. She once said “I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy.”
In her studies of x-rays, Marie found that their harmful properties were able to kill tumors. This was a significant contribution to cancer treatment,and yet concerned more with humanitarian causes than financial rewards, she made the decision not to patent methods of processing radium or its medical applications. In World War I, she made possible mobile X-ray trucks which helped diagnose wounded troops. She gave away the two golden Nobel medals to raise funds for the war efforts.
All the while working with radioactivity, Marie had no idea of the effect it was having on her own health. She didn’t wear protective clothing, and worked with radioactive materials with her own hands, keeping radium in her desk drawer, or in a pocket of her dress. It is thought her long exposure to radioactive materials precipitated her death in 1934.
So next time you have an x-ray, think of Marie Curie and her selfless dedication to improving our lives. She is famously quoted as saying “life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.” We may not all be destined for fame as celebrated scientists, but we are all “gifted for something”, and with the example of Marie Curie before us, we can strike out with determination and confidence to achieve our own greatness.