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Maria Skłodowska-Curie: Illuminating Brilliance

Photo: 1911 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Nobel Prize Diploma. Courtesy Wikipedia. Public Domain

Author: Katarzyna Litak, M.D.

"The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing."

On February 3, National Women Physician Day, we pay tribute to the remarkable achievements of Maria Sklodowska-Curie. While she may not have been a physician herself, the impact of her groundbreaking scientific discoveries has forever transformed the field of medicine.

Maria Sklodowska-Curie's contributions to science, particularly in the realm of radioactivity, have had a profound and lasting influence on medical practices and research. Her pioneering work with radiation paved the way for advancements in diagnostic imaging techniques, such as X-rays, which have become indispensable medical diagnosis and treatment tools. Moreover, her discovery of the elements polonium and radium opened new avenues for cancer treatment, leading to the development of radiotherapy and revolutionizing how we approach this disease.

Although Maria Sklodowska-Curie's field of expertise was not medicine per se, her immense contributions have intersected with and greatly benefited the medical profession. Her scientific discoveries continue to inspire generations of women physicians and scientists, reminding us of the remarkable achievements that can result from relentless dedication, curiosity, and groundbreaking research.

"I was born in Poland. I married Pierre Curie, and I have two daughters. I have done my work in France."

Maria Skłodowska-Curie (1867-1934) was a trailblazer in many respects, leaving a lasting legacy of numerous remarkable achievements. She achieved several notable firsts throughout her illustrious career. Maria was the first woman to ever receive the prestigious Nobel Prize in 1903, and she is the only woman to have won the Nobel Prize twice, receiving the accolade in both 1903 and 1911. Furthermore, she remains the only individual to have received Nobel Prizes in multiple disciplines.

Maria Skłodowska-Curie was also a pioneer in academia. She became the first woman to obtain a doctorate in France. She broke barriers by assuming the position of Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences at the renowned Sorbonne in Paris. Her significant contributions to science and her immense impact on society were further recognized when she became the first woman to be interred in the prestigious Pantheon in Paris, based on her exceptional merits.

Notably, Maria's achievements extended beyond her personal accolades. She was the wife of Nobel Prize winner Pierre Curie and the mother of Irene Joliot-Curie, who would also go on to receive a Nobel Prize for her groundbreaking work in radioactivity, transmutation, and nuclear physics. Maria Skłodowska-Curie herself coined the term "radioactivity," further solidifying her pivotal role in advancing our understanding of this fundamental scientific phenomenon.

The extraordinary achievements of Maria Skłodowska-Curie serve as an inspiration and a testament to her indomitable spirit, immense talent, and tireless pursuit of scientific excellence. Her contributions continue to shape the fields of science and academia, leaving an indelible mark on the history of human knowledge.

1903 Diploma of Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded to Pierre and Marie Curie. Both shared this distinction with Henri Becquerel, whose name is mentioned in the document. Courtesy: Wikipedia. Public Domain

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Born in Warsaw under the rule of the Russian Empire, Sklodowska-Curie embarked on her scientific journey in her hometown's laboratory, which was led by her cousin, an assistant to Mendeleev. Hindered by her gender, she could not pursue higher education at the Imperial University of Warsaw. Nevertheless, Sklodowska-Curie and her sister engaged with the clandestine Flying University, a significant patriotic and educational movement in the Russian Empire. After her sister moved to Paris to study medicine, Maria supported her by working as a governess.

At the age of 24, Sklodowska-Curie joined her sister in Paris, where she received support to further her education. She enrolled at the University of Paris and graduated with degrees in physics and mathematics. Although initially intended to return to Poland, her aspirations were thwarted when she was denied a professorship position at Krakow University due to her gender. With this setback, Sklodowska-Curie returned to France and continued her pioneering work. During this time, she crossed paths with Pierre Curie, who provided laboratory space for her. In 1895, Pierre became her husband.

Throughout her life, Sklodowska-Curie proudly retained both surnames and remained deeply connected to her Polish heritage. She ensured the presence of Polish employees at the Radium Institute in Paris, considering it not only as an educational opportunity but also as a foundation for a similar institute in Poland. This vision became a reality with the establishment of the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Memorial Cancer Center in free Poland in 1932. In her commitment to preserving her Polish identity, Maria taught her daughters the Polish language, employed Polish governesses, and even bestowed the name "polonium" on one of the elements she discovered, derived from the Latin term for Poland, "Polonia." Sklodowska-Curie actively championed the Polish cause during World War I and advocated for establishing an independent Polish state. Her unwavering dedication to her heritage and remarkable scientific achievements inspire generations.

Sklodowska-Curie front row third left. Photograph courtesy of Benjamin Couprie, Institut International de Physique Solvay, Brussels, Belgium. Public Domain. Solvay Conference 1927, 29 scientists attended the Fifth Solvay Institut International de Physique in Brussels to discuss the newly formed quantum theory. Seventeen of them were already or went on to become Nobel Prize winners.

The impact of Sklodowska-Curie on the fields of science and medicine is immeasurable. Despite facing discrimination as a young female scientist, she asserted herself by promptly publishing her original ideas to ensure clarity and ownership. Her dedication to prioritizing the dissemination of her work was unwavering. Unfortunately, despite her accomplishments and outstanding contributions, Sklodowska-Curie encountered gender-based obstacles that prevented her from speaking about radioactivity at the Royal Institution in London when she accompanied her husband in 1903. However, her work inspired Pierre Curie to join her in their collaborative research endeavors.

In 1922, Sklodowska-Curie's exceptional scholarship and scientific contributions led to her election as a member of the Academy of Medicine in Paris. Her advocacy for radiotherapy, which emerged due to the groundbreaking discovery of natural radioactivity by Becquerel and the Curies, revolutionized therapeutic and diagnostic medical approaches. Radium, attributed to the discovery of "Mme. Curie," was prominently displayed at the Paris Expo in 1900. The Curies' research revealed the potential of radiation in combating cancer cells. Today, radiotherapy remains a cornerstone in oncological treatment. Notably, Sklodowska-Curie chose not to patent her discoveries, viewing them as a gift to humanity rather than a means for personal gain. During World War I, Sklodowska-Curie limited her research activities and endeavored to contribute to the war effort. She attempted to donate her gold Nobel Prize medals to support the cause. In addition, she assumed the director role of the Red Cross Radiology Service. Sklodowska-Curie was vital in procuring mobile X-ray equipment known as "Little Curies," deployed close to the front lines, providing critical medical aid to those in need. Her daughter, Irene, also contributed significantly as a nurse radiographer during the war.

Sklodowska-Curie's unwavering dedication to scientific progress and her selflessness in supporting medical advancements during times of conflict exemplifies her profound impact on science, medicine, and humanitarian efforts. Her legacy continues to inspire countless individuals in their pursuit of knowledge and their commitment to improving the well-being of humanity.

“You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for his improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those we think we can be most helpful."

Maria Sklodowska-Curie was not only a groundbreaking scientist but also an ardent activist who dedicated herself to promoting scientific cooperation, advancing knowledge, and utilizing science for the betterment of humanity. Despite facing gender bias, limited diversity, and exclusions, Maria fearlessly pursued her passion for learning, science, and serving others. Her unwavering dedication and remarkable contributions were widely acknowledged during her lifetime, resulting in numerous prestigious awards and honorary degrees bestowed upon her. Sklodowska-Curie's legacy continues to inspire generations of scientists, leading to the creation of numerous biographies, plays, movies and the establishment of institutions in her honor. Her impact as a patron of various organizations further solidifies her enduring influence on the scientific community and beyond. Maria Sklodowska-Curie's profound commitment to scientific progress and her tireless advocacy for the importance of diversity and inclusivity continue to resonate and inspire individuals worldwide.

"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 with something and that this thing must be attained."

Update: 9/14/23

"On Jul. 31, 1920, a local newspaper announced that a new radium hospital in Rochester, Minnesota (in operation for about 6 weeks), was officially open. The facility was called the Curie Hospital, named after Madame Marie Sklodowska Curie, who, along with her collaborator and husband Pierre Curie, discovered radium. The hospital had 36 beds for Mayo Clinic patients who needed x-ray or radium treatments. Dr. Harry H. Bowing was its medical director. Through correspondence with Curie, Dr. Bowing obtained individual autographed portraits of the two famous scientists. Madame Curie was particularly touched by his request and the honor of having the hospital named after her. As a result, she included with her late husband's photograph a scrap of paper with his signature, one of the few that she had left."

For more information visit Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

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