A couple of years ago, a photograph was published on Twitter of a group of radiation oncologists in the radiation treatment room at MD Anderson Hospital in Houston. The people in the photo were all women, under the hashtag, “Women Who Curie.” They were celebrating the legacy of Madame Marie Curie and her pioneering work in radiology that daily inspires their mission.
As I looked at the photograph of the nine doctors at MD Anderson, I realized that Madame Curie’s legacy was far greater than Nobel Prizes and scientific advancement. She added the benefit of opening previously closed doors in science and medicine to women. Madame Curie was not just perceived as a female interloper seeking equality in disciplines generally reserved for men. She was also an immigrant, a double minority at the Sorbonne. She was ignored and pushed aside and denied lab space and vital equipment. She succeeded by virtue of an iron will and unrelenting genius.
Few people realize that she passed up Bill Gates-type wealth by not seeking a would-be priceless patent for radium, the element she and her husband Pierre discovered. She said the element “belongs to the people.” That act of philanthropy paved the way for institutes like MD Anderson, and her pioneering work for women served to staff them with brilliant professionals, too. Sometimes I wonder how much further along the human race would be now had we not denied education to half of us for most of recorded time.
One little-known story about Madame Curie is that she feared at one point that she would not be able to complete her degree at the Sorbonne for lack of funds. She had resigned herself to the idea that she would have to remain in Poland and live a life as a tutor or a governess.
Then came the miracle. She received, unexpectedly, the Alexandrovitch Scholarship of 600 rubles – about $300. She calculated that it was enough, if she lived meagerly, with little heat and less food, to complete her master’s degree. She did, graduating first in her class. And that was just the beginning. A little over a year later, she earned another degree, in mathematics. As soon as she took her first job, from her first paychecks, she pulled out 600 rubles and paid back the Alexandrovitch Foundation for the scholarship they had given her. This had never happened before. The foundation was shocked, but as Madame Curie’s daughter said of her mother: “In her uncompromising soul she would have judged herself dishonest if she had kept, for one unnecessary moment the money which now could serve as life buoy to another young girl.” Now, that’s paying back and forward.
Madame Curie went on to be the first female Ph.D. at the Sorbonne and the first female professor as well. In addition, she was awarded not one, but two Nobel Prizes, in different sciences – the first person, male or female, ever to achieve that distinction.
So as I looked at the photograph of the women she inspired at MD Anderson, I thought of Madame Curie’s influential reach across a century, across vast oceans. MD Anderson doctors have received the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Award from the American Association for Women in Radiology four times in twenty years. MD Anderson also maintains a sister institutional relationship with the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Cancer Center in Warsaw. Marie is still enlightening minds, inspiring the academically marginalized and healing the sick, even here in Texas.