Carrying forward Marie Curie’s legacy in the 21st century
This year commemorates the centenary of the iconic Marie Curie’s historic visit to Washington D.C. heralding a century of innovations in the fight against cancer, a leading cause of death worldwide that will affect one in three Americans over their lifetimes.
Curie’s pioneering research on radioactivity earned her two Nobel Prizes and paved the way for a new era of cancer treatment. Additionally, generations of women in science and medicine have followed in her footsteps inspired by Curie’s remarkable accomplishments, passion for research and perseverance.
Throughout her career, Curie faced significant prejudice and discrimination as a woman and as a Polish immigrant to France. Despite winning an unprecedented second Nobel Prize, she was never admitted to the all-male French Academy of Sciences. While Curie set the stage for women to enter scientific fields that had only been open to men, a century later, many barriers still impede women attaining leadership positions in science and medicine, with females comprising just 18 percent of medical school deans and significantly underrepresented as students, tenured faculty and department chairs in other STEM fields.
As we reflect on Curie’s legacy and the progress that has been made, many actions are still needed to prevent and cure cancer as well as to advance the careers of women in science and medicine.
Born in Poland, Marie Skłodowska immigrated to France to study physics, chemistry and math at the University of Paris because women were not permitted to attend the University of Warsaw. To pay for her studies and support her family, she tutored students and served as a governess. Scientific research thrilled her. In Paris, she met Pierre Curie, worked in his lab and they began an extraordinary partnership, marrying in 1895. Their research led to a novel theory called “radioactivity,” a term that Madame Curie coined, and won them a Nobel Prize in physics in 1903.
Initially, only her husband and the physicist Henri Becquerel were proposed to receive this prestigious award, but Pierre Curie insisted that Marie be recognized for her contributions. At the Nobel Prize awards ceremony, the president of the Swedish Academy diminished Marie Curie’s role in his remarks, suggesting that she had been her husband’s helpmate. After Pierre’s tragic, accidental death in 1906, Marie was appointed as the first female professor at the Sorbonne where she continued groundbreaking research.
Their landmark discovery of two new elements — radium and polonium — earned Curie a second Nobel Prize in 1911. This pioneering work demonstrated that radiation is a powerful tool with a wide range of potential applications from the exploration of atoms, to radiochemistry, to radiobiology and radiation oncology.
Curie became extremely interested in exploring the medical uses of radiation. For example, during World War I, she promoted the use of X-rays as a diagnostic tool, supplying hospitals with radiology equipment and training 150 technicians. She herself conducted more than 1000 X-ray exams of soldiers on battlefields. Following the war, Curie was convinced that her research could help advance human health and became involved in the fight against cancer. In 1921, with her colleague Dr. Claudius Regaud, Director of Biological Research at the Radium Institute in France, they established the Foundation Curie to study the role of radiation in cancer therapy.
But Curie’s scientific research was in jeopardy without funding to support her work. In 1920, she said in an interview with a pioneering American woman journalist, Marie Mattingly Meloney, that her most fervent wish was to obtain a gram of radium (the element that she had discovered) to continue her studies but it was too expensive to purchase. Meloney, a feminist figure at a time when women in the United States had just obtained the right to vote, appealed to the generosity of the American people asking them to donate to the Marie Curie Radium Fund. In 1921, Curie and her daughters crossed the Atlantic to receive a gram of radium purchased with $100,000 of funds (the equivalent of $1 million today) that was raised by American women. During a ceremony at the White House, President Harding presented this gift to her.
Marie Curie’s place as a scientific trailblazer is undisputed: Her 1903 Nobel Prize was the first awarded to a woman. She remains the only woman to win this honor twice and the only person to win in two different scientific fields. Yet since the time Curie shattered this ceiling, only seven women have won Nobel prizes in chemistry and four in physics, comprising just 3.8 percent and 1.9 percent of laureates to date in these fields, respectively.
A century after Curie’s scientific achievements, the number of women earning graduate degrees in science, engineering and the medical fields has increased in the United States but not fast enough. In 2017, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education, women accounted for 32.4 percent of all STEM degree recipients, representing a 66 percent increase from 2008. Nevertheless, women — especially women of color — are still significantly underrepresented as students and on university faculties in STEM fields relative to their presence in the workforce and the U.S. population. This is also true for academic leadership positions in medicine: In 2020, while women represented the majority of first-year medical students, they represented only 20 percent of medical school department chairs. As we reflect on Curie’s legacy, increasing the number of women in STEM fields and in leadership positions in these disciplines must be a priority.
A conference at the French Embassy today honors a century of innovation in cancer research since Curie’s discoveries as well as underscores the friendship between the United States and France. Descendants of Marie Curie and Marie Mattingly Meloney will meet for the first time to honor their relatives’ important contributions and historic relationship. The convening will look ahead to the future of cancer research and treatment, including advancing the important field of chemical biology. An application of this field is to increase knowledge about metastasis — which accounts for 90 percent of cancer deaths — and to discover strategies to prevent it.
Global cooperation is a hallmark of cancer research; it was reflected in the gifts of radium to Madame Curie by the American people one hundred years ago. Today global cancer centers of excellence such as the Institut Curie continue this tradition by hosting scientists from over 80 countries who collaborate on interdisciplinary studies of the many factors that contribute to cancer growth, to discover cures and to provide cutting-edge clinical care. New scientific directions are being explored there and around the world to modernize the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer in the 21st century including deepening our understanding of cancer genomics and epigenetics, developing precision tumor-targeting drug therapies, novel diagnostic methods such as blood tests that can detect the disease very early and advancing health equity.
As we commemorate this centennial of Curie’s visit to America, let us remember her words, “I never see what has been done; I only see what remains to be done.” As we reflect on Marie Curie’s legacy, its impact on cancer research and treatment and on inspiring generations of female — and male — scientists who follow in her footsteps, it should not be lost on us that while significant progress has been made, much more still remains to be done.
Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal (ret.), MD, MPA, former U.S. assistant surgeon general, is a senior medical adviser at amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, director of the Health Innovations Lab at New America, and a visiting professor at the MIT Media Lab.
Emily Stark is a research associate in health policy at New America.