Marie Curie and Her Tenacity

"One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done"

Marie Curie, Polish-born French scientist

 

As bombs pounded the surrounding fields, the earth trembled with each detonation. The soldiers at the guard post were hunched over, covering their heads out of reflex. But two people stood straight and tall, looking into each other's eyes, challenging each other. He, in his impeccable officer's uniform; she, in her standard black dress, splattered with mud. The French army officer ended up granting the woman's request.

—Open the door, let Madame Curie pass.

Marie Curie bowed her head in gratitude, accepted her safe conduct pass from the veteran soldier, and returned to the ambulance. Known as Petites Curies, these particular ambulances came about during the Battle of the Marne, where they went out to the battlefields, thanks to a heroic initiative of the distinguished Nobel Prize laureate from Poland.

They were mobile x-ray units, as well as ambulances, and attended to over a million soldiers on the front lines of World War I. During those four years of war, Madame Curie herself would train more than 150 nurses and put 85 of these "Little Curies" into circulation.

On this occasion, however, Marie had come to the front lines to see an old friend. Friend? Yes, indeed. Marie herself was surprised that, considering the conditions under which they met, this absent-minded genius would quickly endear himself to her.

It was in the director's office at the Pasteur Institute, four years after Pierre's death... Ever since 1906, Marie had always dressed in black; the day she met Regaud was no exception. She also had a highly irritable disposition. When the scientist walked into the office, Marie was loudly expressing her indignation at the institute's director about the division of the laboratories: apparently, nearly half of the useful space at the institute would be given to Regaud for his research.

When the shy scientist entered, he seemed to regret having arrived early. But he remained calm, until Madame Curie started questioning him about his research. She did not let him finish answering:

—Thank you, Mr. Regaud. You may go now.

When he closed the door, Curie turned back toward the director:

—I agree to the distribution of the space.

The dumbfounded director could not believe her sudden change of heart.

—What made you change your mind? You didn't even give him a chance to explain his advancements…

—I didn't need to... His eyes were sparkling from the moment I asked him. I want to work with him.

What the director of the Pasteur Institute had no way of knowing was that his most reputable scientist had been fighting a terrible depression since the death of her husband Pierre. The passing of time did not matter: a huge gap in Marie's heart seemed to be slowly devouring her, starting with her curiosity as a researcher. The same thing that had led the young couple to an austere life when they decided not to patent their discoveries in radioactivity, offering their research to the scientific community, so that others could advance further and faster than they could in this new field…

They were scientists, not entrepreneurs; artists in atomics who earned a Nobel Prize in their lifetime, an award that Marie would win again years later. This was unimportant to them: they had given themselves body and soul to a greater cause, to which they gladly devoted their utmost energy.

But since 1906, Marie's activity had suffered a setback. She was unable to stay enthusiastic about a project. Regaud's arrival appeared to be a breath of fresh air. Would he be the one to rescue her from this deep apathy?

World War I made that a moot point, of course. But it achieved the unthinkable: It got Marie out of her home, out of the laboratory, to help the wounded as best she could. And what she did was to assemble the first x-ray devices to assist in operating on the wounded, saving thousands of lives…

Regaud, meanwhile, had set up the most successful field hospital of the war, disobeying the orders and bureaucratic protocols of his superiors. The two would be reunited at last, after months of war. What would they talk about?

Marie's little ambulance made its way through the bombed-out fields without a single scratch. She had practically grown accustomed to the mortar shells screaming by, the dull sound of detonations and the way they shook the ambulance…

—Regaud, old friend…

—You look good, Marie. How are you?

—For the first time in ten years, I feel such peace inside…

That conversation would plant the seed for the radiology center known as the Curie Institute. The cradle of Nobel laureates, including Marie's oldest daughter, Irène, and her husband. And the development of an industry that was a pioneer in the way it combined science, technology and medicine. Ultimately, it was an enterprise that would rekindle the spirit of Marie Curie and reignite her great passion: to engage in research to benefit all of humankind.

Some highlights we would like to share from the story of Madame Curie:

  • The sadness of an irreparable loss in life can turn into a positive when one discovers a sense of great mission to focus on.
  • That kind of sadness does not disappear: there must be acceptance and out of that can come great strength.
  • Love and passion for a job is contagious, just like talent.
  • Faced with a hardship as great as World War I, regret is not the only answer: There is room to work wonders through the initiative and creativity that transcend such a context.