Integrity, Scientific Endeavor, and Radium

March 3rd, 2010
Jim Thomas

Integrity is the indispensable virtue.  We desire it among our friends.  We expect it from professional people.  Business seeks it in commercial transactions, and we admire it in our public officials. Commonly cited but rarely defined—ask for a definition and you receive a dozen—we know it when we see it, and it wins our everlasting respect.

An unforgettable incident of it occurred in Paris more than a century ago.  It involved an acclaimed scientist, Marie Sklodovska Curie, and her husband, Pierre, also a gifted chemist.

“Madam Curie,” as the world would come to know her, emerged from obscurity in Poland to appear as a student of chemistry and physics at the University of Paris in the latter part of the 19th century.  She would go on to win Nobel prizes in both disciplines.

While researching various aspects of magnetic properties, she detected powerful radioactive rays coming from a source of unknown origin.  She and Pierre theorized the rays were coming from a new element, later named and identified as radium.  They set out to isolate it

The Curies labored in an unheated shed for four years. With little compensation, inadequate laboratory equipment, and little support from the University, both worked to the point of physical and mental exhaustion.  Nevertheless, they persisted.  In 1902, after forty-five months, Marie succeeded in isolating from pitchblende a single decigram of pure radium.  It was one of the century’s greatest scientific discoveries.

It was obvious radium would precipitate a vast new medical technology and wealth for its producers and suppliers, including the Curies.  They were faced with a choice: they could restrict and patent their processes and join the exploitation of radium—an American firm was already contacting them; or, they could publish their data in the public domain and lose their proprietary rights.

She refused the commercial alternative, knowing it would mean what she and Pierre had never known—financial security.  Said she, “It is impossible.  It would be contrary to the scientific spirit.”  She added, “Radium is not to enrich anyone.  It is a chemical element.  It belongs to the people.”  Thus, in the scientific journals of the day, the fruits of their labors were made public.  While a new industry emerged, making millionaires in the process, the Curies continued to labor in poverty with their scientific endeavors.

Wrote Walter Lippmann in A Preface To Morals, “One has virtue that can hold to a standard of conduct and belief when it is inconvenient or unprofitable to do so.”  Of Marie Curie, herself, Albert Einstein added, “She, of all celebrated beings, is the only one fame has not corrupted.”

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