Sunday, 30 November 2014


What is it like for a person to be "selfless"?

Marya Sklodowska was born in Poland in 1867.  Like Nelson Mandela, she was born in one century, and died in the next - in a new and different era.  That change in their respective settings and centuries could be attributed largely to the influence each of them exerted in their sphere

Like Mandela, Marya came from a disadvantaged background.  She too was a single orphan, she lost her mother as a child, whereas Mandela lost his father.  But compared to Mandela - who enjoyed the limelight - Marya cherished privacy.  Later in life, when she won her second Nobel prize, her husband stated that the media attention that this attracted was the worst thing that had ever happened to them!

Mandela’s life took a turn when he moved to the big city of Johannesburg.  In Marya’s case, the sea change came when she got to Paris.  Both of them spent their first few years completing their studies and struggling to get established in their respective professions – he as a lawyer and she as a scientist.  In their cities, they each got married – Nelson to Evelyn and Marya to Pierre Curie.  So she became better known by her francophone name Marie and her married name Curie.  She has come to be known, in fact, as Madame Curie.  Yet I have never known of a person who was more selfless:

  • After finishing high school she put her own education on hold and worked to put her older sister through college.  After graduating from medical school, her sister reciprocated
  • She practiced an austerity that verged on self-denial.  She rented small rooms that were so sparsely furnished that she didn’t even hang pictures on the wall!
  • With a wedding gift she received, she bought two bicycles that she and her groom used for the honeymoon – pedaling through the countryside of France
  • She worked in abysmal conditions, far beyond the limits of normal working hours - all for the sake of her passion for scientific research
  • She declined to patent any of her discoveries or inventions, leaving them instead to posterity for the advancement of science
  • She shared much of her prize money with others in need, in part to establish two radium research institutes – in Paris and Warsaw
  • She worked behind the front lines of battle in World War I training 150 X-ray technicians to use this new diagnostic tool that she had developed to locate bullets and shrapnel for removal from wounded soldiers
  • She exposed herself to radioactivity levels that shortened her life.  She died of leukemia induced by overexposure, before her time

She was the first women ever to be awarded a PhD in France.  And the first woman ever to win a Nobel prize.  And the first person ever to win Nobel prizes in two different sciences – Physics (1903) and Chemistry (1911).

In this respect, the parallel to Nelson Mandela refers.  At Marie Curie’s time in France, it was unthinkable for a woman to even be nominated for a Nobel laureate.  In fact, she wasn’t – her husband and another scientist (Henri Becquerel) were.  But in more liberal Sweden, the Nobel committee awarded her the prize nevertheless, realizing that she was being discriminated against.  Who could have dreamed that after 3 decades of incarceration, Mandela would become President?  Both scenarios were breathtaking – and rooted in selflessness.  Justice and “the beauty of science” were paramount to them.

One irony is that Alfred Nobel himself had made his personal fortune from discovering and patenting dynamite.  Upon his death, he bequeathed that fortune to fund the Nobel prizes.  Either one of Marie Curie’s discoveries could have been patented far beyond the value of dynamite – Xray and radioactivity.  (It was she, in fact, who coined that word “radioactivity” to describe what she had discovered.)  Yet she declined to register patents for the sake of “pure science” for its own sake.  Excellence is its own reward.

“True grit” is part of selflessness as well.  Mandela toughed it out in prison for 27 years for the cause he championed.  He did hard labour in the lime quarry on Robben Island.  Like Marie Curie, his own health was affected by his exposure – in his case, to the fine dust, that damaged his tear ducts.

As for Marie, it is almost inconceivable just how much physical work she did!  Processing uranium ore (pitchblende) to refine polonium and later radium is painstaking, time-consuming hard labour.  In this, she was her own prisoner.  The final product turned out to be one-millionth the volume that you start with (compared to one litre of maple syrup which is boiled down from 30 litres of tree sap!)  Imagine – one million to one… processed by one person working by herself for about 4 years.  It was back breaking work.  Marie’s resolve is epitomized in this quote… she said: “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.” 

She was also very loyal – for example, naming Polonium after her beloved homeland. 

Albert Einstein said: “Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted.”  In this, her selflessness is also similar to Mandela’s – whose movement became horribly corrupt after his voluntary retirement.

Which makes me wonder…

Have we lost an appreciation for virtues like selflessness, zealous resolve, prudence, and tenacious loyalty?

Have these been corrupted into attitudes like self-preservation, cynicism, a preoccupation with credentials and track records, and fashion crazes?

At the root of Corruption are bad attitudes.  Let us adopt role-models that serve as mirrors.

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