By Corinna Wu
Madame Curie's Not-So-Magic Pill
A radioactivity pioneer, Marie Curie saw the potential of radiation therapy to treat cancer, but not the advances against her own family's cancer
By Corinna Wu
On May 12, 1921, a White Star ocean liner docked at a pier in New York City. On board was Marie Curie, one of the most famous scientists of her time. She was greeted by a throng of reporters, photographers and well-wishers; some had waited for hours for the ship to arrive.
Curie and her late husband, Pierre, had done pioneering work on radioactivity and shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 with physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel. In the years since then, researchers had begun exploring the medical potential of the radioactive element, called radium, which the Curies had isolated. The day of Marie Curie’s arrival in New York City, the headline in the New York Times read, “Mme. Curie Plans To End All Cancers—Says Radium Is Sure Cure, Even in Deep Rooted Cases, if Properly Treated.”
Marie Curie believed that radium had great promise as a treatment for cancer, as well as for other conditions. (Although upon seeing the hyperbolic newspaper accounts of her arrival, she immediately clarified her statements. The next day, the Times printed a follow-up reading “Radium Not a Cure for Every Cancer.”) So Curie gave away much of the radium she had isolated to researchers and physicians to allow them to treat patients with it. In fact, one of the reasons for her trip to the United States was to receive a gift of radium—one gram worth $100,000—from the president himself, Warren G. Harding.
But ironically, the radium that was being touted as a cancer cure-all may have contributed to Curie’s death in 1934. It’s not entirely clear if she had leukemia, but the doctor who cared for her described the cause as “aplastic pernicious anemia … The bone marrow could not react probably because it had been injured by a long accumulation of radiation.” Curie’s daughter Irène, also a scientist who studied radioactive elements, was diagnosed with leukemia and died of the disease in 1956.
As radium’s devastating health effects became known, its use as a cancer therapy was soon discredited—though other forms of radiation would eventually be used successfully to treat many types of cancer. And treatment options for leukemia, unavailable in the Curies’ time, soon came on the scene. Now, as scientists learn more about the biology of the disease, they are developing drugs that can keep it in check, and in some cases, even cure it.