Women scientists and pandemics

DATE: 2022-10-22

By Sen, Amartya

Economia Politica Vol. 39, No. 1 (2022): pp. 7-14.

Issue Date: Apr 2022

Date Published: Oct 22, 2021

I begin with a personal recollection, which relates to the subject of my paper. When I was 18 years old, my life was saved by a woman scientist whom I never met. The savior was a Polish physicist, called Maria Saloma Sklodowska, who studied in Paris. She won the Nobel Prize twice, respectively for Physics and Chemistry, and both these contributions were related to radioactivity. The Prize in Physics was for work that Maria—by then known as Marie Curie—jointly did with her husband Pierre Curie. The Prize in chemistry which she got 8 years later, she received alone, for work that consolidated the scientific understanding of radioactivity, yielding an integrated framework for the whole world to follow. By then Marie Curie was the leading star in radioactivity research.


The first radioactive material Marie found, she called “polonium,” in honour of her country of birth. The second one she studied was radium. It was the use of radioactive material in the form of a “radium mold”—devised by Marie Curie—that my Calcutta cancer hospital used in 1952 to rescue me from a severe case of oral carcinoma. My doctors had concluded that with standard medical treatment (mainly surgery), I had the possibility, maximally, of living for 5 more years. It was a rather depressing forecast to hear at the age of 18, as I then was.


Then my doctors brought Marie Curie’s radium into the story in my Calcutta hospital, which was, by then, only 2 years old, having been inaugurated in 1950 by Marie’s daughter Irene Joliot-Curie (also a Nobel laureate in Chemistry). In one of the early applications of radiation treatment which was by then just getting into medical use.


The doctors placed a calculated amount of radium in an open lead case in my mouth, to be kept there for 5 h a day for 7 days (not a pleasant exercise, I should note). The treatment was a success, since it is now—not 5 years—but nearly 70 years since I had the radiotherapy devised up by Marie Curie. The experience not only firmed up my respect for modern science, I also became a great admirer of Marie Curie’s exceptional talents and innovative mind. It was also clear to me that the scientist with the greatest influence on my life would probably be a woman - not a man.

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