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The high cost of low ambitions

“Oh, the humanity!” has long been associated with radio broadcaster Herbert Morrison’s anguished cry as the giant airship Hindenburg burst into flames in May of 1937.

Today, there’s a fascination with corporate “unicorns” — start-ups worth at least $1 billion. Superficial mottos like “Don’t Be Evil” pass as high-minded altruism. In this environment, the idea that humanitarianism would drive someone’s ambition seems somewhat remote. But there was a time when benefiting mankind rather than monetary gain served as the prime motivation for scientific discovery and technological advancement.

Marie Curie, the winner of two Nobel Prizes in two different fields (physics and chemistry), discovered Radium and Polonium and made immense medical contributions in the treatment of cancer.

Less well known is the heroic role she played in World War I. Marie Curie carried France’s entire supply of radium in a lead-lined suitcase to keep it out of German hands, and developed portable x-ray machines that treated more than one million wounded soldiers on the battlefield.

Talk about a woman who leaned-in! Yet, with barely enough money to conduct her research, she refused to cash in on her discoveries. “Radium is an element, it belongs to the people.”

Dr. Jonas Salk went so far as to test his polio vaccine on himself and his family. Although it cured the most feared disease of the 20th century, he never patented it, forfeiting a fortune worth an estimated $7 billion. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Selfies and Instagram. Marie Curie and Jonas Salk.

“Oh, the humanity!”  Oh, the humanity, indeed.