History credits the discovery of uranium to a German chemist, Martin Henrich Klaproth, in 1789. In 1896, just over a century later, a French chemist, Eugene-Melchior Peligot, discovered uranium’s radioactivity. Uranium ore, known as pitchblende, was revealed shortly after by Marie and Pierre Curie as the source of radium, which they mentioned as a possible future treatment for cancer.
Polish born Marie, (her name was Sklowdowska) was the first woman to win a Nobel prize, and the first person to win twice — in 1903, in physics, for her work on radiation, and in 1911, in chemistry, for discovering polonium and radium. Only she and Linus Pauling have won in two different fields. (She also developed the practical use for x-rays that dramatically enhanced patient care on the battlefields of World War I).
Marie successfully isolated radium, which was ultimately used in fluorescent paints, photographic chemicals, lamp filaments, and stains and dyes used in wood and leather industries. Those and other uses prompted a surge in uranium mining in the early 1900s, which involved moving enormous amounts of earth because radium (created by the decay of uranium atoms) was harvested at the rate of roughly 0.14 grams per ton of uranium ore. The great mass of material left over was used for a wide range of color glazings in the pottery and tile industries. And that ends our brief lesson on the barest basics of uranium and radium history.
Between the time they won the Nobel Prize together in 1903 and Marie’s second win in 1911, Pierre was killed in a tragic accident. While crossing a Paris street, he was struck by a horse-drawn cart, a wheel of which rolled across his head, causing a fatal skull fracture.
Marie, devastated at the loss of her husband and research partner, somehow carried on, continuing her research while raising two young daughters. In the years previous to the accident, friends had noted the Curies’ less-than-optimal health, which the pair dismissed as the effects of physical exhaustion and drafty work conditions. But Marie eventually became quite ill from working with dangerous substances.
Despite health issues, there was talk in the late 1920s of a second visit to America. Her first trip, back in 1921, had been a highly successful fundraising endeavor. One gift alone — a single gram of radium — was valued at $110,000 ($1.4 million in 2018).
Because of her fragile health, Curie’s itinerary for the 1929 visit was limited to about a half-dozen events, including a stop at the White House, where she received a $50,000 check from President Hoover. In New York City, she attended the annual dinner of the American Society for the Control of Cancer. At Dearborn, Michigan, she was a special guest of Henry and Edsel Ford for an event christened, “Light’s Golden Jubilee.” Invitations described the gathering as, “A Celebration in Honor of Mr. Thomas Alva Edison on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Invention of the Electric Light, and the Dedication of the Edison Institute of Technology by the President of the United States.”
Prior to the 1929 trip, eleven major American universities had requested that Madame Curie visit their campuses to accept honorary degrees, leaving the world’s most famous female with some difficult choices. That’s where the North Country — the Adirondacks and foothills — scored a coup of major proportions, thanks to Owen D. Young, an attorney with some very impressive credentials. Among other accomplishments, Young was a trustee (from 1912 to 1934) of the school he once attended, St. Lawrence University in Canton, and was chairman of the board from 1924 to 1934. He was also a founder of RCA (a subsidiary of General Electric), served as GE’s general counsel for many years, and was chairman of the board of directors of GE from 1924 to 1939.
Over the years, General Electric had provided many pieces of equipment to Curie, a favor she would now repay in spades. She joined Young for a tour of the GE labs in Schenectady, followed by a trip north through the Adirondacks to Canton. The highly anticipated journey was covered both regionally and nationally, for Curie was perhaps the most famous woman on the planet, and widely admired across America as a hero scientist whose work had saved thousands of lives. In the future, that tally would grow to countless millions, and Curie would be revered as one of history’s greatest scientists.
St. Lawrence University’s school paper, The Hill News, described part of her reception: “As they entered the chapel, the thousand or more students and visitors who had been fortunate enough to secure seats, rose in respect to the knowledge, sacrifice, and genius personified in Madame Curie.”
Many more platitudes would follow during her stay. Columbia University’s Dr. George Pegram, speaking on “Madame Curie, the Discoverer,” closed with, “The nobility of Madame Curie’s life has been such that our admiration for her character almost eclipses her scientific achievements.”
Frail, in pain, and badly weakened from years of handling dangerous substances, Curie was guided forward by Young to receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Sciences. She was considered by many the most distinguished scientist in the world, a truly notable achievement epitomized by the fact that “woman” often did not appear before the word scientist. Such admiration and recognition without mention of gender was a rarity.
Dr. Charles Gaines, at age 74 a St. Lawrence University icon, read a poem dedicated to Curie, ending with the lines: “Let all the ghosts of alchemy bow down, While on this woman’s brow we set the crown.”
Madame Marie Curie then dedicated the Hepburn Hall of Chemistry with the only speech she gave during the 1929 trip, opening with, “I dedicate this laboratory to scientific research in the field of chemistry. It is a pleasure as well as an honor for me to have been asked to come to St. Lawrence University on this occasion.”
But to everyone in attendance, it was clear that the honor was all St. Lawrence’s, for Curie, a star of unequaled magnitude, was now one of them. It was a momentous occasion in the college’s, the county’s, and the North Country’s history.
This article was first published on the Adirondack Almanack.
Photos: Marie Curie, 1920 (Wikipedia); President Harding with Marie Curie, 1921 (Library of Congress); headline, Ogdensburg Republican-Journal, 1929