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A Tribute to Nobel Laureate Madame Marie Sklodowska-Curie

(The following is a post by Regina Frackowiak; Reference Specialist, European Division.)

Marie Curie. Poughkeepsie, NY: Bain News Service, ca. 1921. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.

Marie Curie. “O nowych cialach promieniotwórczych” (On new radioactive substances). Kraków: Nakl. Komitetu Gospod. IX. Zjazdu Lekarzy i Przyrod. Polskich, 1900. General collections.

Maria Sklodowska was born 150 years ago, on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Poland. Both of her parents were teachers who deeply believed in the importance of education. Maria was given her first lessons in physics and chemistry by her father. She showed a great aptitude for learning and had a great thirst for knowledge. Because advanced studies were not possible for women in Poland—which at that time was partitioned between the Russian Empire, Austria-Hungary, and Prussia—Maria dreamed of studying at the Sorbonne in Paris. She began working as a tutor to save money for her studies, and at the age of 24 she left for Paris to study mathematics and physics at the Sorbonne. Three years later, she passed all of her examinations with highest distinction and was planning to take a teacher’s diploma and return to Poland. That never happened, as she met and married an internationally-renowned physicist, Pierre Curie, and became Maria Sklodowska-Curie, also known as Marie Curie. The couple’s lifetime journey was entirely filled with work and study.

“Any shell fragments in the wounded?” American Red Cross X-ray ambulances in World War I used technology made possible by Marie Curie. Detail from a March 18, 1918, image in the American National Red Cross photograph collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

In July 1898, the Curies announced the discovery of a new, highly radioactive element, which they named polonium, after Marie’s homeland. In 1903, as a result of this discovery, the Curies and a colleague were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in physics “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena.”

Marie Curie was the first woman awarded a Nobel Prize. After she again became a Nobel laureate in 1911, this time for chemistry, she became the first person—and the only woman—to win multiple Nobel prizes. The second award came “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element,” according to the Nobel Foundation.

In 1915, Marie used her expertise in science to aid the war effort in France. With funds from the Union of Women of France, a philanthropic organization, she converted a number of cars into mobile radiological units containing portable X-ray machines. These units, known as “little Curies,” were used to pinpoint the location of shell fragments and bullets in wounds. Throughout World War I, Marie Curie, as director of the Red Cross Radiology Service, and assisted by her daughter Irène, devoted herself to the development of X-ray applications. This work laid the foundation for the Radium Institute in Paris, which opened in 1918.

Deed (May 19, 1921) between the Marie Curie Radium Fund of New York City and chemist Marie Curie of Paris, France, presenting Curie with one gram of radium for use in her research. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

Deed (May 19, 1921) between the Marie Curie Radium Fund of New York City and chemist Marie Curie of Paris, France, presenting Curie with one gram of radium for use in her research. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

Deed (May 19, 1921) between the Marie Curie Radium Fund of New York City and chemist Marie Curie of Paris, France, presenting Curie with one gram of radium for use in her research. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

In 1921, American socialite, journalist, and magazine editor Mrs. William B. Meloney (Marie Mattingly Meloney) arranged for Marie Curie and her two daughters, Irène and Ève, to visit the United States. Meloney and Curie first met in 1920, when Curie agreed to do an interview for Meloney’s magazine, “The Delineator.” In her interview Curie expressed a desire to obtain a gram of radium for her laboratory. At $100,000 per gram, pure radium was extremely expensive (approximately $1.2 million in today’s money), and in the aftermath of World War I neither the French government nor wealthy French patrons could afford such a price. In response to Marie Curie’s wish, Meloney organized a donation campaign, collecting money from women across the United States for the “Marie Curie Radium Fund,” to purchase a gram of radium from Standard Chemical.

Marie Curie and President Warren Harding. National Photo Company: May 20, 1921. National Photo Company Collections, Prints and Photographs Division.

Marie Sklodowska-Curie holding President Harding’s arm in 1921 after she was presented with a gram of radium on behalf of the women of America. Presidential File, Prints and Photographs Division.

While visiting the U.S. in 1921, Marie Curie gave a number of lectures, including one at Vassar College. General collections.

In the same year, Curie traveled to the United States to publicly accept the gift. On May 20, she was received at the White House by President Warren G. Harding, who presented Curie with a key to a small lead-lined box that contained the radium, as “the gift of the American Women” to the “adopted daughter of France” and the “native-born daughter of Poland.” During this visit, Marie Curie received nine honorary doctorates from prestigious U.S. colleges and universities where she gave lectures. She also visited laboratories and industrial sites, where she impressed everyone with her expertise and personal modesty.

Eight years later, in 1929, Marie Curie returned to the United States to receive a $50,000 gift from the hands of President Herbert Hoover. This money bought another gram of radium, intended for a Polish cancer hospital sponsored by Marie Curie. Her supporter and a lifelong friend, Marie Meloney, was again the generous spirit behind the fund-raising. Marie Curie received the gift on October 30, 1929, as an expression by the American people of their gratitude for the “beneficent service Madame Curie has given to all mankind,” as stated by President Hoover.

Marie Curie succeeded in establishing a Radium Institute both in Paris and Warsaw, where scientists from many countries trained and conducted research, laying the foundations of modern oncology. Although the use of radium for cancer treatment offered hope to previously incurable patients, radium also had a dark side. Maria Curie died in 1934, aged only 66, of aplastic anemia from prolonged exposure to radiation during her scientific research and work in field hospitals. She paid the ultimate price for her dedication and contribution to the sciences and medicine.

From left, Mrs. Meloney with Irène, Marie and Ève Curie. Detail from a Bain News Service image, date unknown. George Grantham Bain Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

Mme. Curie seated with her daughters surrounding Mrs. Meloney in back row. Detail from a Bain News Service image of unknown date. George Grantham Bain Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

Marie Curie was one of the great scientific minds of the 20th century, and one of the first women scientists to gain worldwide fame and recognition. Her pioneering studies of radium and polonium contributed profoundly to understanding radioactivity. She was the first to use the term “radioactivity” and the first woman in Europe to receive a doctorate in science. She was also the first female lecturer, professor, and head of a laboratory at the Sorbonne University in Paris. During her life Marie Curie received 15 gold medals, 19 honorary degrees, and other awards. For her achievements, she was the first woman laid to her final rest under the dome of the famous Panthéon mausoleum in Paris where French luminaries were laid to rest.

Thank you, merci, dziekujemy, Madame Sklodowska-Curie!

Marie Sklodowska-Curie sometime between 1910 and 1934. Prints and Photographs Division.

The Library of Congress online catalog lists hundreds of titles, in a number of languages, relating to Madame Curie, including works authored by her. Of particular interest is the Manuscript Division’s deed—shown above—between the Marie Curie Radium Fund of New York City and chemist Marie Curie of Paris, France, presenting Curie with one gram of radium for use in her research.

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