Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Marie Curie Once Visited the North Country

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.”

At the Hepburn building, which had been completed in 1926, Owen Young announced, “She who christens this building has her back to all that is known, and her face to all that which is unknown.”

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.

Next week: the Adirondack Uranium Rush

Photos: Marie Curie, 1920 (Wikipedia); President Harding with Marie Curie, 1921 (Library of Congress); headline, Ogdensburg Republican-Journal, 1929

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.


2 Responses

  1. Don Pachner says:

    Interesting story…but might be helpful to clarify timelines when you note Young was a “founder of RCA [subsidiary of GE, sic]”…RCA was an independent corporation during the early part of the century and was not acquired by GE until 1986.

    • Lawrence Gooley says:

      Interesting comment … but might be helpful to read RCA’s full history. When RCA was founded, GE was the major shareholder. They were required to divest control in 1932. They reacquired it in 1986. You can find that and more on Britannica, Wikipedia, and many other sites. Many sites refer to the original RCA as GE’s wholly-owned subsidiary.
      So I’ll stand by the statement, “He was also a founder of RCA (a subsidiary of General Electric)” as correct.

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