Monday 17 May 2021

Week 20: Marie Curie arrives in New York with her two daughters

100 years ago this week: Week 20

In May 1921, Marie Curie crossed the Atlantic with her daughters, not to visit the new world but instead to collect a gramme of radium that had been paid for by dontations from hundreds of American women. The wonderful photo - published on the front page of Excelsior as she arrived in New York - features four remarkable women, flag bearers of a different new world.

Disembark with them here and read the story of this historic trip.

(Excelsior, May 22, 1921)

Mme Curie and her daughters, Irène and Eve, on the bridge of L'Olympic

It was Mr Harding himself, we informed you yesterday, who presented Mme Curie with the gramme of radium donated by American universities. Mme Curie, who crossed the Atlantic on L'Olympic, was accompanied by her two daughters, Irène and Eve, as well as by Mrs William Brown Meloney, an American journalist, who had specially made the trip to Paris in order to escort the famous scientist on her voyage to the new world.


The story of this visit to America began a year before the trip. The editor of American magazine The Delineator, Marie Mattingly Meloney (pictured above), was granted a rare interview with Marie Curie in her laboratory in Paris. It would prove to be a life-changing encounter for both women, and an emotional moment. Meloney later wrote about her visit:

"The door opened and I saw a pale, timid little woman in a black cotton dress, with the saddest face I had ever looked upon. Her kind, patient, beautiful face had the detached expression of a scholar. Suddenly I felt like an intruder. My timidity exceeded her own. I had been a trained interrogator for twenty years, but I could not ask a single question of this gentle woman in a black cotton dress. I tried to explain that American women were interested in her great work, and found myself apologising for intruding upon her precious time."

Marie Curie was by this time a double Nobel prize winner, and her dedication to helping injured soldiers on the frontline of the WW1 battlefields had also increased her renown. Interestingly, this 'fame' appeared to be greater in the USA than in France, where she was still known as the widow of Pierre (who had died in 1906).

During the interview, Marie Mattingly Meloney asked the other Marie what she would most like in life, and the physicist replied "a gramme of radium to continue my research", before pointing out that her laboratory didn't have the necessary resources to acquire such a quantity. The journalist took careful note and promised to find a way to help. 

How was it possible that the person who had discovered radium, who had shared detailed information about the extraction process, and who had given radium away so that cancer patients could be treated, found herself without the financial means to acquire the expensive substance? 

In 1920, the price for one gramme of radium was around $100,000, but cheaper in the USA than France because of the Uranium mines and industrial facilities situated in the country. Meloney conducted a nationwide campaign of women donors, and quickly succeeded in raising the money. When this figure was reached, Meloney also achieved another exploit - she persuaded Marie Curie to travel to the United States to receive the gift. 

Welcome to America 

Marie Curie was 53 when she made her first trip to America, but she appears older in the photos. She was crossing the Atlantic to collect the donated radium, but it was this substance that was slowly killing her, and she was already suffering ill-health at this time. She was accompanied by Irène (aged 23), who was already working with her in the laboratory and who would also collect a Nobel prize in the following decade, and Eve, aged only 16. As Eve liked to point out, she was the only member of her family - and this includes her parents, sister, nephews, uncle and cousins - not to choose a scientific career. Instead her mother encouraged her towards the arts, and she became an excellent pianist, as well as a writer (she wrote a noted biography of her mother's life), journalist and ambassador for good causes. She also lived until the age of 102, whereas her sister - who to some extent sacrificed herself to science - died aged 58 from a Polonium related cancer, like their mother. 

Curie and her two daughters were met at the New York dock by a herd of journalists, including twenty-six photographers. It was something of a shock for Marie Curie who, as her daughter Eve pointed out, "did not know how to be famous". 

After a series of public appearances, Meloney and Curie travelled together on May 20 to Washington to receive a special key from President Warren G. Harding. This key opened a lead-lined mahogany box that the two women picked up a few days later from the Standard Chemical Company, which also contained the gramme of radium.

I'm not sure about the science, but this procedure seems unwise from today's perspective. You can read all about the special box Marie Curie picked up here, and although weighing 46kg and lead-lined, it confirms that it was not thick enough to prevent radiation from the gramme of radium from escaping! 

Marie Curie and her daughters stayed for six weeks in America, and Marie would return again later in the decade to pick up another gramme of radium. Her daughter Eve later became an American citizen, and died in New York in 2007. 

100 years ago, the photo captured a moment where four women were about to change the course of science, transatlantic relations and their own lives. 

From left to right, Marie Mattingly Meloney (Missy), Irène Curie, Marie Curie and Eve Curie


C-Marie said...

So thankful for their work, and so sorry for the illnesses they suffered.

God bless, C-Marie

Bonbon said...

Bless Madane Curie and her daughters m.

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