Perhaps the Boys Will Be Inspired

Marie Curie, ca. 1920

Permit us a rare excursion from our pretty strict focus on the history of the Capital District of New York  to note an odd little bit that we ran across while doing some research on General Electric in Schenectady.

In 1933, Owen D. Young was the Chairman of the General Electric Corporation. Young was a native of Van Hornesville in Herkimer County, and a graduate of St. Lawrence University and Boston University Law School. He was long active in education, serving  as a trustee of St. Lawrence for 22 years, a member of the state Board of Regents, and the head of the state commission that led to the formation of the state university system.

During a 1929 tour, Mme. Curie had been induced to visit Young’s hometown, and several years later, Young expressed his hopes for a pet education project, building the Madame Curie laboratory in the Van Hornesville district school. So it’s all the more dismaying, even accounting for the lens of hindsight, to read about what he hoped that would achieve.

The Gazette reported in 1933,

“The Van Hornesville district school is Owen Young’s pet project. He has consolidated in two spacious, well-equipped school buildings a succession of country school districts, each formerly supporting a little schoolhouse, poorly equipped, stove-heated, and weather-worn. There was only one school building at first. Many additional school districts voluntarily voted to join the Van Hornesville central district, and this turn of events necessitated the erecting of a second building, even larger than the first.

“Outstanding among the rooms in this new building is the laboratory, named the Marie Curie laboratory, after the famed French woman, co-inventor of radium. She visited the school three years ago and planted a stately elm tree which now adorns the school yard. At that time the laboratory was suggested, and Mr. Young decided to have the addition dedicated to Madame Curie. A copy of the plans was sent to her in France and she returned them later with her signature on the copy, and a letter of explanation to Mr. Young.

“It is planned to have a picture of the scientist with a letter from her framed and placed in the new laboratory where, ‘if only one boy in the school shows a real flair for the work, it was worth the doing.’”

So that’s great. In 1933, neither of the schools that our daughters went to, among the finest engineering/tech schools in the country, admitted men. Thirty years later, 1% of engineers were women. In 1970, women accounted for 17% of science, technology, engineering and math majors in college. So it’s not surprising that when naming a laboratory for the woman who was then most famous female scientist ever – some said she was the most famous woman in the world at the time – it was only thought that it might inspire boys to go into science. But it is just a little depressing that the thought of inspiring girls wouldn’t even have crossed Young’s mind at the time. Or anyone else’s.

Apparently, the school, now named the Owen D. Young Central School, still has a laboratory dedicated to Marie Curie. There’s a history of the school here, although it appears to just be old pictures.

Marie Curie visited a number of places in Upstate New York, including a tour of GE’s labs in Schenectady. By coincidence, the New York History Blog has just recently saved us a lot of work – you can read all about her visit here. Tomorrow, we’ll have some specifics on her stop in Schenectady.

We struggled with how to present this, and consulted with our engineer daughter, who said: “You can probably summarize it as “Marie Curie was such a bomb-ass scientist, even dudes in the 1930s knew she was bomb-ass.”

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