Marie Sklodowska Curie, born in the Kingdom of Poland and later a citizen of France, became world famous for her research on radioactivity and the discovery of polonium and radium. She disproved the theory that the atom was indivisible, and led the way to modern physics. She was the first woman to win a Nobel prize, the only woman to win twice, and the only person to win Nobel Prizes in two different disciplines. She was a bit of a big deal. In 1929, she was certainly the most famous female scientist in the world, and some said she was the most famous woman alive.
In 1929, Mme. Curie made her second visit to the United States. Though the 61-year-old’s health was failing, possibly the result of her years of exposure to radioactive substances, the effects of which were not then understood, she was induced to attend a number of events in a number of locations, requiring significant travel. She ventured to Dearborn, Michigan, a guest of Henry Ford’s at an event honoring Thomas Edison and the 50th anniversary of his electric light. And, perhaps because of a long association with General Electric, Mme. Curie was induced to accompany GE Chairman Owen Young on three stops of importance to him: St. Lawrence University (his alma mater – the visit is described at NewYorkHistoryBlog), Van Hornesville (his hometown, as we discussed yesterday), and the Schenectady GE labs.
On Oct. 22, 1929, the Schenectady Gazette reported that she would arrive that day for two days’ visit, arriving from Detroit in a special rail car. “Despite the fact that the famous scientist has declared that she will refrain from any public appearances while here and has requested that no reception be given in her honor, nevertheless she will be met at the railroad station by a group of Polish school children, who will present her with flowers.”
Curie was always proud of her Polish heritage (after all, she named the first element she discovered for her home country), and was honored as a hero to Polish Americans. Unfortunately, it appears that the school children were to be disappointed. The Amsterdam Evening Recorder reported:
“When the train that was to bring to Schenectady Madame Marie Curie, the world’s foremost woman scientist, arrived in the Schenectady station at 2:17 o’clock this afternoon the throng that had gathered there to pay their respects to the noted visitor was sorely disappointed when she did not get off the train.
“Instead, Madame Curie, who was on her way from Dearborn, Mich., where Monday evening she attended Henry Ford’s dinner in celebration of the Edison golden jubilee, to the General Electric company’s plant at Schenectady, left the train at Amsterdam at 1:33 o’clock and with her party motored to Schenectady in an automobile which, through arrangements with General Electric officials, was waiting for her at the local railroad station. The change in the plans was due to the fact that Madame Curie did not desire to meet the crowd and barrage of cameras that were sure to be awaiting her at the end of her journey.”
On the next day, Wednesday, the Gazette reported that “Mme. Marie Sklodowska Curie, the world’s foremost woman scientist, is ‘somewhere in Schenectady.’ The renowned Polish woman … evidently is as desirous of coming in contact with admirers as this country’s aviation hero, Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh, and present indications are that she is as successful in avoiding them as the transatlantic ace.” The paper noted that she made her trip there for the purpose of inspecting the research laboratory, as the guest of Dr. W.H. Whitney, Dr. W.D. Coolidge, and E.W. Rice Jr. “Because of poor health and the fact that she is suffering almost constant pains from deep radium burns that scar her hands, Mme. Curie requested that she be accorded complete privacy and evidence that the request has been carried out to the extreme is best illustrated by the fact that no more than a half dozen G.E. officials know of her whereabouts in Schenectady.” Rather than staying at the Hotel Van Curler, where her reservation was cancelled, Mme. Curie apparently stayed with an unnamed GE executive, presumably in the Realty Plot.
The Gazette really didn’t take this well. It complained again the next day.
“The request of Mme. Marie Curie that she be left entirely alone and allowed to ‘browse around’ the research laboratory of the General Electric Company was adhered to in every sense of the word yesterday and even the employees of the laboratory department except those whose presence was absolutely necessary were excluded from the building while she was making her visit. Other than her visit to the G.E. laboratories nothing is known of how Mme. Curie spent yesterday or last night. Her second day in Schenectady was just as much a ‘closed chapter’ as Tuesday, the day of her arrival.
“Never in the history of the city have so many precautions been taken and never has there been so much mystery surrounding the housing and movements of any of the world’s celebrities who have visited the big plant of the General Electric Company as have marked Mme. Curie’s visit. She could just as well be in another country in so far as the public of Schenectady is concerned.
“It is understood that Mme. Curie was absolute mistress of the extensive laboratories of the G.E. yesterday. She was permitted to make any experiment she cared to and to use all the apparatus that interested her. Even the assistance of the greatest scientists of the company were at her disposal. Dr. W.D. Coolidge, inventor of the Coolidge X-ray tube and of the process whereby ductile tungsten is made, was her guide in the laboratory building, and E.W. Rice jr. and Dr. H.R. Whitney, director of research, spent part of the day with her.”
Leaving Schenectady, she made the scheduled visit to Canton for the dedication of a laboratory in her honor in Hepburn Hall. Apparently she also went to Van Hornesville, though that was not on the advance itinerary, then was off to Washington, DC, where she met with President Hoover, who granted her $50,000 on “behalf of the American people to allow her to purchase the gram of radium she now rents for the use of Poland.”
It was her last trip to the United States. As we noted yesterday, in 1933, she endorsed the plan for a laboratory at the Van Hornesville Central School, but there was no return visit. She died the next year.