When Marie Curie Needed Radium, We ObligedMarch 15, 2013
Did you know that in 1920, the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (the predecessor to AAUW) helped raise money to purchase a gram of radium for Marie Curie? It was an effort led by Marie Meloney, a journalist and editor of The Delineator women’s magazine. Meloney had interviewed Curie. During their discussion, the scientist stated she was in short supply of radium, an element that she had discovered. Meloney asked, “If you had the whole world to choose from, what would you take?” Curie replied, “I need a gram of radium to continue my research, but I cannot buy it; radium is too dear for me.”
Meloney left the interview determined to make Curie’s wish come true. Meloney organized a group of women in the United States and formed the Marie Curie Radium Fund. The Association of Collegiate Alumnae was an active participant in this effort. Within the ACA, the International Federation of University Women American Committee took on the project. This committee consisted of 35 women. Many prominent leaders loomed large in the group: Virginia Gildersleeve, Ada Comstock, Aurelia Reinhardt, Marion Park, Mary Woolley, and Meta Glass. Several committee members went on to become AAUW presidents.
In 1921, Curie visited the United States, along with her two daughters, to receive her gift of radium. Curie toured the country, and there was much fanfare and publicity associated with her visit. While in New York, the AAUW New York City (NY) Branch organized an event in her honor at Carnegie Hall. She then traveled to Washington, D.C., and visited the White House, where President Warren Harding presented her with the gram of radium in a lead-lined box.
At the time, a gram of radium cost $100,000. The Marie Curie Radium Fund was so successful that it raised an additional $56,413.54. After Curie died in 1934, the money was passed to her daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, who at the time was continuing her mother’s research.
The funds eventually went into a trust managed by a bank, and the ownership of the money was called into question. AAUW had to fight the case in court in order to secure the money for a cause related to its original purpose. After the court case, the bank granted the funds to AAUW to use for the Marie Curie Fellowship, which was first awarded in 1963, to support a French or American woman studying chemistry, physics, or radiology.
The AAUW archives contain historical records documenting AAUW’s relationship with Curie, including a spectacular program from the Carnegie Hall event suggesting the grandeur and pageantry associated with Curie’s visit to America. Although the program is a hidden gem in the collection, the larger picture remains more important. AAUW was not only involved with Curie’s work when she was alive but also continued to serve as the steward of her money long after the fanfare of her visit had faded.