The Radium Institute (1919-1934)

The Marie Curie Radium Campaign

SHE NEVER OVERCAME STAGE FRIGHT as a professor, though she taught for nearly 30 years. Yet in order to turn the Radium Institute into a world-class institution, Curie shamelessly sought out assistance, just as she had done during the war years to create the radiological service. Throughout her career Curie had benefitted from the subsidies of wealthy French benefactors. Now, thanks to the interest of an American woman, U.S. citizens also became involved in filling the needs of the Radium Institute.

"[Curie], who handles daily a particle of radium more dangerous than lightning, was afraid when confronted by the necessity of appearing before the public."--Stéphane Lauzanne, editor-in-chief of Le Matin

Despite her distrust of journalists, in May 1920 Curie agreed to give an interview to Mrs. William Brown Meloney, editor of an American women's magazine. In the interview Curie emphasized the needs of her institution, where research was just resuming following the devastating war.

Thanks to her alliance with industry, few labs in the world if any were better equipped with radium than Curie's. But Curie succeeded in shocking Meloney by emphasizing the fact that research and therapy centers in the United States together had about 50 times as much radium as the single gram she--the scientist who had discovered the element--had in her laboratory. When Meloney learned that Curie's most fervent wish was for a second gram for her laboratory, the editor organized a "Marie Curie Radium Campaign."

Led by a committee of wealthy American women and distinguished American scientists, the campaign succeeded by soliciting contributions in the United States. Meloney also arranged for Curie to write an autobiographical work for an American publisher. The book would provide royalty income over the years. Equally important, it would capture in simple and moving prose the romantic and heroic image of science that was so helpful for public support and fund-raising.

THE LANGEVIN AFFAIR could not be mentioned in print. On this condition Curie agreed to travel to the United States to drum up support for her institute. Meloney wrested from editors across the country a promise to suppress the old story. When word got out that the President of the United States himself would present Curie with the gift of radium, French officials looked for a way to make up for past oversights. Curie refused the Legion of Honor award (as Pierre had refused it nearly two decades earlier). But she agreed to attend a benefit for the Radium Institute at the Paris Opera shortly before setting sail.

"I pray to thank the Minister, and to inform him that I do not in the least feel the need of a decoration, but that I do feel the greatest need for a laboratory." --Pierre Curie refusing the Legion of Honor, 1903

Her right hand was in a sling before she had been in the United States many days. So many people wanted to shake hands with the woman who had given humanity the gift of radium. Curie was grateful that her daughters were willing to stand in for her when she felt she could not bear another public function. Irène, for example, accepted some of the many honorary degrees granted to her mother by universities and colleges.

In 1920 Curie and a number of her colleagues created the Curie Foundation, whose mission was to provide both the scientific and the medical divisions of the Radium Institute with adequate resources. Over the next two decades the Curie Foundation became a major international force in the treatment of cancer.

CAMPAIGNS TO RAISE MONEY from governments as well as from individuals, were launched throughout the 1920s in many countries including France itself. Marie's scientist friends were especially active. Insisting that the quickest way to a progressive future was to foster research, they formed partnerships with liberal and socialist politicians, and they supported political parties that would increase government funding. Despite her shyness Marie helped in the work of lobbying, going with her friends from office to office. She could argue fervently, but her appearance alone was the strongest argument. A frail and aging woman dressed in black, already a legendary figure, she had--as one observer put it--the appearance and moral force of a Buddhist monk.

Next: A World Center for the Study of Radioactivity

Also: The Romantic Legend

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