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When Women Crowdfunded Radium For Marie Curie

The element was hard to get and extremely expensive but essential for Curie’s cancer research

Marie Curie and President Warren Harding walk down the White House steps arm in arm in 1921. (Library of Congress)

It was 1921, 23 years after Marie Curie discovered radium, and she was out of the stuff.

Curie, who lived in France for much of her life, had done an interview with an American reporter named Marie Meloney the year before. In that interview, she told Meloney that she didn’t have any radium to continue her research and that she couldn’t afford any, writes Ann Lewicki in the journal Radiology. After a fundraising campaign led by American women, Curie travelled to the United States to be presented with one gram of radium by President Warren Harding on May 20, 1921.

She needed the radium for her ongoing research. But the element was expensive, and Curie was living off a single professor’s salary while supporting her two teenage daughters. Her husband and collaborator Pierre, with whom she shared the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics, had died in 1906.   

“She who had discovered radium, who had freely shared all 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,” Lewicki writes.

Meloney, then the editor of a women's magazine called The Delineator, started the Marie Curie Radium Fund soon after her return to the United States. “The price of 1 gram of radium in 1921 was $100,000,” Lewicki writes. That’s about $1.3 million today. Although the sum was astronomical, Lewicki writes, the Radium Fund was able to raise it in less than a year. Numerous prominent women academics rallied around the cause.

In fact, writes Suzanne Gould for the American Association of University Women, “the Marie Curie Radium Fund was so successful that it raised an additional $56,413.54.” Curie never touched that money, which was eventually put in a trust for her daughter, who was continuing her research. The funds eventually became a fellowship for French or American women in science.

Meloney was part of the presentation ceremony, which was attended by American and French diplomats as well as “leaders of science and philosophy,” was held in the White House’s East Room, the Associated Press reported. “Madame Curie’s speech of thanks consisted of only a few sentences, telling of her gratitude and her regard for America,” AP reported.

Speaking to the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) during her trip, Curie shed more light on the situation, writes George Kauffman for Chemistry International. Marie and Pierre Curie chose not to patent radium or any of its medical applications, even though, she explained, the patents could have funded their research and provided money for their family. “The price of radium is very high since it is found in minerals in very small quantities, and the profits of its manufacture have been great, as this substance is used to cure a number of diseases,” she said. “...Yet, I still believe that we have done right.”

Curie’s 1921 trip, where she received equipment as well as radium for her Radium Institute, was succeeded in 1929 by another fundraising trip. Then, “she was the guest of honor at the American Society for the Control of Cancer (now the American Cancer Society),” Kauffman writes. She attended a number of science-related events in the New York area and was presented with $500,000 by President Hoover for the Radium Institute.

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