One hundred years ago Marie Curie stood among the rose bushes, the press, and a crowd of White House guests, holding a golden key. The key opened a box that contained a gram of radium. Could it also unlock a cure to cancer? Women across America were led to believe as much, rising to the call sent out in their journals and newspapers to fund a gift worth more than $100,000.
“The foremost American scientists say that Madam Curie, provided with a single gram of radium, may advance science to the point where cancer to a very large extent may be eliminated.
This is of particular interest to women, because last year over fifty thousand of their number in the United States died of cancer.” – The Delineator, June 1921
Marie Mattingly Meloney, editor of the women’s journal The Delineator, organized the campaign to gift Curie with one gram of radium. She successfully framed the element that Marie and Pierre Curie had discovered in 1898 as having utility beyond the lab bench, suggesting it might ease the suffering of millions. News outlets excitedly pounced on this possibility. Marie Curie tried to temper the enthusiasm for radium as a cancer cure-all, but an in-depth explanation of how her scientific study of the element would aid physicians’ cancer research was more nuance than most papers wanted. This delineation of tasks didn’t make as snappy a headline as directly linking Curie and the perfect cancer treatment.
A remnant of surgeon Robert Abbe’s first radium purchase is said to be contained in this ampule.
Meloney enlisted the aid of prominent physicians to support her campaign. Surgeon Robert Abbe, one of the earliest physicians to experiment with radium therapy in the United States, was among them. Abbe managed to obtain 150 mg of radium salts from the Curies in 1903, before the cost and demand for the element skyrocketed (ultimately depriving Curie herself of a ready supply). Abbe experimented on himself and his patients. He described his method in one early case as “feeling my way along carefully to ascertain the safe and efficient dosage.”
Marie Curie and President Warren G. Harding at the White House on May 20, 1921. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-npcc-04182
Despite its small size, a gram was a frightful amount of radium, in terms of both safety and cost. A special lead-shielded box was designed to secure and contain it. Instead of handing the box over at a White House ceremony, President Warren G. Harding gave Curie its key and a small hourglass. According to the sister of his longtime assistant, Abbe “had two beautifully made hourglasses by Tiffany and Co. filled with luminous material and at the formal ceremony in Washington, one of these was handed to Madame Curie and the other to Pres. and Mrs. Harding.” Curie’s and Harding’s hourglasses now reside at the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the American Museum of Science and Energy.