When Marie Curie came to the United States for the first time, in May 1921, she had already discovered the elements radium and polonium, coined the term “radio-active” and won the Nobel Prize—twice. But the Polish-born scientist, almost pathologically shy and accustomed to spending most of her time in her Paris laboratory, was stunned by the fanfare that greeted her.
She attended a luncheon on her first day at the house of Mrs. Andrew Carnegie before receptions at the Waldorf Astoria and Carnegie Hall. She would later appear at the American Museum of Natural History, where an exhibit commemorated her discovery of radium. The American Chemical Society, the New York Mineralogical Club, cancer research facilities and the Bureau of Mines held events in her honor. Later that week, 2,000 Smith College students sang Curie’s praises in a choral concert before bestowing her with an honorary degree. Dozens more colleges and universities, including Yale, Wellesley and the University of Chicago, conferred honors on her. The marquee event of her six-week U.S. tour was held in the East Room of the White House. President Warren Harding spoke at length, praising her “great attainments in the realms of science and intellect” and saying she represented the best in womanhood. “We lay at your feet the testimony of that love which all the generations of men have been wont to bestow upon the noble woman, the unselfish wife, the devoted mother.” It was a rather odd thing to say to the most decorated scientist of that era, but then again Marie Curie was never easy to understand or categorize. That was because she was a pioneer, an outlier, unique for the newness and immensity of her achievements. But it was also because of her sex.