Thursday, October 8, 2015

Found In the Archives: Marie Curie Letter

In honor of the announcement of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry jointly awarded to Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich, and Aziz Sancar "for mechanistic studies of DNA repair," the St. Catherine University Archives contains a 1933 letter written by Mme. Marie Curie, inviting Sister Antonius Kennelly to visit her famous laboratory in Paris.

Letter from Marie Curie, April 4, 1933
Here is a translation of the letter:

It goes without saying that S. Antonius Kennelly will receive a warm welcome to my laboratory and that she will be able to visit it. However, I am not sure to be in Paris at the particular time when she is supposed to come, and in that event, I will have my daughter Mme. Irene Curie-Joliot welcome her for me.
Best wishes,
M. Curie

In case your brain is overloaded from everything else you're studying this semester, here is a crash course in why this is so exciting! In 1898, Mme. Curie and her husband Pierre discovered radium and were awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, making Mme. Curie the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.

After her husband's death in 1906, Mme. Curie continued to devote her life's work to the study of radium. In 1911 she received a second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, in recognition of her work in radioactivity. In later years, she was assisted by her daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, in her radioactivity laboratory in Paris. Following in her parents' footsteps, Irene and her husband, Frederic Joliot, won the 1935 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Sister Antonius was assigned the study of chemistry to fill a need for a chemistry assistant at the College of St. Catherine, but she grew to love and excel in the field. She received her BA in chemistry and language from St. Catherine in 1926 and her MA in chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1929. Encouraged by College of St. Catherine President Sister Antonia McHugh, Sister Antonius earned her Ph.D. from the University of Munich, Germany in 1933. In Germany she studied under Dr. Heinrich Otto Wieland, who won the 1927 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

It was during this time that Sister Antonius requested to visit Mme. Curie's laboratory in Paris. As she recounted in a 1957 speech, this request was granted by the French National Director of Education in 1933. During the visit, Sister Antonius was given a tour of the facility by Irene Joliot-Curie. The visit ended with a meeting of Mme. Curie herself, who Sister Antonius described as a "quiet little lady in black". It goes without saying that this encounter was one of Sister Antonia's prized memories, as she described how her "heart went still at the opportunity to meet this remarkable woman".

After she returned from her studies in Europe, Sister Antonius continued her career at the College of St. Catherine, first as faculty in the Chemistry Department and later serving as the third President of the College from 1943-1949.

This letter is one of many unique items you will find in our Archives and an example of the rich history of the community of women who founded our campus and continue to inspire us.  Learn more about the history of St. Catherine University online and in person in Room 62 of the Library, open Monday - Friday from 9:30-4:30.

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