Sunday, August 01, 2010

History of Science in Philadelphia—Curie’s Early Piezo-Electric Apparatus

Posted by Darin Hayton on 08/01 at 10:00 PM

The cabinet of Dr. Robert Abbe stands in side room at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, bypassed by most visitors on their way to the Mütter Museum. A Fellow of the College, Abbe practiced medicine in New York in the 1870 and 1880s. Among his other achievements, he pioneered the use of Radium to treat cancer.1 Unsurprisingly, then, Abbe was instrumental in inviting Marie Curie to speak at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

The card announcing Marie Curie’s visit to The College of Physicians of Philadelphia on May 23, 1921 (Source: The College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

On the evening of 23 May 1921 a packed house of admirers welcomed Marie Curie and her daughters when they arrived at the College. Her visit culminated nearly two decades of correspondence between Abbe and Curie. Curie brought with her a souvenir of her and her husband’s researches: a piezo-electric apparatus.

Curie’s piezo-electric apparatus before it was ensconced in Abbe’s cabinet (Source: The College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

Dr. Abbe and the assembled physicians venerated the apparatus. According to a contemporary account:

Dr. William J. Taylor, president of the college, bent toward her and asked her, in precise and gradual English, if she would consent to lay her hands, in consecration, upon the quartz-piezo-electric apparatus, given into the custodianship of the institution.2

The ceremony continued with lectures by prominent physicians discussing the use of radium to treat cancer and the basic physics of radium.

This quartz piezo-electric apparatus consists of a brass box on a wooden stand. Inside the box a thin quartz crystal laminate, covered with foil, is suspended from the top and attached to a pan below the box. When weights are added to the pan, the tension causes the quartz to give off electricity—the piezo-electric effect discovered by Pierre Curie. The electricity was conducted to the foil and then, when used by the Curies, probably to an electrometer. Weights were added to offset the charge produced by a radioactive source in an ionization chamber.

A complete apparatus to measure radioactivity (Source: R.F. Mould, “The Discovery of Radium in 1898 by Maria Sklodowska-Curie …The British Journal of Radiology 71(1998): 1229–1254, illustration is figure 19 on page 1237)

The apparatus at the College is probably the oldest piezo-electric apparatus in the U.S., and one of the first designed and built. In a letter Marie Curie sent shortly before her visit, she explains that it was one of the earliest models her husband Pierre had made:

Dear Sir,
It gives me pleasure to present this apparel “quartz piezo électrique,” for such purpose as its historical interest will serve. It was designed by Prof. Curie and is one of those used by us in our early research work for measuring the radioactivity of Radium. Having served its purpose, it was replaced by other apparatus.
M. Curie.

Marie Curie’s letter to Dr. Abbe describing the piezo-electric apparatus (Source: The College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

For years the apparatus was radioactive, quietly irradiating the chance passerby who might have noticed it. Then, in the 1980s it was decontaminated. This memento of early radioactivity research now sits harmlessly in the corner of Dr. Abbe’s cabinet, off to the side of the lobby in The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Curie‘s piezo-electric apparatus today. (Source: The College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

N.B.—This post was culled from Robert Hicks’s forthcoming article on Curie’s piezo-electric device, which will appear in Rittenhouse, The Journal of the American Scientific Instrument Enterprise
1Robert Abbe, “The Subtle Power of Radium,” Medical Record 66:9 (August 27, 1904), 321-324; Robert Abbe, “Exopthalmic Goitre Reduced by Radium,” Archives of the Roentgen Ray v. IX (London, 1904).
2”Madame Curie dedicates gift to Phila. physicians,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 24, 1921..

Tags: marie curie, pierre curie, piezo-electric, radioactivity, radium, the college of physicians of philadelphia