Saturday, April 30, 2011

Temple Mountain and Madame Curie

Madame Marie Curie in her laboratory (public domain)
Uranium Mining at Temple Mountain was going on in the early 1900s. Madame Marie Curie had isolated radium from uranium ore, and she and her husband Pierre conducted research on radium which became known as "The Wonder Element."  She and her husband received the Nobel Prize in 1903 for their studies in radio activity. After the death of her husband Marie received another Nobel Prize in 1911 for her isolation of radium as a pure metal and determining its atomic weight. She and Pierre had decided not to patent their discovery, but leave it open and available for all to study and experiment. Marie focused practical uses for radium such as a cure for cancer--it proved to destroy diseased tissue much faster than healthy tissue. Because she hadn't patented it, a great deal of testing and experimenting was done by many laboratories, and in all fields. According to Curie  by Sarah Dry, Madame Curie focused on accumulation of as much radium as possible in order to "ensure her laboratory retained its prominent position in the world of radioactivity." That is where Emery County and Temple Mountain enter into this period of history.

On one of her two trips to the U.S.
 Madame Curie was a household name here in Emery County. All mining accounts from that time period that I've read or heard about, mention her. The ore from the Temple Mountain mining was "sent to France for Madame Curie's experiments."  Many also declare that she visited Temple Mountain on one of her trips to the U.S. because she wanted to see where ore of such high quality was coming from. I mentioned in the book Images of America: The San Rafael Swell, that her visit has not been substantiated, but it is part of the folklore of our area. I got in trouble for saying that. A few people (at different times) pointed out to me that her visit here is not folklore; it is a fact. (Folklore is history that is unwritten, but passed down by word or mouth or tales, so saying it is folklore is not denying that it really happened, it is just recorded through conversation--the root of a folk tale is often truth or a version of it.) So I continue research for verification. She did come to the United States twice to raise funding for her research. Railroads came here from the East, so she could have visited here.
The Cabin Madame Curie stayed in during her Temple Mountain visit
One man even told me that his uncle drove her to Price for supplies while she was here. And one of the rock cabins that partially remains at Temple Mountain is identified as the place she stayed while she was here. So for this non-academic blog-post, I'll call it a fact. I like believing it, don't you?

In 1921 the U.S. was holding a ceremony to "honor a discovery and the discoverer" and gifting Madame Curie with a gram of radium for her work. Professor R.A. Millikan gave a speech on the "Significance of Radium" and explained that discovering radium was like finding a needle in a haystack. He said to get a gram of radium (worth $100,000)  "... it took 500 tons of  Colorado carnotite ore (Temple Mountain is part of the Colorado Plateau.), which possesses 2% of uranium, and  to treat it with 500 tons of chemicals" (Millikan).

So it took a lot of mining, muscle, and sweat to get a little radium.
Temple Mountain Panorama. See the mining camps along the bottom of the ridge 1912 (courtesy USGS)
2% ore was considered high grade ore. In 1912 it was all done by hand with a pick and shovel.

Wyatt Bryan, Joe Swasey and others mining vanadium in early 1900s.
Monte Swasey said in his oral history, "This is where Granddad [Joe Swasey] and old Wyatt Bryan located Temple Mountain back in the 1900s and started what they called Cowboy Mine. Madame Curie in France was just doing a bunch of experiments with radium, and she needed this radioactive ore to do her experiments with. It was high grade uranium. They couldn't ship anything under 2%." In the early days they mined vanadium and uranium.

Monte's father Royal Swasey went out to Temple Mountain in 1916 to mine uranium. He described the process as "looking for a tree."
Royal and Eva Swasey and children about the time he worked at Temple Mountain
 Uranium is often found in petrified wood, so they would find a small "stringer" or branch and follow it along and hopefully it would open up into a an underground room as the trunk of the big tree was found.

The Swasey Family donated the letters that Royal and his wife Eva wrote back and forth to each other through those years of mining and other times when they were separated. The Archives is very privileged to have such a  great source of history! In them we find that one evening while he was at Temple Mountain, he wrote to Eva and told her that he had just bagged 150 bags of ore. He was tired and sick with a sore throat and aches because of handling all of that ore. In the next letter he told her that he had tested his bathwater after handling the evening he had written that letter, and it tested at 1.5% uranium. Eva wrote back and said that she had tested the letter he had sent that day, and it had tested at 2 %!

Madame Curie is said to have usually carried a piece of ore in her pocket to show to others. At the time neither she, nor others realized how many symptoms and health problems stemmed from radiation exposure. It was called "Nature's Wonder Element" because it seemed to be the cure for so many problems, including facial skin problems. It was put into shampoo powders and beauty cream to "replace old tired cells;" it was in hair tonic and toothpaste to whiten teeth; it was even put into yarn for baby clothes --" O-Radium Wool provided a precious source of heat and vital energy." [Curie, Dry] The "glow in the dark" properties made it great for watches and clocks and other things that needed to be seen in darkness. Women learned to use paintbrushes in a twisting method, holding the brushes in their mouths. This was a learned technique and an  art form to make dials on watch faces.

Madame Curie's notebooks used to record her experiments are considered too radioactive to safely view, after all these years! They are preserved in a lead box, and a person must sign a release form before handling them. She died at the age of 64 from Leukemia. She suffered many other forms of radiation poisoning from all her years of handling the ore.She literally gave her life to her research.She is a legendary figure, having been the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize and not just once, but twice! She broke new ground for women in science and other professional and academic areas. And here in Emery County she is kept alive-- by facts and folklore! She may be Polish by blood and French by her residence and research, but here on the Utah desert we claim her. She even slept here!

P.S. In writing this and thinking about that letter--Royal's letter that tested at 2%--I think I'll have it checked...

  •  Robert Andrew Millikan  "The Significance of Radium," published in Science and the New Civilization, C. Scribner's Sons, 1930.

  • Sarah Dry,  Curie, Hughes Publishing Limited, London, 2003

  • Emery County Archives Oral Histories and Collections