Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In the spring of 1921, the preeminent French physicist Marie Curie (1867-1934) traveled from her home in Paris to the United States where, on Friday, May 20, she attended a White House ceremony during which President Warren G. Harding presented her with a key symbolizing a gift of one gram of radium from the women of America. Costing one hundred thousand dollars, this tiny amount of radium would enable Curie to continue her groundbreaking experimentation with the rare element and research into the nature of radioactivity. When she agreed to make the trip, Curie asked that her itinerary include a visit to the company that made the radium.

Standard Chemical Company, headquartered in Pittsburgh, produced the radium. The company’s operations consisted of mines and a concentrator in Colorado, a mill in Canonsburg, Washington County, that extracted radium from ore mined in Colorado, and offices and laboratories in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh that refined the radium. By 1921, the Standard Chemical Company produced more than half of the radium in use in the world. The individual behind this little-known but amazing episode in the Keystone State’s history was Joseph M. Flannery (1867-1920), of Pittsburgh.

Flannery was born on July 18, 1867, son of Michael Joseph and Ellen (Kirwan) Flannery. He was educated at Pittsburgh Catholic College of the Holy Ghost (now Duquesne University) and with his brother, James J. Flannery, established an undertaking firm. In 1904, he founded the Flannery Bolt Company in Bridgeville, just southwest of downtown Pittsburgh, to manufacture boiler stay bolts for locomotives. His interest turned to vanadium and its use in high strength steel alloys. After securing control of a large vanadium ore deposit in Peru, he organized the American Vanadium Company and built a plant in Bridgeville to research, develop, and produce vanadium alloy steel. His brother James joined the company and took charge of the financial and mining interests.

As ambitious as he was entrepreneurial, Joseph M. Flannery convinced General George Washington Goethals (1858-1928), appointed in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt to complete the beleaguered Panama Canal, to use vanadium alloy steel for the waterway’s lock gates. Henry Ford also recognized the superior qualities of vanadium alloy steel and began incorpo­rating it in his automobiles to make them Lighter and sturdier.

In 1909, Flannery learned his sister was afflicted with cancer that might be treatable with radium, but discovered it was not readily available because the element was extraordinarily difficult to extract from ore. Earlier commercial ventures had enjoyed only limited success. Flannery withdrew from the American Vanadium Company and tackled a new endeavor-to produce radium in quantities large enough to make it readily accessible. He knew that vanadium- bearing ores existed in the United States, chiefly in eastern Utah and southwestern Colorado. These ores also contained uranium and its highly radioactive decay product, radium.

In early April 1911, Standard Chemical Company was incorporated under the laws of the state of Delaware to prospect, mine, and mill ores and minerals. The company’s mines were located mainly in Paradox Valley in Southwestern Colorado, which abounded with carnotite, a mineral containing vanadium, uranium and radium. The ore was hand-sorted, bagged in sacks weighing seventy-five pounds, and shipped to a concentrator (nicknamed “Joe Jr.” for Flannery’s eldest son) erected by Standard Chemical some ten to forty miles distant from the mines. For every ton of milling ore shipped to Canonsburg, up to five tons of rock had to be removed from the mines. Burros hauled supplies and equipment to the mines and ore from the mines to weigh stations. After weighing, the ore was shipped by wagon to the concentrator, which employed a wet grinding process. Standard Chemical’s Paradox Valley operations employed about 250 persons.

Ore from the concentrator was deliv­ered by wagons and later by trucks over a former stagecoach road to the Placerville station of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, a narrow gauge railroad, sixty-­five miles away. The ore was loaded into boxcars and taken to Salida for transfer to standard gauge boxcars. The Pennsylvania Railroad delivered the boxcars via its Chartiers Valley branch (originally the Chartiers Railway Company line) to the Standard Chemical Company’s siding in Canonsburg.

To produce one gram of radium, the Standard Chemical Company needed five tons of ore, five tons of various chemicals, power generated by one thousand tons of coal, and ten thousand tons of purified water. About 150 persons worked at the Canonsburg mill. The milling process was adapted from that developed by Curie in her Paris laboratory to separate radium from Austrian pitch­blende ore. From 1914 to 1921, the company’s annual radium production averaged nine grams, peaking at 18.5 grams in 1920.

The mill produced a mixture of barium and radium chloride salts, with the radium being but a tiny fraction, about one gram in a thousand pounds of the mixed salts. To separate the radium salt from the barium salt, Standard Chemical used fractional crystallization – the same method employed by Curie. Open porcelain pans containing the salt solution were set out and the water evaporated. This resulted in the formation of crystals, the heavier radium salt concentrating in the crystals. The increase in the concentration of the radium in the crystals was small and so the crystals were re-dissolved and the process repeated until the desired purity was reached.

The delicate operation took place in the company’s laboratories in the Vanadium Building, built in 1911 on the corner of Forbes and Meyran Avenues. Standard Chemical occupied the top two floors. Company employees delivered the radium­-barium salt mixture from the Canonsburg mill to Pittsburgh in small batches contained in glass bottles carried in pails. Messengers rode as passengers on trolleys of the Pittsburgh Railways Company whose interurban line from Washington, Washing­ton County, passed by the plant. From downtown Pittsburgh, employees rode the Forbes Avenue city cars to Oakland.

The Oakland laboratories were also used for research and development of radium products. The primary use of radium was in medicine, but Flannery’s success in producing radium came too late to save his sister’s life. Standard Chemical set up a pathology laboratory to study the biological effects of radium. The military used luminous paints containing radium. Several large companies used radium-based paints for the faces and hands of watches and clocks. One unusual product was Radium Brand Fertilizer, distributed by the Radium Fertilizer Company, located on the second floor of the Vanadium Building. (Any Pittsburgh Pirate hitting a home run in Forbes Field won a twenty-five-pound can of radium fertilizer!) Among the test plots used by the laboratory to evaluate the product were the lawns and gardens of Joseph Flannery’s residence at 149 North Dithridge Street in Oakland. Company employees carefully measured plants grown in these and other test plots which appeared larger and healthier than those from untreated control plots.

An unusual facility in the Vanadium Building was the Emanatorium. Health practitioners believed exposure to radon, the gaseous radioactive decay product of radium, known as “radium emanation,” was beneficial. A radium solution that served as the source of radon, Emanator, was placed inside a tented enclosure that served to confine the radon gas. Patients sat inside the tent for treatment. Given the proximity of nearby laboratories containing open pans of radium solution and the associated contamination, it is likely that the ambient levels of radon were elevated as well.

Standard Chemical Company was not the only supplier of radium but, by 1921, had become the foremost producer, manufacturing more than half of the world’s supply, amounting to between 120 to 140 grams. For this the company had become known worldwide and brought a measure of fame to Pittsburgh. It’s Little wonder that on May 26, 1921, before William J. Holland (1848-1932), director of the Carnegie Museum, introduced Curie prior to her receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Pittsburgh at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, remarked that Pittsburgh, known by generations as Steel City, could justifiably be called “Radium City.”

Curie’s visit came about following an interview by Marie Mattingly Meloney Brown (1878-1943) – known to her friends as Missy – who launched her career as a journalist at the Washington Post. She moved on to become an associate editor of Everybody’s and then editor of the Delin­eator, a women’s issues magazine. Brown had long sought an interview with Marie Curie, who had shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre Curie (1859-1906), and fourth-generation physicist Henri Becquerel (1852-1908). In 1911, she was awarded a second Nobel Prize, in chemistry. With the help of a French scientist who knew both Marie Curie and Missy Brown the interview took place in May 1920. The interview opened with Curie discussing the large quantity of radium in America, some fifty grams, the exact locations of which she knew. In contrast, Curie said that her laboratory had but one gram, adding that the purchase of more was impossible because of its costliness. From that single conversation emerged a zealous national campaign organized by Missy Brown to raise one hundred thousand dollars in the United States to purchase a gram of radium for the scientist.

Leaders spearheaded two committees, a women’s committee to raise funds and an advisory committee. Brown marshaled the considerable influence of the Delinentor behind the campaign. Curie had nothing to do with fundraising but when it conclud­ed, Brown prevailed upon her to visit America to accept the gift to be presented by President Harding. Curie’s daughters, Irene and Eve, accompanied her. The trip itinerary was expanded to six weeks to include lectures, visits to universities – ­among them Yale, Columbia, and Chicago – that conferred honorary degrees and, at Curie’s request, visits to the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, and the Standard Chemical Company’s facilities in western Pennsylvania. [t was an ambitious schedule, one that would challenge a younger person in the best of health. Suffering from the debilitating effects of exposure to radiation, Curie frequently became fatigued during the whirlwind tour, resulting in cancellations, postponements, and curtailments of scheduled events. During her visit to western Pennsylvania, she stayed at Fann hill, the palatial ninety-nine-room residence of Edith Oliver Rea (1865-1951), widow of industrialist Henry Robinson Rea (1863- 1919) and daughter of iron and steel magnate Henry W. Oliver (1840-1904), in Sewickley Heights, a wealthy enclave ten miles west of Pittsburgh

For the White House ceremony, a replica of the radium was displayed in the East Room. The actual gram of radium was awaiting calibration by the National Bureau of Standards – for which, some years earlier, Curie had supplied a radium standard. The bureau completed the calibration on June 22, and the radium was delivered to the ship returning Curie to France.

When she arrived by train in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, May 25, Curie was ill, forcing organizers to postpone a trip to Canonsburg. The following day she toured Standard Chemical Company’s laboratories in the Vanadium Building, and in the afternoon attended the convocation at which John G. Bowman (1877-1962), chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh from 1921 to 1945, conferred an honorary degree – Curie’s fifty-ninth! She again grew fatigued, and the ceremony was abbreviated to fifteen minutes. Her daughters stood in her place at the reception that followed.

On the morning of Friday, May 27, accompanied by Irene, Curie joined a party of seventeen individuals that traveled by automobile to the Standard Chemical Company’s Canonsburg facility. Because of her delicate health, event planners limited the ceremonies to a small luncheon, followed by an hour-long plant tour. Company president James C. Gray, successor to Joseph M. Flannery, who had died at the age of fifty-three the previous year, and Louis F. Vogt, plant manager, guided her tour. In some of the rare photographs taken during the visit, Curie is seen on Gray’s arm, seemingly frail and sickly, while others depict her thoroughly engaged in animated discussion with her hosts, most likely energized by scientific and technical aspects of the commercial process essentially the same that she developed to isolate and discover the element.

The journalist had served the scientist well, and Missy Brown and Marie Curie became close friends. In addition to the radium, Curie had been given equipment from the Sloan Laboratory in New York and twenty-two thousand dollars worth of mesothorium, a radioactive substance. Speakers’ fees and a publisher’s advance for Marie Curie’s biography of her husband who had died in 1906 after being struck by a horse-drawn wagon on a Paris street, amounted to an additional one hundred thousand dollars. The Macmillan Company published Pierre Curie in 1923.

Meanwhile, deposits of pitchblende, the same type of ore from which Curie had isolated radium, were discovered in the Haut Katanga district of the Belgian Congo. This ore was far richer than American camotite. To produce one gram of radium, five hundred tons of American camotite ore was needed but only ten tons of Belgian Congo pitchblende were required. Belgian mining costs were much cheaper as well. Commercial mining of Belgian Congo ore began in 1921 by Union Miniere du Haut Katanga, a company organized in 1906 to exploit minerals in the district. It shipped the pitchblende to Oolen, Belgium, whee radium production began in 1922.

Standard Chemical Company officials recognized that their radium could not compete with the Belgian product. In early 1922, the company secured a contract to represent Union Miniere in the United States for five years. The contract included the purchase by Standard Chemical of nine grams of Belgian radium at fifty thousand dollars each, the equivalent of more than a half-million dollars per gram today. In return, Standard Chemical agreed to cease its production of radium.

Standard Chemical’s attempts in 1926 and again in 1927 to extend the agreement proved fruitless. Instead, Union Miniere proposed that the Standard Chemical Company liquidate and turn over its goodwill and sales organization to it. In return, Union Miniere would take back at cost twenty-three grams of radium it had sold to Standard Chemical.

Standard Chemical Company divested itself of its assets beginning with mining and concentrator operations in Colorado. The Canonsburg site had been sold in 1923. On New Year’s Eve in 1925, a fire broke out at the former facility, leading many to speculate about the radioactive content in the plume of smoke rising from the inferno. A local newspaper account reported that firefighters hesitated to approach the blaze, not because of possible radium contamination but because of rumors that the facility was being used to manufacture explosives. In 1929, the Vitro Chemical Company, a chemical and ceramics manufacturer, acquired the property.

The liquidation of Standard Chemical was completed by 1933 when company officials notified the state of Delaware that stockholders approved dissolution of the corporation. Twelve shareholders, owning a total of 11,278 shares, signed the filing. Among the stockholders was Flannery’s eldest son, Joseph M. Flannery Jr. He held three shares.

In 1903, Pierre Curie had reported that radium generated heat. He speculated that the source of this energy might be the transmutation of the radium atom. In 1934, Marie Curie’s daughter Irene (1897-1956) and her husband, Frederic Joliet (1900-1958), who married in 1926, discovered that radioactivity could be artificially produced. Shortly after their discovery, they demonstrated artificial radioactivity to a delighted Marie Curie. For this discovery, the couple received the Nobel Prize, making Marie Curie, twice a laureate, the mother of another. Eve Curie (born 1904), who married American diplomat Henry R. Labouisse Jr. (1904-1987) in 1954, wrote Madame Curie: A Biography (1937), which explored the life and career of her mother and her relationship with husband Pierre. In 1965, Labouisse accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), of which he served as executive director.

As had his father-in-law in 1903, Frederick Joliet saw a far-reaching implication of the transmutation of atoms; in this case, the ability to artificially transmute atoms raised the possibility of doing this on an explosive scale. By 1939, scientists discovered the way to achieve this was to initiate a chain reaction leading to the splitting of uranium atoms. American scientists, supported by a letter from Albert Einstein, met President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to urge the government to pursue the possibility. They feared German scientists were developing atomic weapons. From this meeting emerged the Manhattan Project, an unprecedented national scientific research and development effort that culminated in the only wartime use of nuclear weapons, the atomic bombs dropped in 1945 on Hiroshima on August 6 and on Nagasaki three days later.

The Manhattan Project required large amounts of uranium. In 1937, Belgium closed its mines in the Belgian Congo. By that time, more than two thousand tons of ore had been stockpiled, enough for about twenty years worth of radium production. At the end of 1940, with a war underway in Europe, Belgium transferred the stockpile to the United States, providing one of the initial sources of uranium for the Manhattan Project.

At Canonsburg, the Vitro Chemical Company produced uranium primarily for the glass and ceramics industry. The government brought Vitro into the Manhattan Project to supply uranium. Vitro made uranium by recycling the tailings from Standard Chemical Company’s milling of American carnotite and from the Belgian pitchblende stockpiled in the United States, ironically the same ore that led to Standard Chemical Company’s demise. (Tailings are the refuse, or dross, remaining after the milling or refining process.)

After World War II ended, Vitro continued to produce uranium, most of it for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) atomic weapons program. In addition to producing uranium from ores, Vitro recovered uranium from sludge, sweep­ings, and other waste materials generated at AEC facilities. In 1956, Canadian ore tailings were shipped to the site for uranium recovery. Vitro lost money on this endeavor, leading to closure of the plant by 1960.

By 1960, 220,000 cubic yards of ore tailings had accumulated on the Canons­burg site. Because radium and uranium ore is radioactive, the processing of the ore results in contamination of buildings, soil, and environs. Beginning in 1949, independent radiation protection experts, the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s Bureau of Radiation Protection, and federal agencies were assessing the extent of­ – and, critically, the radiation hazard caused by – the contamination of the Canonsburg site.

The 1954 Atomic Energy Act created a licensing system for regulating radioactive materials. Vitro’s processing of uranium ore in Canonsburg was covered by an AEC license for the uranium, but the AEC held that it did not possess authority over the radioactive materials in the ore tailings. By this time, the U.S. Public Health Service, which had been independently studying the radiation hazards associated with uranium mining and milling, was reaching conclusions about the seriousness of these hazards with which the AEC did not agree.

In 1962, a local development company purchased the Vitro site to draw new industries to the area. The same year, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania concluded the idled Vitro factory needed to be cleaned up. The Commonwealth also initiated efforts to decontaminate the Vanadium Building. Immediate remediation, especially in Canonsburg, was thwarted by funding issues.

In 1978, Congress addressed the gap in the Atomic Energy Act that allowed the unregulation of uranium ore mill tailings and placed the authority under the jurisdiction of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Equally important, Congress provided money for the remediation of twenty-two uranium mill sites. Of the twenty-two, twenty-one were in the western states. The exception was the Canonsburg site. It was included through the efforts of Congressman A us tin J. Murphy, of Monongahela, Washington County.

Amid much controversy, cleanup of the Canonsburg site proceeded. Buildings were razed and the rubble, tailings, and other wastes on the site were consolidated. In earlier years, tailings material had been removed from the site and used for grading streets and as fill. This and other contaminated materials traceable to the site were removed from 163 locations in the vicinity of Canonsburg. The collected waste was buried in a disposal cell lined with a one-foot layer of clay and covered with an engineered cap to minimize rainwater infiltration and erosion.

The 18.6 acre site in Canonsburg contains 376,000 cubic yards of contaminated material. Now owned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the property is enclosed by a cyclone fence posted with radiation hazard warning signs. Federal and state inspectors periodically inspect the site and take environmental samples. The project ultimately cost forty-eighty million dollars. Attempts to completely decontaminate the former Vanadium Building repeatedly failed because radium from Standard Chemical Company’s operations had accumulated in pipes and throughout internal spaces. Ultimately, the contamination was eliminated. In 2002, the state terminated the radioactive materials license that had been issued to the property owner, releasing the building for unrestricted use. This final decontamination project cost about six million dollars.

Had it not been for Marie Curie’s 1921 visit and the extensive decontamination efforts more than a half-­century later, the impact-and history-of western Pennsylvania’s foray into the radium industry would remain largely forgotten.



Marie Curie was born Maria Salomea Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland, then part of Tsarist Russin. Although she moved to France to pursue her education and remained there, she never forgot Poland and remained proud of her heritage. Tn 1929, she returned to the United States to receive a check from President Herbert Hoover to purchase another gram of radium. This she gave to the Radium Institute in Krakow that she and her sister, Bronia, helped establish.

To observe the centennial of Marie Curie’s birth in 1967, the Historical Committee of the Central Council of Polish Organizations of Pittsburgh erected a plaque outside the entrance to the University of Pittsburgh’s Allen Hall. The plaque honors Curie and commemorates the conferring of nn honorary degree by the university and her visit to Standard Chemical Company. It notes that the company made the gram of radium given to her by President Harding, and that it was a University of Pittsburgh graduate, Glenn Donald Kammer, who supervised the extraction of the radium from carnotite. The plaque was unveiled on September 20, 1969, by the Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Jozef Cardinal Wojtyla (1920-2005). In October 1978, Cardinal Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II.


For Further Reading

Bruyn, Kathleen. Uranium Country. Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 1955.

Curie, Eve. Madame Curie, A Biography. New York: Literary Guild of America, 1937.

Fleming, George Thornton, ed. History of Pittsburgh and Environs. New York: American Historical Society, 1922.

Goldsmith, Barbara. Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2005.

Quinn, Susan. Marie Curie, A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.


Joel O. Lubenau is n native of Brooklyn, New York. Following graduation from high school, he was employed in the steel industry. In 1961, he received a civil engineering degree from the Cooper Union, New York. After two years wit11 the U.S. Public Health service, he changed careers and became a health physicist. He worked for Pennsylvania’s radiation control program, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission before “retiring” in 1999. Now a consultant, he resides in Lititz, Lancaster County, with his wife Anne (Reilly), a native of Lebanon County. The author is a member of several historical societies and museums.