Marie Curie’s Research Papers Are Still Radioactive 100+ Years Later

in Science | July 8th, 2015

marie curie notebook

Image by The Wellcome Trust

When researching a famous historical figure, access to their work and materials usually proves to be one of the biggest obstacles. But things are much more difficult for those writing about the life of Marie Curie, the scientist who, along her with husband Pierre, discovered polonium and radium and birthed the idea of particle physics. Her notebooks, her clothing, her furniture, pretty much everything surviving from her Parisian suburban house, is radioactive, and will be for 1,500 years or more.

If you want to look at her manuscripts, you have to sign a liability waiver at France’s Bibliotheque Nationale, and then you can access the notes that are sealed in a lead-lined box. The Curies didn’t know about the dangers of radioactive materials, though they did know about radioactivity. Their research attempted to find out which substances were radioactive and why, and so many dangerous elements–thorium, uranium, plutonium–were just sitting there in their home laboratory, glowing at night, which Curie thought beautiful, “like faint, fairy lights,” she wrote in her autobiography. Marie Curie carried these glowing objects around in her pockets. She and her husband wore standard lab clothing, nothing more.


Marie Curie died at age 66 in 1934, from aplastic anemia, attributed to her radioactive research. The house, however, continued to be used up until 1978 by the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Paris Faculty of Science and the Curie Foundation. After that it was kept under surveillance, authorities finally aware of the dangers inside. When many people in the neighborhood noticed high cancer rates among them, as reported in Le Parisien, they blamed the Curie’s home.

The laboratory and the building were decontaminated in 1991, a year after the Curie estate began allowing access to Curie’s notes and materials, which had been removed from the house. A flood of biographies appeared soon after: Marie Curie: A Life by Susan Quinn in 1995, Pierre Curie by Anna Hurwic in 1998, Curie: Le rêve scientifique by Loïc Barbo in 1999, Marie Curie et son laboratoire by Soraya Boudia in 2001, and Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith in 2005, and Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss in 2011.

Still, passing away at 66 is not too shabby when one has changed the world in the name of science. Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (1903), the only woman to win it again (1911), the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, and the first woman to be entombed (on her own merits) at the Panthéon in Paris. And she managed many of her breakthroughs after the passing of her husband Pierre in 1906, who slipped and fell in the rain on a busy Paris street and was run over by the wheels of a horse-drawn cart.

via Christian Science Monitor/Gizmodo

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (11)

  1. afan promienny says . . .
    July 8, 2015 / 10:05 am

    do not forget she is the only scientist so far to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry (1911) and physics (1903).

  2. ChrisB says . . .
    July 8, 2015 / 12:22 pm

    Don’t forget that their youngest daughter also earned a Nobel Prize in chemistry. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1935/joliot-curie-bio.html

    In 1914 Marie created 20 mobile x-ray clinics to assist surgeons with their “meatball surgery”. Mother & daughter were among the drivers who circulated near the front lines. https://www.aip.org/history/curie/war1.htm Who’s to say that the cancer Marie later died from was not caused from chemical exposure in WWI?

  3. RayD says . . .
    July 9, 2015 / 7:41 am

    I thought plutonium was isolated much later, as in 1940.

  4. Patrick Mehr says . . .
    July 10, 2015 / 8:55 am

    The biography of Marie Curie by Susan Quinn is now available as an eBook Marie Curie: A Life

  5. Joe Neubarth says . . .
    July 11, 2015 / 9:56 am

    Chemicals for the most part do not cause cancer regardless of all of the false information that has been put out to the public about that. 90 percent of Cancer is caused by Radioactive Particulate inside the body. Anybody with a Grade School education can easily see that.

  6. Joe Neubarth says . . .
    July 11, 2015 / 9:58 am

    Plutonium and Polonium are two different chemicals. Polonium causes Lung cancer with glee. Plutonium causes cancer anywhere in the body with glee. Ask the USS Reagan Sailors who are dying from Hideous diseases.

  7. Ellen Wedum says . . .
    July 12, 2015 / 7:37 pm

    The FIRST book about her life was written by her second daughter!

  8. Rubin says . . .
    July 13, 2015 / 5:31 am

    Plutonium was synthesised in reactors in 1940 like you have said. It is a typo in the article and the correct element should be Polonium.

  9. Stodgier says . . .
    July 13, 2015 / 3:37 pm

    Joe, don’t talk such nonsense. There are many, many carcinogenic substances around the properties of which are not due to radioactivity. Surely you’ve heard of asbestos, or the cancer-causing components of tobacco smoke?

  10. Jana Foster says . . .
    August 9, 2015 / 1:27 pm

    She isolated polonium, not plutonium.

  11. Name says . . .
    July 25, 2016 / 6:24 am

    It would be nice to mention that her name is Maria Skłodowska-Curie and she was Polish.

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