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

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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

New Archive Puts 1000s of Einstein’s Papers Online, Includ­ing This Great Let­ter to Marie Curie

A Haunt­ing Drone’s‑Eye View of Cher­nobyl

Free Online Chem­istry Course

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 and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (27)
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  • ChrisB says:

    Don’t for­get that their youngest daugh­ter also earned a Nobel Prize in chem­istry.

    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. Who’s to say that the can­cer Marie lat­er died from was not caused from chem­i­cal expo­sure in WWI?

  • RayD says:

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

  • Patrick Mehr says:

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

  • Joe Neubarth says:

    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.

  • Joe Neubarth says:

    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.

  • Ellen Wedum says:

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

  • Rubin says:

    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.

  • Stodgier says:

    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?

  • Jana Foster says:

    She iso­lat­ed polo­ni­um, not plu­to­ni­um.

  • Name says:

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

  • Akilah says:

    And she named Polo­ni­um after her home coun­try of Poland

  • Anthony says:

    I am sim­ply amazed she lived so long after being exposed to so much radi­a­tion. She must have been of strong stock.

  • Anthony says:

    What are the sources of the radioca­tive par­tic­u­lates?

  • Ava Gartner says:

    Her life was a true work of art. Genius.

  • Danny says:

    Her papers are no longer a dan­ger. They test­ed them and the radi­a­tion is no longer as pow­er­ful.

    Google it.
    And spread facts not some­thing some­one somwhere said.

  • Name says:

    I’m in year 5 and cop­ing most of this text for my home­work is that okay

  • Name says:

    I’m not sure if it’s too over the top pls let me know by leav­ing a responce

  • Lucy says:

    Murie Curie was the Cure. She did­nt know it yet. But that was the price of EVEry­thing that was Holo­caust­ed here in the Nether­Verse. THEY are EVEry­where. It cant be helped. We must find and save the Cure to The Evils of this world. Murie is the Cure­All and we can­not stress this enough This plane is Radioac­tive becuz of envi­ron­men­tal psy­chot­ic ele­ments bent to con­sume all life in even­tu­al­i­ty.

  • Simon says:

    Her name was Marie Curie-Skłodows­ka and she was pol­ish. Please do not omit her last name. She did use it in full ver­sion.

  • BEAD says:

    I respect those peo­ple very much. they sac­ri­ficed their own life in order to imporve oth­er peo­ples’ life

  • Roger M. Wilcox says:

    It was. Plu­to­ni­um was­n’t pro­duced until 6 years after Marie Curie’s death. There’s no way she could have been car­ry­ing around chunks of it in her pock­ets while she was still alive.

    Tho­ri­um and ura­ni­um, sure — but not plu­to­ni­um.

  • Judy says:

    The younger — ER — daugh­ter Eve was a pianist and author. It was their old­ER — old­er — daugh­ter who earned a NObel Prize, togeth­er with her hus­band Fred­er­ick Joliot. The mobile X‑ray machines were used to iden­ti­fy the loca­tions of shrap­nel and bul­lets dur­ing WWI; it is esti­mat­ed that over 1 mil­lion sol­diers were helped by their efforts. She also over­saw the con­struc­tion of 200 radi­o­log­i­cal rooms at var­i­ous fixed field hos­pi­tals behind the bat­tle lines.

    It has been found that she died from Per­ni­cious Ane­mia, and that has been tied to her expo­sure to x‑rays. She did­n’t die from radi­a­tion poi­son­ing, or from can­cer (unless per­ni­cious ane­mia is a can­cer, for which I can­not find a ref­er­ence).

  • Thomas Eyerman, Sr. says:

    Madame Curie’s Nobel lau­re­ate daugh­ter was named Irene, I believe.

  • Stuart says:

    Judy, there is a cru­cial dif­fer­ence between per­ni­cious ane­mia and aplas­tic ane­mia. The for­mer is caused by a defi­cien­cy of vit­a­min B‑12 (and is indeed not a can­cer); the lat­ter is, or can be, caused by radi­a­tion expo­sure.


    Me han gus­ta­do mucho comen­tar­ios y aportes gra­cias

  • Martin H Goodman says:

    It’s some­what sad that so great and ded­i­cat­ed an inves­ti­ga­tor of the nat­u­al world, who firm­ly believed that things are not to be feared, but rather under­stood, is pre­sent­ed by orga­ni­za­tion (Curie Insti­tute) and arti­cles (this one) rid­dled with super­sti­tion-based hys­ter­i­cal­ly-fear­ful, doc­u­ment-ably wrong, super­sti­tion.

    It’s not­ed that Marie Curie’s papers are kept in a “lead lined box”, and one must sign a “release” to get near them, But we are told NOTHING about the mea­sured lev­el and type of radioac­tiv­i­ty detect­ed on them. If the radi­a­tion is pri­mar­i­ly from radi­um (not an unrea­son­able spec­u­la­tion… easy to test) then it pret­ty cer­tain­ly is harm­less: Radi­um pro­duces alpha radi­a­tion, which can­not pen­e­trate the lay­er of dead skin we all have, nor can it pen­e­trate more than a few cen­time­ters of air.

    Marie Curie was born in 1867. She lived to 67 years old, and died of aplas­tic ane­mia. Based on this, it’s pop­u­lar­ly alleged that she “died due to expo­sure to the radi­a­tion she worked with”. But… 67 is rather a long time to live for some­one born in 1867. Aplas­tic ane­mia can be caused by tox­ic chem­i­cals (and Marie Curie worked with a LOT of those iso­lat­ing radi­um and in oth­er work of hers), and also has unknown caus­es (as admit­ted by any med­ical site you go to look it up). It seems to me that Marie Curie like­ly as not did NOT die as a result of her expo­sure to radi­a­tion (tho to be sure, that expo­sure was great), but rather of either expo­sure to tox­ic chem­i­cals or from some oth­er cir­cum­stance.

    But what about if she got radi­um inside her… would­n’t that ensure she was killed by it?
    The expe­ri­ence of the “Radi­um Girls” (watch dial painters) tells us that below whole body loads of 3.7 mil­lion Bec­querels, none of the thou­sands of women so exposed … who licked their brush­es… died, and most (fol­lowed for many decades in a study done by Argonne Nation­al Labs) did not get any radi­a­tion relat­ed can­cer.

    Indeed, giv­en how long Marie Curie lived, one could argue that the radi­a­tion she was exposed to made her live LONGER, due to a hormet­ic effect pro­tect­ing her from get­ting can­cer. This would be at this time a “con­tro­ver­sial” claim, giv­en radi­a­tion horme­sis is not solid­ly estab­lished and con­sid­ered “con­tro­ver­sial”, but not an out of the ball­park one.

    YES… it IS true she was exposed to a lot of radi­a­tion. Includ­ing exter­nal expo­sures so great that it pro­duced, direct­ly due to radi­a­tion, burns. And it also IS true that that the time there was lit­tle under­stand­ing of the risks involved. But what also is true is that there’s in some respects worse under­stand­ing of radi­a­tion effects today, with absurd upper lim­its of what is safe being declared that are often 1000 times what actu­al­ly should be the lim­it, which result in such things as 60,000 peo­ple being sub­ject­ed (due to igno­rance and hys­te­ria) to a need­less and years-pro­longed evac­u­a­tion (Fukushi­ma), killing 2000, and wreck­ing the lives of tens of thou­sands, in the face of radi­a­tion expo­sure known to be absolute­ly total­ly with­out any risk what so ever of detri­men­tal­ly affect­ing human health.

    Note that in the Goia­nia inci­dent and that of those Japan­ese fish­er­men on the For­tu­nate Drag­on that got cov­ered with fresh fall­out from a ther­monu­clear bomb test, and among the fire­fight­ers at Cher­nobyl, peo­ple got exposed to such high dos­es of radi­a­tion that they got seri­ous burns (some requir­ing ampu­ta­tion!… Goia­nia) and/or got acute­ly phys­i­cal­ly sick from the mas­sive dose they were exposed to. BUT… essen­tial­ly all of those who sur­vived (and most did) and were fol­lowed for decades DID NOT come down with radi­a­tion relat­ed can­cer.

    It is a par­tic­u­lar shame that the Curie Insti­tute… and this arti­cle… asserts hys­ter­i­cal fear-pro­duc­ing false­hood regard­ing the life of one who was so ded­i­cat­ed to a rig­or­ous­ly intel­lec­tu­al­ly hon­est rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the world around us.

  • Martin H Goodman says:

    Erra­ta in pre­vi­ous post: I acci­den­tal­ly wrote that exist­ing lim­its for radi­a­tion are “1000 times what actu­al­ly should be the lim­it.” I had meant to write “1000 times SMALLER than what actu­al­ly should be the lim­it.”


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