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

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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 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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