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

February 22, 2024

The radiation levels Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie were exposed to were so powerful that her notebooks are now kept in lead-lined boxes.

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.

Marie Curie Radioactive Papers

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, ad 80 anni dalla morte i suoi appunti sono letali: ecco perché  -Foto

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