Marie Curie is remembered today for her pioneering work on radioactivity, which not only earned her two Nobel Prizes but also the recognition as the “mother of modern physics”. But while her research into the radioactive elements polonium and radium may have secured her a lasting scientific legacy, those same substances have also had a lasting effect on her body.
Curie was not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, but also the only woman to be awarded prizes in two different fields. In 1896, the French physicist Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium salts emitted rays that were similar to X-rays in their ability to pass through objects. This discovery inspired Curie to explore Becquerel’s findings as part of her research thesis. She and her husband, Pierre Curie, set to work and ended up discovering radium and polonium, two new radioactive elements, in 1898. These results led to the Curies being awarded half of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903. The other half went to Becquerel.
Then, in 1911, after much personal tragedy (Pierre Curie had died suddenly 1906), Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for isolating pure radium. She would go on to devote her research to the study of the chemistry of radioactive substances as well as their applications in medicine. In fact, if it were not for Curie’s work, our treatments for cancer would likely not be anywhere near as developed as they are today. But despite advocating precautions, Curie’s consistent and prolonged exposure to these substances came at a cost.
Marie Curie died on July 4, 1934, from aplastic anemia caused by her work with radiation. Despite its name, aplastic anemia is more than just anemia; it is a rare blood condition that appears when bone marrow cannot make enough new blood cells for your body to function properly. When Curie died, her body was so radioactive that she had to be laid to rest in a lead-lined coffin. However, no one knew this until 1995 when her coffin was exhumed.
At the time, the French authorities wanted to move the Curies to the national mausoleum, the Panthéon, in honor of their contributions to science and for being icons in French history. The officials responsible for the exhumation contacted the French radiation protection agency with concerns about residual radiation and asked for assistance to protect workers in the cemetery.
When the exhumers approached their grave, they detected normal levels of radiation on the air, which then rose as the grave was opened (though not by large amounts). At first, Marie Curie’s coffin appeared to be made of wood, but when opened, they found it was lined with 2.5 millimeters (0.09 inches) of lead. Later examination of Curie’s body revealed that she had remained remarkably well preserved and only small levels of alpha and beta contamination were detected. This, according to the Journal of British Society for the History of Radiology, was likely because Curie had taken steps to limit exposure to radiation in later life.
Less can be said about her equipment, however. After 100 years, many of her belongings, including furniture, cookbooks, clothes, and laboratory notes remain extremely radioactive. The latter are actually stored in lead-lined boxes at France’s Bibliothèque National in Paris. Upon requesting access to these objects, visitors are required to sign a liability waiver and to wear protective clothing to prevent exposure to radium-226.
Given that this particular isotope has a half-life of around 1,600 years, it is likely that these important documents will remain a harmful reminder of a powerful legacy.