More than 80 years after she passed away, Marie Curie’s remains and personal items are still dangerously radioactive

Domagoj Valjak
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Completed in 1790, the French Pantheon is a giant neoclassical mausoleum situated in the Parisian Latin Quarter. It houses the remains of a number of renowned French citizens, including Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, and Louis Braille. Alongside many men currently interred in the Pantheon are several women, and one of them is Marie Curie, the Polish-French scientist whose pioneering research earned her the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics, which she shared with her husband, Pierre Curie, and the 1911 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

The majority of her research focused on radioactivity: Among other achievements, she coined and defined the term “radioactivity” and discovered two important radioactive elements; radium and polonium, which she named after her home country of Poland. Unfortunately, since the negative effects of radiation on human health were unknown at the time, Curie never protected herself from them during her experiments. Ultimately, her own discovery most likely led to her demise: in 1934, she died of aplastic anemia, a condition that was caused by prolonged exposure to radium and polonium. Even her daughter Irene Joliot-Curie, who also received a Nobel Prize in chemistry, died of leukemia, which was likely a direct result of her mother’s constant exposure to high levels of radiation.

Pierre and Marie Curie in the laboratory

She was buried at the Sceaux Cemetery in southern Paris, alongside her husband who died almost 28 years earlier. However, in 1995, their remains were transferred to the Pantheon to join the remains of other icons of French history. In fact, their remains are quite unique: When they were disinterred from their original resting place, they were so radioactive that they were interred in the Pantheon in inch-thick lead coffins that prevent the radiation from harming those who come to honor them. Actually, since the unfortunate Curies were contaminated with radium 226, the most stable isotope of radium that has a half-life of approximately 1,500 years, their remains will stay dangerously radioactive for at least that long.

Furthermore, since Marie Curie never thought that her experiments were harmful, she contaminated her entire household along with many of her personal items. She frequently carried samples of radium and polonium in the pockets of her lab coat and brought them home to analyze in her spare time. She unwittingly contaminated her all of her clothes, her books, notebooks and cookbooks, her jewelry, furniture around her home, and various other personal items.

Marie Curie’s notebook. Photo: Wellcome Images CC BY-SA 4.0

Nowadays, more than 80 years after her death, many of her personal artifacts are stored in Paris, at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the National Library of France. The items are kept in special boxes that are reinforced with lead to prevent the radiation from harming their handlers. Just like Curie’s body, they will remain highly radioactive for at least 1,500 years.

Still, Curie’s radioactive items are accessible to the public. Anyone who wishes to study the original notebooks that contain the handwritten details on her groundbreaking research is required to sign a liability waiver and wear all kinds of protective gear while browsing the dangerous documents.

Curie in a mobile X-ray vehicle

In the years after the Curies revealed radioactivity to the public, it was thought that radioactivity was actually beneficial for human health. Also, the strange fluorescent luminosity was an appealing novelty for many people across the world. In the first two decades of the 20th century, during the era of the so-called “Radium Craze,” many household items, including clocks and kitchen utensils, contained radium simply because it was known to glow in the dark. Furthermore, a number of supposedly reinvigorating tonics containing radium entered the market and were regularly consumed.

Related story from us: Radium Girls, female factory workers exposed to radium poisoning without their knowledge, were even encouraged to lick radium paintbrushes

The idea of radioactive elements as beneficial for human health was shattered in 1938 when radioactive consumer products were banned in the U.S. by an act issued by the Food and Drug Administration. By that time, it was known that radioactive elements can be used as a powerful and efficient energy source, but also that their effects on health can be devastating.

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Pierre Curie

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Pierre Curie

Pierre Curie (1859-1906)

May 15, 1859
Paris , France

DiedApril 19, 1906, age 46

Paris, France

Residence France
Institutions Sorbonne
Alma materSorbonne
Notable students Paul Langevin
André-Louis Debierne
Marguerite Catherine Perey
Known for Radioactivity
Notable prizes Nobel Prize.png Nobel Prize for Physics (1903)
Married to Marie Curie (m. 1895), their children include Irène Joliot-Curie and Ève Curie.

Pierre Curie (May 15, 1859 – died April 19, 1906) was a French physicist, a pioneer in crystallography , magnetism , piezoelectricity and radioactivity .

Before joining his wife, Maria Skłodowska-Curie , in her research, Pierre Curie was already widely known and respected in the world of physics. He discovered (with his brother Jacques) the phenomenon of piezoelectricity – in which a crystal can become electrically polarized – and invented the quartz balance. His papers on crystal symmetry, and his findings on the relation between magnetism and temperature also earned praise in the scientific community.

He shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics with his wife Marie Curie and Henri Becquerel . Pierre and his wife were pivotal in the discovery of radium and polonium , both of which have had significant impacts on humankind in their practical and nuclear uses.


  • 1 Biography
  • 2 Work
    • 2.1 Radioactivity
  • 3 Final Years
  • 4 Legacy
    • 4.1 Prizes
  • 5 Notes
  • 6 References
  • 7 External links
  • 8 Credits

The marriage of Pierre and Marie Curie resulted in a scientific dynasty. Their children and grandchildren also became noted scientists.


Born in Paris , France , the son of Sophie-Claire Depouilly, daughter of a formerly prominent manufacturer, and Dr. Eugène Curie, a free-thinking physician who was also a physician’s son. His father supported the family with his modest medical practice while pursuing his love for the natural sciences on the side. He was also an idealist and an ardent republican who set up a hospital for the wounded during the Commune of 1871.

Pierre received his pre-university education entirely at home, taught first by his mother and then by his father as well as his older brother, Jacques. He especially enjoyed excursions into the countryside to observe and study plants and animals , developing a love of nature that endured throughout his life and that provided his only recreation and relief from work during his later scientific career. At the age of 14 he showed a strong aptitude for mathematics and geometry and began studying with a mathematics professor who helped him develop his gift in the subject, especially spatial concepts. Pierre’s knowledge of physics and mathematics earned him his bachelor of science degree in 1875 at the age of sixteen.

By the age of 18 he had completed the equivalent of a higher degree at the Sorbonne , also known as the University of Paris, but did not proceed immediately to a doctorate due to lack of money. Instead he worked as a laboratory instructor at his alma mater, becoming laboratory assistant to Paul Desains at the Sorbonne in 1878, in charge of the physics students’ lab work. His brother Jacques was working in the mineralogy laboratory at the Sorbonne at that time, and the two began a productive five-year scientific collaboration.

In 1894, Pierre met his future wife Maria Skłodowska , who was studying physics and mathematics at the Sorbonne, and married her the following year on July 25, 1895, in a simple civil ceremony. Marie used a cash wedding gift to purchase two bicycles , which took the newlyweds on their honeymoon in the French countryside and provided their main source of recreation for years to come. Their daughter Irene was born in 1897, and a few days later Pierre’s mother died; Dr. Curie then came to live with the young couple and helped care for his granddaughter.

Both Pierre and Marie were dedicated scientists, and collaborated as a team in isolating polonium and radium . They were pioneers in the study of radioactivity and were the first to use the term. Their work, including Marie’s celebrated doctoral work, made use of a sensitive piezoelectric electrometer constructed by Pierre and his brother Jacques.


In 1880, Pierre and his older brother Jacques demonstrated that an electric potential was generated when crystals were compressed, piezoelectricity . Shortly afterwards, in 1881, they demonstrated the reverse effect: that crystals could be made to deform when subject to an electric field. Almost all digital electronic circuits now rely on this phenomenon in the form of crystal oscillators.

Prior to his famous doctoral studies on magnetism he designed and perfected an extremely sensitive torsion balance for measuring magnetic coefficients. Variations on this equipment were commonly used by future workers in that area. Pierre Curie studied ferromagnetism, paramagnetism, and diamagnetism and for his doctoral thesis, he discovered and wrote about the effect of temperature on paramagnetism which is now known as Curie’s law. The material constant in Curie’s law is known as the Curie constant. He also discovered that ferromagnetic substances exhibited a critical temperature transition, above which the substances lost their ferromagnetic behavior. This is now known as the Curie point.

Curie formulated what is now known as the Curie Dissymmetry Principle, which states in essence that: a physical effect cannot have a dissymmetry absent from its efficient cause . For example, a random mixture of sand in zero gravity has no dissymmetry (it is isotropic). Introduce a gravitational field, then there is a dissymmetry because of the direction of the field. Then the sand grains can ‘self-sort’ with the density increasing with depth. But this new arrangement, with the directional arrangement of sand grains, actually reflects the dissymmetry of the gravitational field that causes the separation.


Marie Curie

Pierre Curie

Pierre and Marie’s work on radioactivity was based on results from Wilhelm Röntgen and Henri Becquerel . In 1898, the two found polonium after a thorough investigation, and then radium some months later, eventually preparing 1 g/0.04 oz. of radium from uraninite . Furthermore, Pierre and Marie discovered that beta rays are negatively charged particles. [1]

The Curies labored considerably to achieve their scientific accomplishments. The two were hard pressed financially, and it is reported that in order to save money on transportation from home to work, they would ride their bicycles . Indeed, a teacher’s salary was minimal, yet Pierre and Marie still dedicated time and money to their research. [2]

Pierre Curie, along with one of his students, made the first discovery of nuclear energy, by identifying the continuous emission of heat from radium particles. He also investigated the radiation emissions of radioactive substances, and through the use of magnetic fields was able to show that some of the emissions were positively charged, some were negative and some were neutral. These correspond to alpha , beta and gamma radiation .

Curie shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics with his wife Marie Curie and Henri Becquerel , in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel. [3]

Final Years

Did you know?
Pierre Curie’s work was not recognized in France until he received the Nobel Prize for his work on radiation, together with his wife Marie Curie and Henri Becquerel , at which point he was given a professorship at the Sorbonne

Initially Curie did not receive much recognition in France , and was not given chairs of physical chemistry and minerology in the Sorbonne . In fact, he was only given a chair after considering leaving France for Geneva , which may have been due to his leftist views and disagreement over the Third Republic’s policies on science. [4] He was later admitted into Académie in 1905 after being rejected in 1902.

The prestige of the Nobel Prize prompted the French parliament to create a new professorship for Curie at the Sorbonne in 1904. Curie declared he would not remain at the School of Physics unless the new chair included a fully funded laboratory, complete with assistants. His demand was met, and Marie was named his laboratory chief.

By early 1906, Pierre Curie was poised to begin work – at last and for the first time – in an adequate laboratory, although he was increasingly ill and tired.

On April 19, 1906, leaving a lunchtime meeting in Paris with colleagues from the Sorbonne, Curie slipped in front of a horse-drawn cart while crossing a rain-slicked rue Dauphine. Curie died as a result of the accident. His untimely death, although tragic, nevertheless, helped him to avoid a probable death by radiation exposure that later killed his wife. Both Pierre and Marie Curie were enshrined in the crypt of the Panthéon in Paris in April 1995.


The radioactivity of radium makes it a harmful substance, as scientists slowly came to realize in the early twentieth century after it was used as a luminescent paint on watch dials, panels, clocks , and other instruments (and deleterious side effects were noticed by lab workers and consumers alike). However, radium in the form of radium chloride has been beneficial in the field of medicine as a form of cancer treatment. Pierre and Marie Curie’s contribution to this fact cannot be ignored. [5] .

Polonium has various practical applications in industrial and nuclear settings. However, it is also known as a very toxic substance and can be used as a poison . Perhaps most influential is its use as a neutron trigger for nuclear weapons. [6]

The curie is a unit of radioactivity (3.7 x 1010 decays per second or 37 gigabecquerels) originally named in honor of Pierre Curie by the Radiology Congress in 1910, after Curie’s death.

Pierre and Marie Curie’s children and grandchildren also became important scientists. Their daughter Irene married Frederic Joliot and they were joint recipients of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935. The younger daughter, Eve, born in 1904, married the American diplomat H. R. Labouisse, who as Director of the United Nations ‘ Children’s Fund received on its behalf the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1965. She is the author of a biography of her mother, Madame Curie (Gallimard, Paris, 1938), translated into several languages.

Their granddaughter Hélène Langevin-Joliot is a professor of nuclear physics at the University of Paris and their grandson, Pierre Joliot, named after Pierre Sr., is a noted biochemist .


  • Nobel Prize for Physics (1903)
  • Davy Medal (1903)
  • Matteucci Medal (1904)


  1. ↑ Curie, Marie and Pierre . McGraw Hill: Access Science, 2007. Retrieved Dec. 4, 2007.
  2. ↑ “PROF. CURIE KILLED IN A PARIS STREET…” New York Times (April 20, 1906). Retrieved from Proquest Dec 3, 2007
  3. ↑ Michael Freemantle, 2003. Chemistry at its Most Beautiful , Chemical and Engineering News Retrieved December 5, 2007.
  4. ↑ Curie, Pierre Oxford Reference Online, 1999. Retrieved Dec. 2, 2007
  5. ↑ Murrell L. Satutsky, Radium , McGraw Hill Access Science, Encyclopedia of Science and Technology Online. Retrieved Dec. 5, 2007
  6. ↑ Kenneth W. Bagnell, Polonium , McGraw Hill Access Science, Encyclopedia of Science and Technology Online. Retrieved Dec. 5, 2007


  • Brian, Denis. The Curies: a Biography of the most controversial family in science, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2005. ISBN 0471273910
  • Curie, Eve. Madame Curie: a biography. New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1986. ISBN 0306802813
  • Curie, Marie. Pierre Curie. Charlottesville, Va: University of Virginia Library, 1999. ISBN 9780585233444
  • Pycior, Helena M., Nancy G. Slack, and Pnina G. Abir-Am. Creative couples in the sciences. (Lives of women in science.) New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996. ISBN 0813521874
  • Senior, John E. Marie & Pierre Curie. Gloucestershire: Sutton Pub, 1998. ISBN 0750915277
  • Skłodowska-Curie, Maria, and Maria Skłodowska-Curie. Autobiographical notes & Pierre Curie. Warszawa: Gal, 2006. ISBN 8392188225

External links

All links retrieved July 21, 2013.

  • The Nobel Prize in Physics 1903
  • Official Nobel biography
  • Pierre Curie
  • Electronic text of Pierre Curie By Marie Curie
  • Romantic Love Letters

Nobel Laureates in Physics

Wilhelm Röntgen (1901) • Hendrik Lorentz / Pieter Zeeman (1902) • Henri Becquerel / Pierre Curie / Marie Curie (1903) • Lord Rayleigh (1904) • Philipp Lenard (1905) • J. J. Thomson (1906) • Albert Michelson (1907) • Gabriel Lippmann (1908) • Guglielmo Marconi / Ferdinand Braun (1909) • Johannes van der Waals (1910) • Wilhelm Wien (1911) • Gustaf Dalén (1912) • Kamerlingh Onnes (1913) • Max von Laue (1914) • W. L. Bragg / W. H. Bragg (1915) • Charles Barkla (1917) • Max Planck (1918) • Johannes Stark (1919) • Charles Guillaume (1920) • Albert Einstein (1921) • Niels Bohr (1922) • Robert Millikan (1923) • Manne Siegbahn (1924) • James Franck / Gustav Hertz (1925)

Complete roster | (1901-1925) | (1926-1950) | (1951-1975) | (1976-2000) | (2001-2025)


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