A lot has been written about Marie Curie, and deservedly so. In celebration of what would have been her 150th birthday, here are three lesser-known things about her life and legacy.
She was educated in secret
Curie was born and raised in Warsaw, Poland, which at that time was controlled by the Russian Empire. She got her university education at the Flying University, a secret Polish university that educated women in shifting locations. At the time, writes Eric Grundhauser for Atlas Obscura, educating women at university was illegal in Russia. Additionally, he writes, “the Germanization and Russification efforts (depending on what political power controlled the part of Poland where you lived) aimed at higher education made it nearly impossible for the citizenry to take part in a curriculum that wasn’t in some way working to erase Polish culture.”
Over time, as the university formalized, the freedom to teach what they wanted, to whomever they wanted, attracted Poland’s top minds. And Curie learned from those minds.
She met two American presidents
Curie’s early career unfolded entirely in Europe, but she did eventually make it to the United States–twice, in fact. Her first visit, in 1921, saw her visit the White House to receive a gram of radium for her work, crowdfunded by American women. At that time, she met president Warren G. Harding, who presented her with the radium, as well as his wife, Florence Harding, who supported the fundraising effort.
When she returned in 1929, again to receive supplies for her work, she met president Herbert Hoover. However, writes the National Institute of Standards and Technology, there was “considerably less fanfare” on this visit. For starters, unlike in 1921, she received money to buy radium ($50,000, enough for one gram) rather than the radium itself. Second, Curie arrived two days after the stock market crash that paved the way for the Great Depression. “Nevertheless, President Hoover took time to welcome her to the White House and present her with the bank draft,” NIST writes.
After her visit, Curie wrote Hoover a thank-you note. “I feel that it was very kind of you and Mrs. Hoover to give time and thought to me in these particularly worried days,” she wrote.
It’s no urban myth–her notebooks are still super radioactive
Much of Curie’s career, including her second Nobel Prize, took place after the death of her husband and collaborator Pierre Curie. He died in 1906 when he was run over by a cart in Paris. Curie herself didn’t die until 1934, of complications related to her prolonged exposure to radiation in the course of her work.
“Marie Curie's decades of exposure left her chronically ill and nearly blind from cataracts, and ultimately caused her death at 67, in 1934, from either severe anemia or leukemia,” wrote Denis Grady for The New York Times. “But she never fully acknowledged that her work had ruined her health.”
The radiation also contaminated everything she owned or worked with–which means that her papers are stored in a lead-lined box and you have to sign a liability waiver to access them, writes Adam Clark Estes for Gizmodo. “And it's not just Curie's manuscripts that are too dangerous to touch, either,” he writes. “If you visit the Pierre and Marie Curie collection at the Bibliotheque Nationale in France, many of her personal possessions—from her furniture to her cookbooks—require protective clothing to be safely handled.”