Marie Curie and her X-ray ve­hi­cles' con­tri­bu­tion to World War I bat­tle­field medicine

Malta Independent - - Feature - ■ Timothy J. Jor­gensen,

Georgetown Univer­sity

Ask peo­ple to name the most fa­mous his­tor­i­cal woman of sci­ence and their an­swer will likely be: Madame Marie Curie. Push fur­ther and ask what she did, and they might say it was some­thing re­lated to ra­dioac­tiv­ity. (She ac­tu­ally dis­cov­ered the ra­dioiso­topes ra­dium and polo­nium.) Some might also know that she was the first woman to win a No­bel Prize. (She ac­tu­ally won two.)

But few will know she was also a ma­jor hero of World War I. In fact, a vis­i­tor to her Paris lab­o­ra­tory 100 years ago would not have found ei­ther her or her ra­dium on the premises. Her ra­dium was in hid­ing and she was at war.

For Curie, the war started in early 1914, as Ger­man troops headed to­ward her home­town of Paris. She knew her sci­en­tific re­search needed to be put on hold. So she gath­ered her en­tire stock of ra­dium, put it in a lead-lined con­tainer, trans­ported it by train to Bordeaux – 375 miles away from Paris – and left it in a safety de­posit box at a lo­cal bank. She then re­turned to Paris, con­fi­dent that she would re­claim her ra­dium af­ter France had won the war.

With the sub­ject of her life’s work hid­den far away, she now needed some­thing else to do. Rather than flee the turmoil, she de­cided to join in the fight. But just how could a mid­dle-aged woman do that? She de­cided to re­di­rect her sci­en­tific skills to­ward the war ef­fort; not to make weapons, but to save lives.

X-rays en­listed in the war ef­fort

X-rays, a type of elec­tro­mag­netic ra­di­a­tion, had been dis­cov­ered in 1895 by Curie’s fel­low No­bel lau­re­ate, Wil­helm Roent­gen. As I de­scribe in my book “Strange Glow: The Story of Ra­di­a­tion,” al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter their dis­cov­ery, physi­cians be­gan us­ing X-rays to im­age pa­tients’ bones and find for­eign ob­jects – like bul­lets.

But at the start of the war, X-ray ma­chines were still found only in city hos­pi­tals, far from the bat­tle­fields where wounded troops were be­ing treated. Curie’s so­lu­tion was to in­vent the first “ra­di­o­log­i­cal car” – a ve­hi­cle con­tain­ing an X-ray ma­chine and pho­to­graphic dark­room equip­ment – which could be driven right up to the bat­tle­field where army sur­geons could use X-rays to guide their surg­eries.

One ma­jor ob­sta­cle was the need for elec­tri­cal power to pro­duce the X-rays. Curie solved that prob­lem by in­cor­po­rat­ing a dy­namo – a type of elec­tri­cal gen­er­a­tor – into the car’s de­sign. The petroleum-pow­ered car engine could thus pro­vide the re­quired elec­tric­ity.

Frus­trated by de­lays in get­ting fund­ing from the French mil­i­tary, Curie ap­proached the Union of Women of France. This phil­an­thropic or­ga­ni­za­tion gave her the money needed to pro­duce the first car, which ended up play­ing an im­por­tant role in treat­ing the wounded at the Bat­tle of Marne in 1914 – a ma­jor Al­lied vic­tory that kept the Ger­mans from en­ter­ing Paris.

More ra­di­o­log­i­cal cars were needed. So Curie ex­ploited her sci­en­tific clout to ask wealthy Parisian women to do­nate ve­hi­cles. Soon she had 20, which she out­fit­ted with X-ray equip­ment. But the cars were use­less with­out trained X-ray op­er­a­tors, so Curie started to train women vol­un­teers. She re­cruited 20 women for the first train­ing course, which she taught along with her daugh­ter Irene, a fu­ture No­bel Prize win­ner her­self.

The cur­ricu­lum in­cluded the­o­ret­i­cal in­struc­tion about the physics of elec­tric­ity and X-rays as well as prac­ti­cal lessons in anatomy and pho­to­graphic pro­cess­ing. When that group had fin­ished its train­ing, it left for the front, and Curie then trained more women. In the end, a to­tal of 150 women re­ceived X-ray train­ing from Curie.

Not con­tent just to send out her trainees to the bat­tle­front, Curie her­self had her own “lit­tle Curie” – as the ra­di­o­log­i­cal cars were nick­named – that she took to the front. This re­quired her to learn to drive, change flat tires and even master some rudi­men­tary auto me­chan­ics, like clean­ing car­bu­re­tors. And she also had to deal with car ac­ci­dents. When her driver ca­reened into a ditch and over­turned the ve­hi­cle, they righted the car, fixed the dam­aged equip­ment as best they could and got back to work.

In ad­di­tion to the mo­bile lit­tle Curies that trav­eled around the bat­tle­front, Curie also over­saw the con­struc­tion of 200 ra­di­o­log­i­cal rooms at var­i­ous fixed field hos­pi­tals be­hind the bat­tle lines.

X-rays’ long shadow for Marie Curie

Al­though few, if any, of the women X-ray work­ers were in­jured as a con­se­quence of com­bat, they were not with­out their ca­su­al­ties. Many suf­fered burns from over­ex­po­sure to X-rays. Curie knew that such high ex­po­sures

posed fu­ture health risks, such as can­cer in later life. But there had been no time to per­fect X-ray safety prac­tices for the field, so many X-ray work­ers were over­ex­posed. She wor­ried much about this, and later wrote a book about X-ray safety drawn from her war ex­pe­ri­ences.

Curie sur­vived the war but was con­cerned that her in­tense X-ray work would ul­ti­mately cause her demise. Years later, she did con­tract aplas­tic ane­mia, a blood dis­or­der some­times pro­duced by high ra­di­a­tion ex­po­sure.

Many as­sumed that her ill­ness was the re­sult of her decades of ra­dium work – it’s well-es­tab­lished that in­ter­nal­ized ra­dium is lethal. But Curie was dis­mis­sive of that idea. She had al­ways pro­tected her­self from in­gest­ing any ra­dium. Rather, she at­trib­uted her ill­ness to the high X-ray ex­po­sures she had re­ceived dur­ing the war. (We will likely never know whether the wartime Xrays con­trib­uted to her death in 1934, but a sam­pling of her re­mains in 1995 showed her body was in­deed free of ra­dium.)

As sci­ence’s first woman celebrity, Marie Curie can hardly be called an un­sung hero. But the com­mon de­pic­tion of her as a one-di­men­sional per­son, slav­ing away in her lab­o­ra­tory with the sin­gle-minded pur­pose of ad­vanc­ing sci­ence for sci­ence’s sake, is far from the truth.

Marie Curie was a mul­ti­di­men­sional per­son, who worked doggedly as both a sci­en­tist and a hu­man­i­tar­ian. She was a strong patriot of her adopted home­land, hav­ing im­mi­grated to France from Poland. And she lever­aged her sci­en­tific fame for the ben­e­fit of her coun­try’s war ef­fort – us­ing the win­nings from her sec­ond No­bel Prize to buy war bonds and even try­ing to melt down her No­bel medals to con­vert them to cash to buy more.

She didn’t al­low her gen­der to ham­per her in a male-dom­i­nated world. In­stead, she mo­bi­lized a small army of women in an ef­fort to re­duce hu­man suf­fer­ing and win World War I. Through her ef­forts, it is es­ti­mated that the to­tal num­ber of wounded sol­diers re­ceiv­ing X-ray ex­ams dur­ing the war ex­ceeded one mil­lion.

This ar­ti­cle is re­pub­lished from

The Con­ver­sa­tion un­der a

Cre­ative Com­mons li­cense.

Read the orig­i­nal ar­ti­cle here: http://the­con­ver­sa­­hi­cles-con­tri­bu­tion-to-world-war-i-bat­tle­field-m edicine-83941.

Marie Curie in one of her mo­bile X-ray units in Oc­to­ber 1917

One of Curie’s mo­bile units used by the French Army

Marie Curie and her daugh­ter Irène in the lab­o­ra­tory af­ter WWI

Medics at a French WWI field hospi­tal lo­cat­ing a bul­let with X-ray ma­chine

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