Sci­en­tist, hu­man­i­tar­ian, hero

How Marie Curie and her X-ray ve­hi­cles’ con­tri­bu­tion to World War I bat­tle­field medicine pos­si­bly saved the lives of more than 1 mil­lion sol­diers

The Mercury - - NEWS - Jor­gensen is the di­rec­tor of the Health Physics and Ra­di­a­tion Pro­tec­tion Grad­u­ate Pro­gramme and as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of ra­di­a­tion medicine at 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 she was the first woman to win a No­bel Prize. (And the only woman to win two.)

But few will know she was also a ma­jor hero of World War I. In fact, a vis­i­tor to her Paris lab­o­ra­tory in Oc­to­ber 1917 – 100 years ago this month – 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 to­wards her home­town of Paris. She knew her sci­en­tific re­search needed to be put on hold, so she gath­ered her stock of ra­dium, put it in a lead­lined con­tainer, trans­ported it by train to Bordeaux – 600km away from Paris – and left it in a safety de­posit box at a lo­cal bank. She then re­turned to Paris, con­fi­dent 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 to­wards the war ef­fort; not to make weapons, but to save lives.

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.

Fund­ing

Frus­trated by de­lays in get­ting fund­ing from the French mil­i­tary, Curie ap­proached the Union of Women of France. This phi­lan­thropic or­gan­i­sa­tion 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, 150 women re­ceived X-ray train­ing from Curie. Not con­tent to send out her trainees to the bat­tle­front, Curie had her “lit­tle Curie” – as the ra­di­o­log­i­cal cars were nick­named – that she took to the front. This re­quired her to learn to drive, change flat tyres and mas­ter some rudi­men­tary auto me­chan­ics, like clean­ing car­bu­ret­tors. 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 trav­elled around the bat­tle­front, Curie also over­saw the con­struc­tion of 200 ra­di­o­log­i­cal rooms at var­i­ous fixed field hos­pi­tals be­hind the bat­tle lines.

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 anaemia, a blood dis­or­der some­times pro­duced by high ra­di­a­tion ex­po­sure.

PIC­TURE: LI­BRARY OF CONGRESS PRINTS AND PHO­TO­GRAPHS DIVISION

Medics at a French World War I field hos­pi­tal lo­cat­ing a bul­let with an X-ray ma­chine.

PIC­TURE: AS­SO­CI­A­TION CURIE JOLIOT-CURIE

Marie Curie and her daugh­ter Irène in the lab­o­ra­tory after World War I.

PIC­TURE: BIBLIOTHÈQUE NATIONALE DE FRANCE, DÉPARTEMENT ESTAMPES ET PHOTOGRAPHIE

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

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