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
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.
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.
Medics at a French World War I field hospital locating a bullet with an X-ray machine.
Marie Curie and her daughter Irène in the laboratory after World War I.
One of Marie Curie’s mobile units used by the French Army.