Ask anyone about Marie Curie’s achievements and they’ll likely tell you she was a notable scientist.
Of course, they’d be right.
Curie was a pioneer in researching radioactivity, winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 and Chemistry in 1911. In fact, she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person to win it twice.
But she was also a war hero.
Thanks to Curie, millions of wounded soldiers during WW1 had their injuries X-rayed at the frontline, enabling close-to-immediate specific surgeries that likely saved their lives.
X-Rays at the Beginning of the War
X-rays had been discovered in 1895 by Curie’s contemporary and fellow Nobel laureate, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen.
By the time the first world war began they were available in some of the major military hospitals. But these hospitals were located too far from the front to help soldiers injured on the battlefield. Many men died en route or while waiting to be transported.
Marie Curie’s Mobile X-Rays
Curie, a Polish-born French citizen had closed her lab during the bombing of Paris. She left her most prized possession, a gram of radium, in a lead-lined container in a safety deposit box at a Bordeaux bank and returned to Paris, determined to help her adopted country and the war effort in any way she could.
Her solution was to develop a fleet of “radiological cars” – vehicles outfitted with both an X-ray machine and a miniature darkroom for quickly processing prints.
X-rays were crucial in determining broken bones and the localization of bullets and shrapnel in the body. But in her own 1921 book, La Radiologie et la Guerre (Radiology and the War), the Nobel Prize winner noted that the radiological services along the French battlefields were “notoriously inadequate.”
The Issues Facing Curie’s X-Ray Cars
Her “radiological cars” idea, however, though ingenious, was not an easy undertaking.
For starters, X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation. Curie’s mobile machines would, therefore, need to generate power to produce the X-rays. Even as a last resort, they couldn’t be hooked up to the electricity in any of the aid units currently operating behind the battle lines as many of these buildings lacked any electricity at all.
The problem was quickly solved by Curie herself: She designed an electrical dynamo that would be connected to and therefore powered by the vehicle’s petroleum engine!
A second issue was finding vehicles to equip with the radiography machinery. There were many frustrating obstacles to securing the necessary funding from the French Ministry. While some of this was down to do the government’s renowned red tape, according to Naomi Pasachoff, a science historian at Williams College, Massachusetts, and author of Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity (Oxford University Press, 1997), it’s likely Curie was stymied because she was a female in a male world too.
Curie Turned to the Women of France
As a result, Curie turned to the Union des Femmes de France (Union of the Women of France), a philanthropic organization and one of three companies that would later form the French Red Cross. They gave her the money to develop her first car, which Curie then converted into a truck.
Further problems that the famous scientist faced were much more practical ones. As a researcher, she was not trained in the clinical management of X-rays and had to learn the basics of radiology.
Also, like many women of her day, she didn’t know how to drive! Wars teach us many things; For Marie Curie such lessons included how to make a left turn, clean a clogged-up carburetor and change a tire!
Curie took on duties in the first radiological truck, which traveled to the front line at the Battle of Marne (1914).
The vehicle’s role in treating the wounded here cannot be underestimated: The Allies were victorious in pushing back the Germans’ advance, preventing them from entering Paris.
However, one car was not enough. Just as thousands of young men were slaughtered daily in the horrific trench warfare of World War 1, so too were thousands more wounded and in need of a fast, precise diagnosis of the severity of their injuries. Using X-rays to guide immediate surgeries would mean the lives of many young men would be saved.
The Nobel Laureate decided to put her fame to good use: She turned to the wealthy women of Paris society and asked them to support her latest endeavor. The women stepped up. Within months she had a fleet of twenty truck-like cars, affectionately nicknamed “Petit Curies” (Little Curies.)
Curie Mobilized Women – And They Were Only Too Willing to Help
But Curie didn’t stop at building the mobile X-ray machines; She and her then-teenage daughter Irene, a future Nobel Prize winner herself (both pictured above), also trained 150 female volunteers to use and run the cars.
Every Little Curie was to have a team consisting of a physician, a technician, and a driver, and each member needed to be able to perform some of the others’ tasks.
An intensive 6-8 week course for women put them in both the driving and the radiologists’ seat and, on many occasions in the doctor’s role too.
How welcomed these women were on the French war front is not known. But their presence did save the lives of many and changed battlefield surgery irrevocably.
Curie’s War Effort Saved Millions of Lives
In addition to the Little Curies driving across France to the scenes of bloody battle, the resolute scientist also led the construction of 200 fixed radiology units at field hospitals nearer to the front.
Historians believe that the combination of both the cars and the fixed units allowed more than two million wounded soldiers to be treated.
By the end of the war, it is estimated that there were close to 500 fixed units alongside 300 mobile radiological cars, and X-rays had become a fundamental component in the field medic’s treatment of wounded soldiers; by 1918, no surgeon would attempt to remove a bullet or any projectile without accurate knowledge of its location.
Surviving the War – But Not Radiation
Curie and the women she trained survived the war, though their high exposure to X-rays likely posed future health risks.
Curie herself had recognized this risk but with such little time available to her had found no way to incorporate proper safety practices in the field.
Less than 20 years after the war had ended, Curie contracted aplastic anemia, a blood disorder known to be produced by high radiation exposure.
While many people believed that the disorder was a result of her life’s work with radium, Curie herself dismissed the idea. She claims she had always protected herself against ingesting radium during the days in her lab. Instead, she put her deteriorating health down to the dangerous levels of radium she was exposed to during her active role behind the battle lines of World War 1.
Curie’s Great Contribution
However, she never spoke of any regrets she may have had in putting her work in the war before her health.
Curie was, first and foremost, a scientist and a humanitarian, claiming: “I am one of those who think like Nobel, that humanity will draw more good than evil from new discoveries.”
And because of her life work both in and outside of the war, she advanced science and the world – and women’s place in both.