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The unknown Marie Curie

19 November 2018
By Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, University of Sydney’s Julius Sumner Miller Fellow
On 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assasinated. A bizarre chain of events unfolded which, within a few weeks, launched the major European Great Powers into war.
Dr Karl Kruszelnicki with an historical image of Marie Curie

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki (left) stands next to a historical photo of Marie Curie on the ground floor of the Curie Pavilion of the Radium Institute in Paris where she had her lab, which is now the Musée Curie.

The war spread across the globe, drawing in the then-Ottoman Empire, the USA – on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, and even Japan, half a planet away.

Even more strangely, a dual Nobel Laureate gave up her day job to save many thousands of lives.  Hail Marie Curie, the first person to win two Nobel Prizes – the Physics prize in 1903 for her work in X-rays, and the Chemistry Prize in 1911 for discovering the two radioactive elements, polonium and radium.

The consequences of the First World War were truly horrific. About 9 million military and 7 million civilians died. More than 7 million of the serving military personnel were permanently disabled, and another 15 million were seriously injured.

The fighting created an increased need for medical care, specifically on the battlefield.

One great invention was the Thomas Splint, to stabilise a broken femur or thigh bone. Before the Thomas Splint, 80% of soldiers with a broken femur died. But by 1917, 80% survived.

To accurately diagnose a broken femur you needed X-ray imaging. X-rays also showed bullets, shrapnel, other broken bones and pneumonia. All of which were sadly common side effects of war.  

X-rays are electromagnetic radiation, but with a very short wavelength, around one tenth of one billionth of a metre. They were first used diagnostically some 20 years earlier. But at the beginning of The Great War, X-ray machines were too bulky and delicate to be located in the battlefield.

Marie Curie realised the potential use for her beloved X-rays to improve care of injured soldiers, while still at the front.

During World War I, she established the first ever military radiological centres in the battlefield (some 200 of them!). In addition, she set up 18 mobile X-ray vans that could travel to the injured. This was a mammoth effort – the vans had to carry the X-ray units plus generators to run them. The French soldiers affectionately called these mobile X-ray vans petites Curies (little Curies). The first vans were operational by October 1914.

Marie Curie won a Nobel Prize for her work in X-rays, but she had no personal experience with their medical use. To drive the vans to the battlefront she became technically familiar with how to operate and maintain X-ray equipment. Oh yes,  and something else, she learnt how to drive a car, some auto mechanics and some human anatomy. Then she needed an assistant – so she trained Irene, her 17-year-old daughter.

The two of them travelled the French battlefronts from the autumn of 1914. They both took and read X-rays. Over a milllion wounded soldiers were X-rayed with the ‘petites Curies’.

Madame Curie gave up all her own scientific research during this period to put all her efforts into the war cause. Despite this, her humanitarian work was never formally recognised by the French government.

What an inspirational scientist, humanitarian and practical innovator!