Marie Curie and her X-ray Vehicles’ Contribution to World War I Battlefield Medicine

Sunday is Veterans Day. This year the holiday is particularly significant because it marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending World War I.

Marie Curie in a Mobile Military Hospital X-Ray Unit.

Readers of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology might wonder how the Great War influenced the application of physics to medicine. Timothy Jorgensen published a fascinating article on the website The Conversation discussing Nobel Prize-winner Marie Curie’s use of medical x-rays on the battlefield. Below are some annotated excerpts.

[In addition to her discovery of radium and polonium, Curie (1867–1934)] 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.

The Guns of August

For Curie, the war started in early 1914, as German troops headed toward her hometown of Paris [“early” 1914? Germany declared war against France on August 3; see Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman]…[Curie] gathered her entire stock of radium, put it in a lead-lined container, transported it by train to Bordeaux…and left it in a safety deposit box at a local bank… With the subject of her life’s work hidden far away…she decided to redirect her scientific skills toward the war effort; not to make weapons, but to save lives.

X-rays…had been discovered in 1895 by Curie’s fellow Nobel laureate, Wilhelm Roentgen.… 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….

[As the war progressed,] 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 [1897–1956, making her a teenager during much of the war], a future Nobel Prize winner herself….

Not content just to send out her trainees to the battlefront, Curie herself had her own ‘little Curie’ [Petites Curies] — 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 [don’t you just love her?]….

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 [see The Radium Girls by Kate Moore]. 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 X-rays contributed to her death in 1934, but a sampling of her remains in 1995 showed her body was indeed free of radium.)

To learn more about Marie Curie, I recommend Jorgensen’s fine book Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation, or the article about Marie and her husband Pierre Curie and the discovery of polonium and radium, published by the Nobel Prize website. If you are a child at heart and enjoy Animated Hero Classic videos, watch this tearjerker.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/6aG54-e3eZ4?feature=player_embedded

To learn more about x-ray imaging, see Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology:

Chapter 16 describes the use of x rays for medical diagnosis and treatment. It moves from production to detection, to the diagnostic radiograph. We discuss image quality and noise, followed by angiography, mammography, fluoroscopy, and computed tomography. After briefly reviewing radiobiology, we discuss therapy and dose measurement. The chapter closes with a section on the risks from radiation.

To learn more about the First World War, visit the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City (know locally as Liberty Memorial).

National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City.

Happy Veterans Day all who have defended our country in the military (including my dad and my brother-in-law). Thank you for your service.

Originally published at hobbieroth.blogspot.com on November 9, 2018.

Professor of Physics at Oakland University and coauthor of the textbook Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.