War Duty (1914-1919)
Radiology at the Front
THREE GERMAN BOMBS fell on Paris on September 2, 1914, about a month after Germany declared war on France. By that time construction of the Radium Institute was complete, although Curie had not yet moved her lab there. Curie's researchers had been drafted, like all other able-bodied Frenchmen.
The Radium Institute's work would have to wait for peacetime. But surely there were ways in which Curie could use her scientific knowledge to advance the war effort.
"I am resolved to put all my strength at the service of my adopted country, since I cannot do anything for my unfortunate native country just now..." --letter from Marie Curie to Paul Langevin, January 1, 1915
As the German army swept toward Paris, the government decided to move to Bordeaux. France's entire stock of radium for research was the single gram in Curie's lab. At the government's behest, Curie took a Bordeaux-bound train along with government staff, carrying the precious element in a heavy lead box. Unlike many, however, Curie felt her place was in Paris. After the radium was in a Bordeaux safe-deposit box, she returned to Paris on a military train.
X-rays could save soldiers' lives, she realized, by helping doctors see bullets, shrapnel, and broken bones. She convinced the government to empower her to set up France's first military radiology centers. Newly named Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service, she wheedled money and cars out of wealthy acquaintances.
She convinced automobile body shops to transform the cars into vans, and begged manufacturers to do their part for their country by donating equipment. By late October 1914, the first of 20 radiology vehicles she would equip was ready. French enlisted men would soon dub these mobile radiology installations, which transported X-ray apparatus to the wounded at the battle front, petites Curies (little Curies).
ALTHOUGH CURIE HAD LECTURED about X-rays at the Sorbonne, she had no personal experience working with them. Intending to operate the petite Curie herself if necessary, she learned how to drive a car and gave herself cram courses in anatomy, in the use of X-ray equipment, and in auto mechanics. As her first radiological assistant she chose her daughter Irčne, a very mature and scientifically well-versed 17-year-old. Accompanied by a military doctor, mother and daughter made their first trip to the battle front in the autumn of 1914.
"The use of the X-rays during the war saved the lives of many wounded men; it also saved many from long suffering and lasting infirmity."--Marie Curie
Would Irčne be traumatized by the sight of the soldiers' horrific wounds? To guard against a bad reaction, Curie was careful to display no emotion herself as she carefully recorded data about each patient.
Irčne followed her mother's example. Heedless of the dangers of over-exposure to X-rays, mother and daughter were inadequately shielded from the radiation that helped save countless soldiers' lives. After the war the French government recognized Irčne's hospital work by awarding her a military medal. No such official recognition came to Curie. Perhaps her role in the Langevin affair was not yet forgiven.
Next: A Military Radiotherapy Service