War Duty (1914-1919)
A Military Radiotherapy Service
CURIE KNEW SHE NEEDED more trained personnel. She and Irčne could not run by themselves the 20 mobile X-ray stations she had established, nor the 200 stationary units. By 1916 Marie began to train women as radiological assistants by offering courses in the necessary techniques at the Radium Institute. She was assisted by Irčne, who was also enrolled as a student at the Sorbonne.
"Theoretically, [the women trained at the Radium Institute] were supposed to serve as aides to physicians, but several of them proved capable of independent work." --Marie Curie
Her radiological services well under way, Curie turned her attention to establishing a military radiotherapy service. By 1915 it seemed likely that the Germans could not take Paris. After retrieving the gram of radium from Bordeaux, Curie began to use a technique pioneered in Dublin to collect radon--a radioactive gas that radium steadily emits. Working alone, without protecting herself adequately from the radioactive vapors, she used an electric pump to collect the gas at 48-hour intervals. She sealed the radon in thin glass tubes about one centimeter long, which were delivered to military and civilian hospitals. There doctors encased the tubes in platinum needles and positioned them directly within patients' bodies, in the exact spot where the radiation would most effectively destroy diseased tissue.
"The story of radiology in war offers a striking example of the unsuspected amplitude that the application of purely scientific discoveries can take under certain conditions. X-rays had only a limited usefulness up to the time of the war...A similar evolution took place in radium therapy, the medical applications of radiations emitted by the radioelements." --Marie Curie, Radiology in War
SHOULD SHE HAND OVER her medals to the government? In addition to the contributions to the war effort that Curie could make as a scientist, she was also an ordinary citizen. When the government asked people to contribute their gold and silver, Curie decided to offer her two Nobel medals, along with all the other medals bestowed on her over the years. The French National Bank turned down the offer, but Curie did her part by using most of the Nobel prize money to buy war bonds.
The war ended on November 11, 1918, but Curie's war-related work continued for nearly another whole year. During the spring of 1919 she offered radiology courses to a group of American soldiers who remained in France while awaiting passage home. That summer she summarized much of her wartime work in a book titled Radiology in War. By the fall of 1919 her laboratory at the Radium Institute was finally ready. She would devote most of the rest of her life to it.
Next: The Radium Institute