Science and Heroism: Petite Curies at War
Sometimes we think we know about figures in history. Sometimes we discover how little we actually know. In research the First World War, I discovered that Marie Curie, the Nobel Prize winning scientist, did her most remarkable work outside her laboratory. I had always admired her but I had no idea about her war-time service.
When the world went to war in 1914 Marie Curie suspended her scientific work. Already a widow at forty-seven, with two children to raise, she had won her second Nobel three years before. With Germans on the march toward Paris she took steps to protect her work. At that point France’s entire stock of radium was in her lab. At the government’s behest she packed it in a lead-line box and took it, along with her entire lab and accompanied by government agents to Bordeaux (to which the French government had fled) where she stored it all in a bank vault. Marie herself returned to Paris.
Like many women she began to consider ways she might contribute to the war effort. She turned her keen scientific mind to one particular issue. She decided, as one author says, not to make weapons but to save lives.
At that time x-rays had been in use for nine years, but the machinery for it existed only in city hospitals. It was not commonly available and certainly not in mobile military units where the ability to find projectiles or broken bones could save lives and alleviate suffering. One major barrier to providing it was the need for electricity to run the machines.
Mme Curie’s solution was to create the first “radiological car,” a truck equipped with both X-ray and dark room equipment as well as—this is the clever part—a dynamo to generate electricity in petroleum powered automobiles. We are so used to electricity and even Internet in our vehicles this may not seem as big a deal as it was. This woman whose life work had been in a physics lab applied her scientific skill to create a simple practical solution to a huge problem.
Invention wasn’t enough. The Union of Women of France provided her with needed funds and by September of that same year the first of her radiological cars was in service at the Battle of the Marne. She lobbied the wealthy of Paris and ultimately obtained funds for twenty of these portable radiologie cars, nicknamed little Curies or petite curies.
The cars weren’t enough. They had to be staffed with trained technicians. Curie trained twenty women initially and ultimately 150 women to manage the petite curies. The training of course included the mechanics of the x-ray equipment. She also provided basic instruction in theoretical physics, electronics, and anatomy. She herself took a cram course in anatomy. Not content to merely send other women, she managed one of the cars herself and learned—and taught—basic auto mechanics including things like changing tires and cleaning carburetors. To be effective she had to be thorough.
Science is one thing, leadership is another. Clearly Mme. Curie possessed both in abundance was well as a practical creative mind. Her first assistant was her seventeen-year-old daughter Irene, who would also go on the win a Nobel.
The work took energy and courage, driving under terrible conditions, dealing with car crashes, skirting active fighting, but she emerged unscathed. Later in life, however when she developed aplastic anemia she blamed it not on the work in her lab in which she insisted she managed all safety precautions, but on the constant exposure to radiation she endured in the petite curies.
There is an abundance of fiction about the great war, including some masterpieces.
17 Historical Fiction Books about World War I, https://www.bookbub.com/blog/historical-fiction-set-in-world-war-i
Jorgensen, Timothy J., “From Lab to the Battlefield, How Marie Curie Became a Wartime Hero,” on Inverse: Science, November 12, 2018, https://www.inverse.com/article/50747-marie-curie-x-ray-machines-world-war-i-wwi
Jorgensen, Timothy J., “How Marie Curie Brought X-Ray Machines to the Battlefield,” in Smithsonian, October 11, 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-marie-curie-brought-x-ray-machines-to-battlefield-180965240/
“Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity, Wartime Service,” The American Institute of Physics, 2000-2019, https://history.aip.org/exhibits/curie/contents.htm
Caroline Warfield who loves history and all things historical, continues to write historical romance and family sagas covering the late Georgian, Regency, and Victorian periods. Her novel, Christmas Hope is a different turn, a story in four parts each ending on Christmas 1916, 17, 18, 19. It takes place in and around Amiens and northern France, and is currently available for pre-order pending an October release. Some wars must be fought, some loves must live on hope alone, and some stories must be told. This is one of them.
You can find her here: https://www.carolinewarfield.com/