5 – X-Ray Machines
Orville Wright is one of the most celebrated names in 20th-century science – as is Fritz Haber – but they were not the only geniuses who were called into action in the First World War. Marie Curie, one of the finest minds of her generation and the first double Nobel Prize laureate – not to mention the first woman – was already feted around the world when war broke out in 1914 and she would put her considerable intellect into the service of her adopted country, France.
Though Polish by birth, she had been living in Paris since the early 1890s and said in a letter to her lover and fellow scientist Paul Langevin: “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…”. As one of the world’s foremost experts in radiation (she invented the term “radioactivity) Curie was able to put her knowledge in that field to use as soon as the war began.
When the war began and the government in Paris departed en masse to Bordeaux, she was forced to follow them with France’s entire supply of radium, which was to be moved for safekeeping. Undeterred, she returned to the capital and set to work aiding the wounded soldiers that flooded into the city from the frontlines to the north. Using her knowledge of radiation, she convinced local mechanics to outfit trucks that could carry mobile x-ray machines.
The x-ray was not new, having been first used for medical procedures in 1900, but the practical application of the technology on a mass scale was unprecedented. It was blindly obvious that the ability to isolate and remove shrapnel, bullet and other objects from wounded men, not to mention resetting broken bones, was vital to saving lives and getting as many soldiers back into the field as quickly as possible.
Curie herself, though an accomplished scientist and theoretician of x-rays, was untrained in their medical use. She took it upon herself to learn how the machines were properly operated and even how to drive and service the trucks that carried them, so she could best make herself useful. She kept her daughter Irene, then just a teenager, close at hand as her assistant. The mobile x-ray machines were known to French soldiers as “little Curies”, bringing as they did the technology of the famed scientific family to the frontlines.
Marie Curie was named the director of the French Red Cross Radiology Service and was able to draw upon a huge contact book of wealthy individuals in order to gain financial and material assistance for her x-ray programs. She funded generators that could keep the trucks powered and developed a team of doctors that could use the technology and then operate using the results that they acquired. By the end of the war, there were 20 mobile radiology units in operation as well as hundreds of members of staff, a large number of them women like their leader.
Curie described the vehicles herself in her autobiography: “It was simply a touring motor-car, arranged for the transport of a complete radiologic apparatus, together with a dynamo that was worked by the engine of the car, and furnished the electric current necessary for the production of the rays. This car could come at the call of any of the hospitals, large or small, in the surroundings of Paris. Cases of urgent need were frequent, for these hospitals had to take care of the wounded who could not be transported to more distant places.”
Previously, radiology had been something that required extensive hospital treatment and the fortune of having such a technology nearby. Marie Curie managed to take the existing capabilities of science and apply them to the circumstances that befell France in the First World War, creating the mobile x-ray facilities that are commonplace today.