In October 1914, Marie Curie and her daughter, Irène, were driving a rickety van near a First World War battlefield in France.
The two women were surrounded by the military – soldiers, officers, medics and the wounded. But they were meant to be there. Just two months after the war started, Marie had convinced the French government to set up the country’s first military radiology centres. She was soon named director of the Red Cross Radiology Service in France.
Their van was the world’s first specially fitted mobile x-ray unit, and marked the first time x-rays were taken for medical use outside of a hospital.
By the end of the war, each of the 20 mobile x-ray vans – known by soldiers as petites Curies (little Curies) had x-rayed up to 10,000 men. The quick information they gave the battlefield medics saved thousands of lives.
Radioactive, a stunning new film about the life of scientist Marie Curie premieres on 20 March.
Many of us know her name, but how much do we know about why she is so famous? And how did that fame allow her to make such an important contribution to medical care in World War One?
Marie Curie was inspired by the search for ‘invisible light’
By the time she developed the x-ray vans, Marie Curie was already the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, then the first person to win two Nobel Prizes. She was the first woman in France to earn a PhD and then the first woman professor at the Sorbonne University.
Originally from Poland, Marie was determined to learn as much as she could when she moved to France. She fell in love with her husband, Pierre, when they worked together at his physics lab in Paris.
When they married in 1895, X-rays had just been invented in Germany. The ‘x’ in x-ray stood for ‘invisible light’, an unknown force at the time. The Curies, together with another French scientist called Henri Becquerel, started to explore what this invisible light could be.
Using specialist equipment Pierre developed, Marie discovered that some substances gave off invisible rays that could not be changed by an outside force, such as heat or other chemicals. She realised that these rays must be coming from the substance’s own atoms.
Marie called the force behind these rays, ‘radioactivity’.
The Curies discovered two new elements – all from mining waste
Marie went on to test all the elements known at that time for radioactivity. After that, she tested dozens of other things, from metals to salts. Pitchblende, a mining waste product, turned out to be highly radioactive.
To find the mysterious radioactive ingredient in Pitchblende, the Curies separated its different substances. They then measured the radiation to trace tiny amounts of unknown, radioactive materials.
By the summer of 1899, the Curies had isolated a new element and Marie named it ‘polonium’ after her home country. By December of that year, they had found another new element, ‘radium’, named after the Latin word for ray.
The Curies then decided to find a sample of this new element. After four years of hard work, 7 tons of pitchblende, 400 tons of water and 40 tons of corrosive chemicals, they managed to extract one-tenth of 1 gram of radium chloride in 1902.
At night, Marie and Pierre watched their new element glow in the dark. “The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights,” she said.
More firsts and a tragedy
In June 1903, Marie’s research led her to become the first woman in France to get a PhD. In December that year, the couple and Henri Becquerel were awarded a Nobel Prize in physics for their work in radioactivity.
But tragically, in April 1906, Pierre was hit by a horse-drawn cart and killed. Despite overwhelming grief, Marie continued her work on radioactivity and took over her husband’s professorship. This made her the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne.
In 1911, she won a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, for her discovery of radium and polonium, and for furthering the understanding of radioactivity. She thus became the first person to win two Nobel Prizes.
Serving her adopted country
When WWI broke out in 1914, Marie immediately saw the potential of x-rays to save lives on the battlefield. She even volunteered to melt down her two gold Nobel Prize medals to pay for the service, but this offer was refused.
“I am resolved to put all my strength at the service of my adopted country,” she said.
Marie and Irène didn’t know how to take x-rays so learned on the job and then trained other women to join them.
Your relatives may have served on the same battlefields as the Curies
Over 90,000 people volunteered for the British Red Cross during the First World War, some of them treating the wounded in France. They may have come across the Curies and their mobile x-ray vans. You can check if any of your relatives may have served on the same battlefields as Marie and Irène Curie through our WWI volunteer online database.
The technology Marie and Irène developed continues to save lives on battlefields and in civilian life. Today, the International Committee of the Red Cross still cares for the health of thousands of people injured in conflicts around the world.
- See the new film Radioactive about the life and passions of Marie Curie
- How the British Red Cross helped in the First World War
- Find out more about the people who volunteered with the Red Cross in the First World War – from sock knitters to ambulance drivers
The film Radioactive was inspired by a book with the same name by Lauren Redniss.
Photographs © Laurie Sparham/Radioactive