Marie Curie Invented Mobile X‑Ray Units to Help Save Wounded Soldiers in World War I

These days the phrase “mobile x‑ray unit” is like­ly to spark heat­ed debate about pri­va­cy, pub­lic health, and free­dom of infor­ma­tion, espe­cial­ly in New York City, where the police force has been less than forth­com­ing about its use of mil­i­tary grade Z Backscat­ter sur­veil­lance vans.

A hun­dred years ago, Mobile X‑Ray Units were a brand new inno­va­tion, and a god­send for sol­diers wound­ed on the front in WW1. Pri­or to the advent of this tech­nol­o­gy, field sur­geons rac­ing to save lives oper­at­ed blind­ly, often caus­ing even more injury as they groped for bul­lets and shrap­nel whose pre­cise loca­tions remained a mys­tery.

Marie Curie was just set­ting up shop at Paris’ Radi­um Insti­tute, a world cen­ter for the study of radioac­tiv­i­ty, when war broke out. Many of her researchers left to fight, while Curie per­son­al­ly deliv­ered France’s sole sam­ple of radi­um by train to the tem­porar­i­ly relo­cat­ed seat of gov­ern­ment in Bor­deaux.

“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…,” Curie, a Pole by birth, wrote to her lover, physi­cist Paul Langevin on New Year’s Day, 1915.

To that end, she envi­sioned a fleet of vehi­cles that could bring X‑ray equip­ment much clos­er to the bat­tle­field, shift­ing their coor­di­nates as nec­es­sary.

Rather than leav­ing the exe­cu­tion of this bril­liant plan to oth­ers, Curie sprang into action.

She stud­ied anato­my and learned how to oper­ate the equip­ment so she would be able to read X‑ray films like a med­ical pro­fes­sion­al.

She learned how to dri­ve and fix cars.

She used her con­nec­tions to solic­it dona­tions of vehi­cles, portable elec­tric gen­er­a­tors, and the nec­es­sary equip­ment, kick­ing in gen­er­ous­ly her­self. (When she got the French Nation­al Bank to accept her gold Nobel Prize medals on behalf of the war effort, she spent the bulk of her prize purse on war bonds.)

She was ham­pered only by back­wards-think­ing bureau­crats whose feath­ers ruf­fled at the prospect of female tech­ni­cians and dri­vers, no doubt for­get­ting that most of France’s able-bod­ied men were oth­er­wise engaged.

Curie, no stranger to sex­ism, refused to bend to their will, deliv­er­ing equip­ment to the front line and X‑raying wound­ed sol­diers, assist­ed by her 17-year-old daugh­ter, Irène, who like her moth­er, took care to keep her emo­tions in check while work­ing with maimed and dis­tressed patients.

“In less than two years,” writes Aman­da Davis at The Insti­tute, “the num­ber of units had grown sub­stan­tial­ly, and the Curies had set up a train­ing pro­gram at the Radi­um Insti­tute to teach oth­er women to oper­ate the equip­ment.” Even­tu­al­ly, they recruit­ed about 150 women, train­ing them to man the Lit­tle Curies, as the mobile radi­og­ra­phy units came to be known.

via Brain Pick­ings

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Marie Curie Attend­ed a Secret, Under­ground “Fly­ing Uni­ver­si­ty” When Women Were Banned from Pol­ish Uni­ver­si­ties

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Life & Work of Marie Curie, the First Female Nobel Lau­re­ate

Marie Curie’s Research Papers Are Still Radioac­tive 100+ Years Lat­er

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Her inter­est in wom­en’s wartime con­tri­bu­tions has man­i­fest­ed itself in comics on “Crazy Bet” Van Lew and the Maid­en­form fac­to­ry’s man­u­fac­ture of WWII car­ri­er pigeon vests. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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