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The first X-ray mobiles - Marie Curie's war

With the approach of the German army to Paris, Marie Curie was forced to retrain in the absence of the ability to research radium. She came up with an idea - to equip vehicles with X-ray devices and bring them close to the front to better diagnose the wounded soldiers. Even the concept of an ambulance did not exist yet

Marie Curie's X-ray car in World War I. Photo: French National Library
Marie Curie's X-ray car in World War I. Photo: French National Library

War, like the war that has been imposed on us these days, is not a pleasant thing. Soldiers and civilians are killed, many are injured, some are kidnapped. The extremity of the war, actually the measure of the most severe conflict between countries, is a negative thing by all accounts, but in times of war there are, many times, the best technological developments. As Plato said, "Necessity is the father of invention" and indeed in war there is a need to speed up inventions and try new technologies in order to gain an advantage over the other side. This is what is happening today in Israel with the experience of the "Magan Or" laser system and with the "Hats 3" system, and this is what happened in the past, more than a century ago, in the First World War, with the X-ray mobility of Marie Curie.

Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-radiation or X-radiation (X radiation) by chance in November of 1895. Roentgen performed an experiment in which he studied the phenomena created when an electric current passes through a gas at very low pressure. He passed an electric current through a vacuum tube containing an anode and a cathode, and suddenly noticed a green glow on a fluorescent screen in his room - he assumed it was a ray. After repeating the experiment again and again, he discovered that the radiation penetrates differently through different materials, including through the palm of his wife's hand or his own body, and thus discovered that the radiation reflects the bones of the body and can therefore detect pathologies in the bones.

Marie Curie is a character that has been written about quite a bit. Her full name is not easy to pronounce - Maria Skłodowska Kiri (Maria Salomea Skłodowska). She was born in Poland in 1867 and is a scientist who is considered a trailblazer by any standard. When the First World War broke out in 1914, Curie was already 47 years old and crowned with fame and awards - including two Nobel Prizes (in 1903, in the Nobel Prize in Physics, together with her partner Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, for their research on the phenomenon of radiation, and in 1911 in the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for the discovery and research of radium and polonium).

When World War I began, German forces began to approach Paris, then Curie's residence. She was forced to stop her research on radium, collected it in a lead-lined container and sent it to a secret vault in the city of Bordeaux. Without her research topic, Kiri began to get bored, but not a woman like her would remain without employment. She decided to think about how she could contribute to the war effort - but not in a destructive way but in a life-saving way.

During her visits to the battlefields, Kiri noticed that the doctors had difficulty diagnosing injuries in the injured soldiers and therefore their treatment was delayed. This led her to a groundbreaking idea - to creatively bring the X-ray to the battlefield and thus help doctors and paramedics to diagnose injuries more accurately.

Doctors locate the location of a bullet in the body of a wounded man in the First World War. Photo: Library of Congress
Doctors locate the location of a bullet in the body of a wounded man in the First World War. Photo: Library of Congress

In 1914, the X-ray machines were indeed used to simulate the bones of the subjects and also to locate foreign objects in the body - such as bullets, but they were installed in hospitals in the city, far from the battlefields where wounded soldiers were treated. Currie's solution was to invent the first "radiology car"—a vehicle containing an X-ray machine and darkroom photographic equipment—that could be driven to the battlefield, where army surgeons could use X-rays to know how to perform their surgeries.

How did Kiri do it?

She took x-ray machines that were in university labs and installed them on regular vehicles. The mobile units, dubbed "Little Curies", reached the front line and allowed the 150 nurses Curie trained for the filming to assist in the war effort and quickly assess wounded soldiers, thus determining which of them needed surgery.

The realization of these things was not simple. One major obstacle was the need for electrical power to produce the X-rays. Curie solved the problem by integrating a dynamo - a type of electrical generator - into the design of the car. Thus, the oil-powered car engine was able to provide the electricity required for the filming. Another obstacle of the venture was its financing. The French army did not fully fund the project and she had to turn to the Women's Union of France in order to get the money needed to finance the first car (this car later played an important role in treating the wounded at the Battle of Marne in 1914 - a battle that was decided by a great victory for the Allies, which prevented the Germans from enter Paris). Later, additional radiological cars were financed in the same way, and then Currie's next challenge was to train people who could operate these cars. Curie, together with her daughter Irene (Irène Joliot-Curie - a future Nobel Prize winner in chemistry herself in 1935, together with her husband, Frédéric Joliot), invited 20 women to the first training course. The curriculum included theoretical instruction on the physics of electricity and X-rays as well as practical lessons in anatomy and photographic processing. When this group finished its training, it went to the front, and Corey went on to train more women. In the end, a total of 150 women were thus trained in X-ray.

Kirie was not content with just sending her apprentices to the front of the battle, Kirie herself had her own "little Kirie", which she took to the front. To this end, she learned to drive, learned to change flat tires and even learned to master some elements of car mechanics, such as cleaning carburetors. She also had to deal with car accidents-  when her driver ran into a ditch and overturned the vehicle, they rescued the car, repaired the damaged equipment as best they could and went back to work. In addition to the X-ray mobile initiative that traveled to the front of the battle, Currie also oversaw the construction of 200 radiology rooms in various permanent field hospitals behind the battle lines.

Although few, if any, of the women working in X-ray were injured in combat, they were not unscathed. Many of them suffered burns from overexposure to X-rays. Currie knew that such high exposure posed future health risks, such as cancer later in life. But there was no time to perfect X-ray safety practices for the field, so many X-ray workers were overexposed. She worried quite a bit about the matter, and later wrote a book about X-ray safety that stemmed from her wartime experiences. Years later, Kiri herself became ill with aplastic anemia, a blood disorder that is sometimes caused by high exposure to radiation (some claimed that the occupation with radium caused her illness - Miri Kiri herself claimed that the reason was the high exposure to X-rays she received during the war. A sample of her remains in 1995 showed that her body free of radium, but it is still difficult to know if indeed the X-rays during the war contributed to her death in 1934).

Curie's initiative in developing the first X-ray portables during the First World War helped her, after the war, to receive widespread recognition - for example, the General Electric Company provided her with laboratory equipment that included an improved X-ray tube, the product of the invention of General Electric's manager at the time, William D. Coolidge (William D. Coolidge).

As the first female celebrity of science, many described Currie as a one-dimensional person, totally enslaved to science, but this was far from the truth. Marie Curie was a multi-dimensional person, who worked tenaciously as both a scientist and a humanitarian. She was a strong patriot of her adopted homeland, having immigrated to France from Poland. She leveraged her scientific fame to benefit her country's war effort—using the winnings from her second Nobel Prize to buy war bonds and even trying to melt down her Nobel medals to convert them into cash to buy more. She did not allow her gender to hinder her in a male dominated world. Instead, she raised a small army of women in an effort to reduce human suffering and win the First World War. Through her efforts, it is estimated that the total number of wounded who received x-rays during the war exceeded one million. This was the first time that X-rays were widely used and then came the big breakthrough in the field - so that X-rays became an important aid in medical diagnosis. Marie Curie, with the help of the mobility idea of ​​the X-ray mobility, also coined the idea of ​​the ambulance, a mobile car for medical treatment, today one of the most important vehicles in existence. It is important to note that the MRI and other imaging methods have also moved and are moving between the hospitals and in our country, there are quite a few mobile MRI scanners.

The author of the article: Ofer Ben Horin, who has about 20 years of experience in applications, drug research and training in the field of MRI. Author of the bookMRI the complete guide-medicine and physics meetOn the website


Marie Curie and her X-ray vehicles' contribution to World War I battlefield medicine - the conversation site

The Radioactive Woman: Marie Curie's WWI Legacy

Marie Curie - the Nobel Prize site

About Irène Joliot-Curie - the Nobel Prize site

Sansare K, Khanna V, Karjodkar F. Early victims of X-rays: a tribute and current perception. Dentomaxillofac Radiol. 2011 Feb;40(2):123-5. doi: 10.1259/dmfr/73488299. PMID: 21239576; PMCID: PMC3520298.

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One response

  1. A very essential detail about her past was not mentioned in the article
    Miri Kyrie was Jewish

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