Badass Marie Curie — War Hero

How Marie Curie saved 1 million lives during World War I

Jason McBride
Oct 4, 2018 · 4 min read
Nobel laureates Pierre and Marie Curie

When German troops began their full-scale invasion of France in August of 1914, Marie Curie was 46. She had already won two Nobel Prizes and was a national treasure in her adopted homeland.

When it seemed likely that the Germans would overrun Paris, Curie took the only sample of radium in France from her lab, packed it in a lead box, and took it by train to Bordeaux. She placed it in a bank safety deposit box to keep it out of the hands of the enemy.

Curie returned to Paris and discontinued the research that had been her life’s work. Many influential and wealthy Parisians were fleeing to the countryside and making preparations to preserve their assets.

Curie and her teenage daughter Irene went to war.

In 1914 X-ray machines were already being used to help doctors better treat patients. But, in France, only a few big city hospitals had X-ray machines, and they were all too far from the front to help soldiers.

Curie used her personal wealth and influence to build a fleet of 20 mobile X-ray units of her own design. She relentlessly lobbied her wealthy friends and connections to donate vehicles and money to her efforts.

Curie in one of her mobile X-ray units

After obtaining sufficient funds, Curie contracted with some local auto mechanics to transform the donated vehicles into the mobile X-ray units. She then arranged to have the vehicles shipped to the front.

Curie and Irene personally operated some of the mobile units near the front to help battlefield doctors see where shrapnel had come to rest inside to soldier’s bodies and to better locate fractures and other internal injuries.

Curie and her daughter later trained other women to operate the mobile X-ray units. It is estimated that through her efforts the lives of more than 1 million soldiers were saved.

Public Domain image via Pixabay

Often admired for her intellect, Marie Curie is still one of the best-known scientists in the world more than 84 years after her death. However, as brilliant as she was as a scientist, the defining character trait of Curie was courage. She was a woman of action who never hesitated to do the right thing, regardless of the personal cost.

Born Maria Salomea Sklodowska in 1867, Curie was a native of Warsaw, Poland. At the time, Poland was under the control of the Russian empire. Her earliest scientific studies were conducted in secret.

As a young woman, she left her homeland to pursue a more rigorous scientific education in France.

Paris may have been more liberal towards educated women than Warsaw, but many still attempted to limit her progress.

But, Curie wouldn’t let something as petty as prejudice or sexism stop her from changing the world.

She developed the theory of radioactivity, coined the terms “radioactivity” and “radioactive”, discovered two elements, and was the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes. She shared the first one with her co-researcher and husband Pierre Curie and with French scientist Henri Becquerel in 1903 in Physics. She was awarded a second Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911.

Beyond her prizes and fame as a scientist, Curie was also a passionate educator and philanthropist. She knew her discoveries had medical applications and founded two premier medical research institutes one in Paris and one in Warsaw.

Curie died at age 66 as a direct result of her exposure to radioactive materials in her research and her work with mobile X-ray units.

Curie understood the risks of her work better than most. But, badass Marie Curie wouldn’t let the dangers of radiation stop her from uncovering some the secrets of the Universe, serving her country in time of war, or from using her skills and knowledge to save over 1 million lives.

Imagine how much would have been lost to the world if young Marie Curie had decided to “stay in her lane” and forego the study of science. Thankfully she was too badass for that.

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