As Bombs Fell on Paris, Marie Curie Went to War

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Getty Images

August 1914 should have been the height of Marie Curie's career. After all, she had discovered two elements, pioneered the science of radioactivity, snagged not one but two Nobel Prizes, and was on the precipice of opening a groundbreaking institute for the study of radium in her adopted hometown of Paris.

But the 20th century was not kind to Marie, who was born on this day 150 years ago. First, her beloved husband and scientific partner, Pierre, was run over by a horse-drawn carriage and killed. She was overlooked by the French Academy of Sciences, then vilified for her participation in an extramarital affair. And though France seemed eager to claim her as one of theirs, they were all too ready to turn on her when the right-wing press painted her as a dangerous foreigner. Finally, after dragging herself through a sustained period of intense depression, she finally oversaw the completion of her Radium Institute in 1914—only to have all of her male laboratory workers drafted.

And so, as German bombs fell on Paris that fall, Marie Curie decided to go to war.

The first front was financial. The French government called for gold for the war effort, so Marie showed up at a bank with her Nobel Prize medals, ready to donate them to the war effort. When bank officials refused to melt them down, she donated her prize money to purchase war bonds instead. Back in her abandoned lab, moved by a sense of troubled patriotism and irritated by her inability to help, she racked her brain for something—anything—to do.

Her inspiration for what came next might have come from the lead box of radium she stowed in a safe deposit box in Bordeaux that summer. The single gram she had worked so hard to isolate was the only radium available for research in France. She would be unable to experiment with radium during the war, so why not spend her time learning more about another kind of radiography? Marie had long wanted to learn more about X-rays. As she set to work educating herself about this sister science, she quickly realized that she had a powerful technology on her hands. And then it struck her: The war was likely to be long and bloody. Trench conditions and advanced weaponry promised the bloodiest war in history. Maybe X-rays could help. Why not bring them to the battlefield?

When Marie had a plan, she moved swiftly and decisively. First, she swallowed her impatience with the French government and convinced them to name her Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service (it probably helped that nobody knew what radiology was). Then, she turned to her richest and most powerful friends, finagling, begging, and harassing them until they donated money and vehicles to support her idea. By late October, Marie had not only given herself a crash course on X-ray technology and human anatomy, but had learned to drive and mastered basic auto mechanics. The traveling X-ray unit she patched together in a Renault van turned out to be the first of 20.

Marie Curie (second from right) instructs nurses in radiology, via Médecins de la Grande Guerre

The concept behind what military men began to call "petites Curies" was simple enough: Equip a van with a generator, a hospital bed, and X-ray equipment. Drive to the battlefield. Examine the wounded. But to Marie's astonishment, the concept of X-rays on the front wasn't just foreign—it was actively fought against by doctors who felt that new-fangled radiology had no place at the front. Ignoring the protest of the French army's medical higher-ups, Marie drove to the Battle of the Marne at the hair-raising speed of 25 miles per hour, intent on proving her point. Soldiers came to the mobile unit riddled with shrapnel, bullets, and debris, unaware they were being treated by a two-time Nobel laureate. Assisted by her 17-year-old daughter, Irène, Marie took their X-rays calmly and methodically, without shields or other protective measures. And the machine worked beautifully.

Now that it had been proven that the battlefront X-rays helped military surgeons, Marie wouldn't be stopped. She worked feverishly. There must be more vans. More X-ray units. Why not add stationary units, 200 of them? Disgusted by the army's unwillingness to adopt new technology and better train its own recruits, Marie took matters into her own hands. She gave a crash course in X-rays to 150 women, sent Irène back to the field to continue administering X-rays, then retrieved her box of radium and began to collect radium gas (radon) to sterilize infectious tissue (again without protection).

Marie was in her lab isolating radon when armistice was declared in 1918. She hung French flags from her windows, then took the Petite Curie into the street to celebrate. And though the French government never acknowledged the X-rays she enabled for well over a million French soldiers (they did give a military medal to Irène), she treasured her achievement until her death from radiation exposure in 1934. Marie's clothing, lab equipment, and notebooks are still so riddled with radioactivity that researchers must handle them with special gloves and protective clothing.

"What seemed difficult became easy," recalled Marie about her war. "All those who did not understand gave in or accepted; those who did not know learned; those who had been indifferent became devoted."

Additional sources: Madame Curie: A Biography, Eve Curie; Marie Curie: A Life, Susan Quinn; Marie Curie: Mother of Modern Physics, Janice Borzendowski.

The Real Case of Spontaneous Combustion That Inspired a Death in Dickens's Bleak House

iStock.com/GeorgiosArt
iStock.com/GeorgiosArt

In The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine, medical historian Thomas Morris presents a collection of bizarre but fascinating stories culled from the pages of old medical journals and other accounts. In this tale, he discusses the final moments of an aristocratic older women, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, whose demise would provide fodder for Charles Dickens over 100 years later.

 

Do human beings ever burst into flames? Two hundred years ago, many people believed that they could, especially if the victim was female, elderly, and a heavy drinker. Spontaneous human combustion became a fashionable topic in the early 19th century, after a number of sensational presumed cases were reported in the popular press. At a period when candles were ubiquitous and clothes often highly flammable, most were probably simple domestic fires in which the unfortunate victim’s subcutaneous fat acted as supplementary fuel. Nevertheless, the circumstances in which some were discovered—with the body almost totally incinerated, but nearby objects left untouched—led some to believe that these conflagrations must have another, more mysterious, cause. Numerous theories were put forward to explain the phenomenon: some supernatural, others scientific.

One of the true believers in spontaneous combustion was Charles Dickens, who even killed off Krook, the alcoholic rag dealer in Bleak House, by means of a fire that left nothing of the old man except an object looking like a “small charred and broken log of wood.” Dickens had read everything he could find on the subject and was convinced that its veracity had been proved. His description of the demise of Krook was based closely on that of an Italian aristocrat, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, who was consumed by a fireball in her bedroom. Her case was reported in 1731 by a clergyman called Giuseppe Bianchini, and subsequently translated by a famous Italian poet and Fellow of the Royal Society, Paolo Rolli:

"The Countess Cornelia Bandi, in the 62nd year of her age, was all day as well as she used to be; but at night was observed, when at supper, dull and heavy. She retired, was put to bed, where she passed three hours and more in familiar discourses with her maid, and in some prayers; at last falling asleep, the door was shut."

The following morning, the maid noticed that her employer had not appeared at the usual time and tried to rouse her by calling through the door. Not receiving any answer, she went outside and opened a window, through which she saw this scene of horror:

"Four feet distant from the bed there was a heap of ashes, two legs untouched from the foot to the knee with their stockings on; between them was the lady’s head; whose brains, half of the back part of the skull, and the whole chin, were burnt to ashes; amongst which were found three fingers blackened. All the rest was ashes, which had this particular quality, that they left in the hand, when taken up, a greasy and stinking moisture."

Mysteriously, the furniture and linen were virtually untouched by the conflagration.

"The bed received no damage; the blankets and sheets were only raised on one side, as when a person rises up from it, or goes in; the whole furniture, as well as the bed, was spread over with moist and ash-coloured soot, which had penetrated the chest of drawers, even to foul the linen."

The soot had even coated the surfaces of a neighboring kitchen. A piece of bread covered in the foul substance was given to several dogs, all of which refused to eat it. Given that it probably consisted of the carbonized body fat of their owner, their reluctance to indulge is understandable.

"In the room above it was, moreover, taken notice that from the lower part of the windows trickled down a greasy, loathsome, yellowish liquor; and thereabout they smelt a stink, without knowing of what; and saw the soot fly around."

The floor was also covered in a “gluish moisture,” which could not be removed. Naturally, strenuous efforts were made to establish what had caused the blaze, and several of Italy’s best minds were put to the problem. Monsignor Bianchini (described as “Prebendary of Verona”) was convinced that the fire had not been started by the obvious culprits:

"Such an effect was not produced by the light of the oil lamp, or of any candles, because common fire, even in a pile, does not consume a body to such a degree; and would have besides spread it-self to the goods of the chamber, more combustible than a human body."

Bianchini also considered the possibility that the blaze might have been caused by a thunderbolt but noted that the characteristic signs of such an event, such as scorch marks on the walls and an acrid smell, were absent. What, then, did cause the inferno? The priest came to the conclusion that ignition had actually occurred inside the woman’s body:

"The fire was caused in the entrails of the body by inflamed effluvia of her blood, by juices and fermentations in the stomach, by the many combustible matters which are abundant in living bodies, for the uses of life; and finally by the fiery evaporations which exhale from the settlings of spirit of wine, brandies, and other hot liquors in the tunica villosa [inner lining] of the stomach, and other adipose or fat membranes."

Bianchini claims that such “fiery evaporations” become more flammable at night, when the body is at rest and the breathing becomes more regular. He also points out that “sparkles” are sometimes visible when certain types of cloth are rubbed against the hair (an effect caused by discharges of static electricity) and suggests that something similar might have ignited the “combustible matters” inside her abdomen.

"What wonder is there in the case of our old lady? Her dullness before going to bed was an effect of too much heat concentrated in her breast, which hindered the perspiration through the pores of her body; which is calculated to about 40 ounces per night. Her ashes, found at four feet distance from her bed, are a plain argument that she, by natural instinct, rose up to cool her heat, and perhaps was going to open a window."

Then, however, he lets slip what is probably the genuine cause of the fire:

"The old lady was used, when she felt herself indisposed, to bathe all her body with camphorated spirit of wine; and she did it perhaps that very night."

Camphorated spirits (a solution of camphor in alcohol) was often used to treat skin complaints, and as a tonic lotion. The fact that it is also highly flammable is, apparently, quite beside the point.

"This is not a circumstance of any moment; for the best opinion is that of the internal heat and fire; which, by having been kindled in the entrails, naturally tended upwards; finding the way easier, and the matter more unctuous and combustible, left the legs untouched. The thighs were too near the origin of the fire, and therefore were also burnt by it; which was certainly increased by the urine and excrements, a very combustible matter, as one may see by its phosphorus."

So it was the “internal heat and fire” that caused the countess’s demise. Only an incorrigible skeptic would point out that an old lady who was in the habit of bathing in inflammable liquids, before going to bed in a room lit by naked flames, was a walking fire hazard.

Book jacket for The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth
Dutton/Penguin Books

Excerpted from The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine by Thomas Morris. Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Morris. Published by arrangement with DUTTON, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

A 'Lost' Disney Cartoon from 1928 Has Been Discovered in Japan

General Photographic Agency, Getty Images
General Photographic Agency, Getty Images

Before there was Mickey, the cartoon mouse who celebrated his 90th birthday on November 18, there was Oswald. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Disney's first official recurring cartoon character, starred in 26 shorts between 1927 through 1928. Until recently, seven of those shorts had been lost, but Smithsonian reports that one has been recovered from the collection of an animation historian in Japan.

Yasushi Watanabe, now 84, bought a film reel labeled “Mickey Manga Spide” (Mickey cartoon speedy) from a market in Osaka when he was a teenager. The film was a two-minute version of a 1928 Oswald cartoon called Neck n’ Neck made for 16mm home movie projectors.

Seventy years later, Watanabe realized the short was more than just a neat piece of Disney memorabilia. While reading the 2017 book Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: The Search for the Lost Disney Cartoons by Disney animator David A. Bossert, he learned that a handful of Oswald the Rabbit cartoons were lost, and he had a hunch that his reel might be one of them.

After getting in touch with the Walt Disney Archives, Watanabe confirmed that Neck n’ Neck was indeed one of the cartoons that had been missing for decades, and he donated it to Japan's Kobe Planet Film Archive. Bossert's book also led to the rediscovery of a 50-second clip of the same cartoon at the Toy Film Museum in Kyoto, but the original cartoon, which had been five minutes long, has yet to be unearthed in its entirety.

Oswald's time on the silver screen was short-lived. After Walt Disney and his partner Ub Iwerks lost the rights to the character, the pair came up with Plane Crazy, the short that introduced Mickey Mouse to the world. Oswald's obscurity means that some archivists may be holding on to the lost cartoons without even realizing what they are. In 2008, The National Library of Norway discovered that an illegibly labeled reel in their archive actually contained the lost Oswald short Empty Socks.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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