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. 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.
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.