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February 16, 2022

Little Curies: Marie Curie and Her X-Ray Vehicles’ Contribution to World War I Battlefield Medicine

During World War I, Marie Curie recognized that wounded soldiers were best served if operated upon as soon as possible. She saw a need for field radiological centers near the front lines to assist battlefield surgeons, including to obviate amputations when in fact limbs could be saved. After a quick study of radiology, anatomy, and automotive mechanics she procured X-ray equipment, vehicles, auxiliary generators, and developed mobile radiography units, which came to be popularly known as petites Curies (“Little Curies”).

Curie knew that X-rays could save soldiers’ lives by helping doctors see bullets, shrapnel, and broken bones. She persuaded the French government to set up France’s first military radiology centers. The government named her Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service, and she used her position to obtain donations of money and cars out of her wealthy acquaintances. She persuaded automobile dealers to donate vehicles and equipment, and other manufacturers to donate electric generators and X-ray equipment. She was a consummate fundraiser, but she also donated her own Nobel Prize funds to the War effort.

Body shops transformed the cars into mobile medical units, and in late October 1914, the first of 20 radiology vehicles she would equip was ready. She taught herself and her daughter, Irene how to drive and work on cars, so they could drive the vehicles and operate the equipment themselves. She then taught about 150 women how to take an X-ray.

Over a million French soldiers benefited from the Little Curies and the accessibility of X-ray machines on the front. In Marie’s words, “The use of the X-rays during the war saved the lives of many wounded men; it also saved many from long suffering and lasting infirmity.”

When the War ended in 1918, elated Parisians took to the streets to celebrate. So did Marie Curie; proudly driving a Little Curie.


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