Les Petites Curies of Marie Curie

Les Petites Curies
Les Petites Curies

Marie Curie died on 4 July 1934 and was buried in the Sceaux cemetery. In 1995, 61 years later, her remains were exhumed and taken to the Pantheon in Paris. It was feared that they would emit harmful levels of radiation, as is the case with her laboratory notebooks, but this did not happen. There was no radium in the remains, which suggested that the illness that caused the death of this great scientist was not due to the radioactive elements she handled, but to excessive exposure to X-rays while handling her peculiar invention: Les Petites Curies.

Her achievements, her discoveries and the two Nobel Prizes she received with her husband are well known, but her work during the First World War, inspired by her humanitarian spirit and her devotion to her host country, is less well known.
With the outbreak of the conflict and the threat of a German invasion looming over Paris, daily life was suspended, including Curie's research. The French government moved to Bordeaux, and the scientist travelled there with her most precious treasure, a gram of radium in a lead casket, which she deposited in a bank safe.

Unlike other scientists, Curie did not seek refuge in Bordeaux but returned to Paris. Keen to contribute to the war effort, she bought war bonds and wanted to donate the gold medals from her two Nobel prizes to the government, a gift that was not accepted. Instead, she chose to put her science at the service of the French army.

The researcher knew that on battlefields, reaction time was critical for healing wounded soldiers, but military doctors were forced to work with deficient means. In particular, X-rays had become an enormously useful tool for surgeons since their discovery by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895, but the machines were only available in large hospitals. Curie set out to bring radiology to the front lines in automobiles with portable X-ray machines.

It was not an easy endeavour. To begin with, Curie was a researcher, not a doctor. She was unfamiliar with the clinical handling of X-rays, and she didn't even know how to drive. She had to learn not only radiology but even how to change a wheel or clean a carburettor. To equip his first vehicle, he had the help of the Union des Femmes de France and the Red Cross, as the government's bureaucratic hurdles were too much.

Despite all the difficulties, Curie managed to equip her first car-turned-truck. He did so with portable X-ray machines invented by the Spaniard Mónico Sánchez Moreno. These produced X-rays with Crookes tubes, which required a source of electricity. To do this, Curie adapted a dynamo to the motor of the vehicle, which also had photographic equipment and a darkroom for developing the plates.

Mujeres formadas para manejar los Petites Curies
Mujeres formadas para manejar los Petites Curies

In 1914, the first truck was ready to transport the researcher herself to the front at the Battle of the Marne. Over time and with the financial support of friends, Curie went on to equip 20 vehicles and train, with the help of her daughter Irène, 150 women to operate these mobile units. It is estimated that the fleet of what soon became known as Les Petites Curies (Little Curies), as well as the 200 fixed radiology services that the scientist distributed throughout the field hospitals, made it possible to treat more than a million wounded soldiers.

Etiquetas: - -
Access to the best


on Energy and Environment
Go to resources