Marie Curie: Uncovering a little known piece of history

Marie Curie is, without a doubt, the most well-known female scientist in the world. She conducted pioneering research in radioactivity and was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, as well as the first person (and only woman) to win the Prize twice - and she happened to do it in two different disciplines (Physics and Chemistry). Her stern character and fierce dedication to her work have defined this emblematic figure until now. But, how much do we really know about her? While sorting through the Curie family archives at The National Library of France, writer and journalist Marie-Noëlle Himbert uncovered an unpublished manuscript written by Madame Curie in 1919, which reveals a new facet of this brilliant scientist: her active participation in the First World War.

Himbert looked beyond the “cold, closed-off woman… always dressed in black, who worried little over her appearance”, and discovered, through this manuscript, that Marie Curie was “more than a warrior, she was deeply human, with a strong desire for action and justice.”

The war: a call to action

Part of Marie Curie’s little known history is her strong contribution to the war effort. In 1914, after having learned how to use X-rays for diagnostic purposes from Dr. Antoine Béclère, she embarked on a mission to help treat soldiers injured in combat. With the help of generous benefactors, she gathered some 200 vehicles, equipped them, and set out to the battlefields. This new technology allowed Madame Curie to distinguish between bullet wounds, broken bones, and shrapnel. It is estimated that these 200 vehicles, nicknamed Little Curies, contributed to saving the lives of some 1 million people during the war.

A strong network

In order for Marie Curie to treat the largest amount of patients possible, she created a broad network of support, including the Women’s Union of France, the American dancer Loïe Fuller and Nicole Girard-Mangin, the first woman doctor on the frontlines. She also worked towards the emancipation of women, by creating a school for women, based both at the Radium Institution in Paris and at the Edith Cavelle War Hospital in Brussels. This schooling resulted in a diploma at the end of the program, which allowed women to become financially independent and help support their families during the War.

Marie Curie’s passion was not lost on her two daughters. Irène Curie joined her mother on the battlefield at the age of 17 to help the cause, and went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with her husband in 1935, while Eve Curie wrote her mother’s biography, Madame Curie, which became a best-seller worldwide.

Himbert has published her findings in a new book, "Portrait d’une femme engagée" (available in French).

For Women in Science

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