Bringing X-rays to the front

Edwin Aird describes how Marie Curie created radiological cars to take X-rays to the battlefront in Word War I.

In 1914 at the beginning of the First World War, Paris was under threat of invasion from Germany. The situation was sufficiently alarming that the French Government moved to Bordeaux. And Marie Curie moved the precious 1 gm of radium that she had isolated to deposit in a bank in Bordeaux in a very heavy lead pot.

Once the radium was safe, Curie returned to Paris, where one of her daughters took her to visit a hospital to see the war wounded. Curie quickly realised the potential value of having X-rays near the battle front for surgeons to use. As her daughter Eve Curie wrote: A luxury, the magic arrangement whereby a rifle bullet or fragment of shell could at once be discovered and localized in the wound.”

 She already understood the properties of X-rays, but taught herself their application, production and development, fluoroscopy (not so called at the time), and the components of X-ray systems, generators, transformers etc. To get the X-ray machines to the front, however, meant mobile units or radiological cars. And they did not yet exist. So she created them.

Les Petites Curies

Founding director of the Red Cross Radiology Service, Curie built her first radiological car from a large Renault. She persuaded wealthy acquaintances and the Union of Women of France to help her build a fleet of 20 radiological cars. They became known as Petites Curies. Her daughter Irene, (who later received a military medal and won a Novel prize herself with her husband, F. Joliot) assisted in the field.

The image shows Marie Curie's level of involvement with the mobile X-ray machines.

Marie Curie at the wheel of one the Petites Curies, the mobile X-ray machines she created

The conditions under which Curie worked must have been horrendous, but she played down the overall impact of the noise/smells/dangers. Eve Curie said: “She was never to speak of the hardships and dangers to which she exposed herself during those four years… She showed her working companions a careless and even gay face…The war was to teach her that good humour is the finest mask of courage”.

 According to Marie Curie herself, during these years it had been possible to X-ray approximately 900,000 injured people. She wrote: “Towards the end of 1918 there were more than 500 fixed and semi-fixed radiological stations in service in the hospitals of the territory and in the armies with a further 300 mobile devices on cars, on sterilisation trucks and motor surgical ambulances. Approximately 400 radiologists served these devices, aided and partly replaced by auxiliary personnel, including manipulators trained at the Institute Curie.”

Marie Curie died in July 1934 from pernicious anaemia, which she attributed to the high X-ray exposures she received during the war.

She remains one of the few people to receive two Nobel Prizes and the only woman to do so. The French Academy of Sciences rejected her membership in January 1911 – only months before her second Nobel Prize. It never elected her. Otherwise, her brilliance, drive and public service were widely acknowledged. In total, she received 8 major prizes, 16 medals, 104 titles and authored 483 papers.

Marie Curie and her daughter Irene

References and further reading

  • Curie, Maria, “La Radiologie et la Guerre” (in French) : Marie Curie. Librairie Felix Alcan 1921
  • Curie, Eve, “Marie Curie”: (1938, Windmill Press Surrey)
  • Van Tiggelen, Rene (Brussels), “La Grande Guerre 1914-1918”
  • Simthsonian Magazine Oct 2017
  • Jogensen, TJ BJR Papers: “Marie Curie and Pierre Curie and the discovery of radium” by Eve Curie BJR July 1950;” Marie Sklodowska Curie 1867-1934” by Claud Regaud BJR, Sept 1934
  • Thomas, Adrien, “The first 50 years of military radiology 1895-1945” European J Radiology 2007; 63: 214-219

Edwin Aird is retired Director of Medical Physics at Mount Vernon Hospital, Northwood with more than 40 years in NHS as  researcher, teacher and examiner.



How a pregnancy test saved the lives of a family in Nazi times

Susanne Krejsa MacManus explains how pregnancy testing saved the life of a refugee woman biochemist and her family in the run-up to World War II.

In the 1930s, the Institute of Animal Genetics at Edinburgh University was the only UK laboratory that ran pregnancy tests. Although the Aschheim-Zondek method invented in Berlin in the late 1920s had been seen as a great step forward, the result took more than 100 hours. It also required testing on female mice. No wonder that the scientific community was excited by a new method that took four hours.

Austrian biochemist Regina Kapeller-Adler had developed a method for detecting the amino acid histidine in the urine of pregnant women in 1933. As the Vienna Daily reported on 30 May 1933 under the heading “Eine neue Schwangerschafts-Reaktion” (a new pregnancy test): “The great advantage of this new chemical pregnancy test lies in the fact that it can be carried out in four hours, whereas the tool that has been most ideal for early diagnostics up until now […] requires a hundred hours until it can be read.”

The second advantage was that it employed a chemical instead of a biological reaction, and no mice had to be killed.

After Hitler occupied Austria (Anschluss) in March 1938, Regina, her medical doctor husband Ernst Adler and their young daughter Liselotte were in severe danger because they were Jewish. The Nazis persecuted Ernst Adler, and he escaped deportation to the Dachau concentration camp only at the very last moment. Regina lost her post at the Institute of Medical Chemistry at the University of Vienna; before that, she had also not been able to get her postdoctoral qualification – as a woman and a Jew.

When Francis Crew, Professor of Genetics at Edinburgh University, learned about the danger Regina and her family were in, he offered her a job in his laboratory, with support of The Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (formed in 1933 in help refugee scientists and other academics).

There was still a problem to be solved: Britain only permitted entry for foreigners if there was a mandatory “guarantor” to vouch for them. Fortunately, Napoleon and Henrietta Ryder deposited the considerable amount of £50 for the Adler family whom they did not know personally, and little is known about this couple. Regina together with husband and daughter could leave Austria, even taking their furniture and his medical equipment with them.

In Britain

In January 1939, they reached London and journeyed on to Edinburgh. Within two months of their arrival in Scotland, she was demonstrating her pregnancy test at the Eleventh British Congress of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. After the German invasion of Norway in 1940, most female foreign citizens were ordered to leave the east coast of Britain. Regina unusually received permission to remain in Edinburgh to continue her research since it was categorised as being of national importance. Ernst was interned on the Isle of Man from May to September 1940. After his release and re-qualification, he started a medical practice in Edinburgh in 1942.

In July 1941, Regina received her Doctor of Science degree from Edinburgh University. From the end of the war, she spent fruitful years in the Pharmacology Department of the university, and in 1952 she got her first university position as lecturer in the Department of Clinical Chemistry. From that time, she meticulously trained and encouraged a series of Ph.D. students, to whom she acted as mentor.

Regina gained recognition, grants and awards. She was internationally acclaimed as a major authority on histamine, which is made in the body and derived from histidine, and gallantly titled “The Histamine Queen” by her exclusively male colleagues in the field, an allusion to her forename. In June 1973, she was presented with the University of Vienna’s Golden Honorary Diploma. She died in Edinburgh on 31 July 1991 at the age of 91.

Kapeller-Adler’s method was an important step towards the modern pregnancy test, but it was not yet the final breakthrough. Not fully reliable on its own, it was used as an additional test or pre-test when standard tests did not give a clear yes-or-no answer.  Today, pregnancy tests detect the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), which starts to be produced around 6 days after fertilisation. The results are available in a few minutes.

Acknowledgement and references

Information from this blog came direct from Liselotte Adler-Kastner, daughter of Regina Kappler-Adler and Ernst Adler. In addition, it refers to two articles that she wrote about her parents in “Visa to Freedom 1939 thanks to a Pregnancy Test”, Edinburgh Star 62, March 2009, 9-11, and “From personae non gratae in Vienna 1938 to respected citizens of Edinburgh: a vignette of my parents Dr Ernst Adler and Dr Regina Kapeller-Adler”, Wiener Klinische Wochenschrift (1998) 110/4-5: 174-180 (Viennese Clinical Weekly)

Further reading:

Interview with Liselotte Adler-Kastner at Refugee Voices.

Museum of Contraception and Abortion (MUVS)

Susanne Krejsa MacManus is an independent journalist, author and archivist in Vienna. She does research for the Museum of Contraception and Abortion (MUVS). Thanks go to Liselotte Adler-Kastner, Regina’s daughter.