The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

033 Marie Curie and the enemy’s X-rays

Marie Curie

Marie Curie

War divides scientists

It is Sunday 7 February 1915. It is the 33rd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The second Battle of the Masurian Lakes breaks out against a wintery background in an attempt of the Central Powers to capture the Russians via Galicia and East Prussia.

Heavy snowfall in the west contributes to a lasting trench front.

South African general Louis Botha prepares for the attack on Windhoek, the capital of German Southwest Africa.

From the Black Sea warship Breslau, originally German, but now sailing under Turkish flag, bombards Jalta on the Crimean peninsula.

The Russians do the same with Trabzon on the Black Sea coast.

The British seize the cargo of SS Wilhelmina on suspicion of having Germany as its destination.

The British Foreign Office justifies flying a neutral flag at sea.

The United States warn both Great Britain and Germany: British ships should not sail under a neutral flag and German attacks on American ships in the so-called war zone will not be tolerated.

From Dunkirk the British carry out an air-raid on the Belgian seaside towns of Ostend and Zeebrugge.

And behind the West Flanders front X-ray photographs of wounded soldiers are made by Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie. 

Science also has to show its true colours in the war. Marie Curie, the internationally renowned scientist who won two Nobel Prizes, hurries to the front in Flanders with her daughter already in the first year of the war. She intends to help the doctors there diagnose wounded soldiers correctly. She can do this thanks to a relatively new specialized area in medical science called radiology. With the help of electro-magnetic rays it has become possible to trace a bullet or pieces of shrapnell in the human body or map a fracture.

The X-rays, which Madame Curie so gratefully uses, also carry the name of their discoverer, Wilhelm Röntgen. Just like Marie Curie he was laureled with a Nobel Prize, in 1901. Röntgen has also taken sides in the war, but for the other party. He is one of 93 intellectuals – artists and scientists – who addressed the world in October 1914 with a manifesto. Germany had fallen into disrepute because of what was seen as barbaric actions in Belgium. Especially setting fire to the Library of the University of Leuven had given the Germans bad publicity worldwide. Their emperor was seen as a descendant of Attila the Hun, who had defeated the Europeans as the scourge of God long ago. The 93 intellectuals thought these odious lies. The world had nothing to fear. The Germans of Wilhelm II would maintain as a civilized nation the heritage of Goethe, Beethoven and Kant.

After the war Röntgen distanced himself from the manifesto. Without really thinking he had signed it, but maybe that says a great deal. Röntgen was known as an extremely thorough researcher, for whom facts were sacred. But also the conscientious Röntgen, who had spent his childhood in the Netherlands, immersed himself in the all consuming passion of patriotism.

Of course this applied to the other side as well. In the very same month The Times published the reaction of British scientists to the manifesto of the 93 Germans. But there were also some scholars who emphatically set themselves above the parties. Heart specialist Georg Friedrich Nicolai reacted to the pro-German manifesto with an ‘Appeal to the Europeans’. Albert Einstein was one of the few to sign this initiative.

Those who read the ‘appeal’ of Nicolai and Einstein realizing that it was only October 1914, will restrospectively take off his hat. Just listen to this: ‘The struggle raging today will likely produce no victor: it will leave probably only the vanquished. Therefore, it seems not only good, but rather bitterly necessary that educated men of all nations marshall their influence such that – whatever the still uncertain end of the war may be – the terms of peace shall not become the wellspring of future wars.’

In the years after also Einstein would observe that the Great War developed into a playing ground for applied science. Fritz Haber, also one of the 93 to sign the ‘Manifesto to the civilized world’, was perhaps the most telling example of this. Haber used all his knowledge for the monstrous novelty of chemical warfare. Due to science gas entered the war.

The relation is of course mutual, the war also controlled science. To put it bluntly, psychiatrists and surgeons could learn from an abundance of practical experience. However, to the Dutch writer Leo van Bergen this statement is an outright myth which enabled doctors to justify their participation in the war. Van Bergen also points out that in wartime only research which was in the interest of this particular war was given a chance. The rest had virtually come to a standstill. Those who want to consider the medical battlefield of the Great War, should read ‘Before my helpless sight – Suffering, Dying and Military Medicine on the Western Front, 1914-1918’, by Leo van Bergen.

The beginning of the twentieth century had shown a true explosion of knowledge. Sigmund Freud had descended into the very depths of the human psyche. Karl Landsteiner had come with a system of bloodgroups. Thanks to dogs that started drooling before they got their food, Ivan Pavlov had been able to describe the conditioned reflex. Guglielmo Marconi had succeeded in telegraphing across the Atlantic Ocean wirelessly. Ernest Rutherford developed the first atom model. Paul Ehrlich and Sahachiro Hata found a cure against the dreaded venereal disease syphilis. Louis Blériot had flown a self-designed aeroplane from Calais to Dover and Willem Einthoven had invented the string galvanometer, a device that could register the heartbeat in cardiograms.

Man was well on the way towards solving all the problems of the world. Ernst Haeckel had written the bible of this scientific materialism at the end of the last century. The title of this book was Die Welträtsel, the riddles of the world. The zoologist Haeckel had reached the philosophical question of the meaning of life. He did not try to find the answer higher up, but as an atheist held the opinion that all human behaviour could be reduced to matter. A thought process was to Haeckel merely a meticulously worked out interaction of nerve clusters.

Is it coincidence that it is Haeckel who is the first to have used the term ‘First World War’? It is not until the early thirties when it is imaginable there will be another global war, that the term ‘Great War’ is beginning to give way to ‘First World War’. But already on 20 September 1914 Haeckel writes the following: ‘There is no doubt that the course and character of the feared ‘European War’ will become the first world war in the full sense of the word.’ It is the materialist who made the cold analysis of a war that was started by overheated romantics.

Marie Curie distinguishes herself from the other scientists by travelling to the front and helping out the wounded, just like Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War of the previous century. Because of the war Curie cannot continue her work as head of laboratories in both Paris and Warsaw. So she starts to serve the French army by equipping lorries with radiological machines and setting up field hospitals. She shows up behind the Flemish front in Veurne, Poperinge, De Panne and Hoogstade, where she will also meet the Belgian King Albert.

Marie Curie was born in Warsaw in 1867 as Maria Skłodowska. She discovered the element polonium and called it after her native country Poland. In her childhood Polish territory is still occupied by Russia. Women are not admitted to university, which is why Marie resorts to the clandestine Flying University of Warsaw. Penniless she works like a woman possessed. The title of one of Marie Curie’s biographies is ‘Obsessive Genius’. In this book one can read that she controls her depressive nature by unrestrained activity.

In 1891 she moves to Paris. As a nanny she has earned enough money to study mathematics, physics and chemistry at the Sorbonne. She focuses on the mysterious phenomenon of radioactivity. In Paris she also meets Pierre Curie. She not only marries him, but also devotes her life with him to science. Together they are awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, according to the motivation ‘in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel’. Marie Curie is the first woman to have received a Nobel Prize, but in 1911 she will be awarded another one, for a different discipline: chemistry. The ceremony , however, is overshadowed by her affair with a married family man, fellow scientist Paul Langevin. She is named and shamed by the press.

In 1911 Pierre Curie has been dead for five years. Alone with his thoughts he was run over in Paris by a horse and cart near the Pont Neuf. He and Marie had two daughters. The youngest, Ève, becomes a pianist and a writer, among other things of a biography of her mother.  Ève died in 2007 at the age of 102, after having survived her father by more than a century.

Just like her mother Irène Curie was awarded a Nobel Prize, also together with her husband. Following in the footsteps of her parents Irène Curie focused on nuclear physics. But the parallel with her mother goes further, even in death. Both died of leukaemia, probably as a result of continued exposition to radioactive radiation. Marie Curie was 66 when she died, her daughter Irène only 58. If men can  become heroes by exposing themselves to the dangers of war, mother and daughter Curie have found their fatal heroism in science.

It is cruel irony that it was the Curies who have contributed greatly to the fight against cancer cells. Marie remained indifferent to the harmful consequences of radioactivity for a long time. Even when deep cracks covered her hands and she had almost turned blind, she refused to acknowledge the dangers of radioactivity.

In 1995 the bodies of Marie Curie and her husband were placed in the Panthéon in Paris, in the presence of president François Mitterrand and his Polish counterpart Lech Walesa. Another feminist achievement is that Marie Curie is the first woman to get a place in this holy sanctum of the French dead for her own merits.

This is a tribute that was never paid to Lise Meitner. This physicist is also called the ‘German Madame Curie’, though she was from Austrian-Jewish descent. She did groundbreaking research in the field of nuclear physics, but like Marie Curie she was to be found behind the trenches during the Great War. Her field of activity was Galicia on the eastern front, where she fanatically X-rayed wounded front-line soldiers as a röntgen nurse.

Mother and daughter Curie had left for the front at an early stage to assist the medical service. We still have a beautiful photo of the then 18-year-old Irène Curie from the autumn of 1915. The picture is taken in the Flemish town of Hoogstade. Irène Curie, dressed in a nurse’s uniform, is standing on the step of a medical mobile vehicle with the words Service Radiologique written on it. She is flanked by two men with moustaches.

Eventually the French army had 140 mobile vehicles like this, which were nicknamed ‘little curies’. It is a word which is alien to the war. ‘Little curie’ sounds like tenderness and care, though it may be argued that prompt treatment of wounded soldiers on the basis of technologically advanced diagnostics served only one purpose, patching up the poor sods for battle.

Next week: Bernhard von Bülow

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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