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How Marie Curie Helped Save a Million Soldiers During World War I

The radiology pioneer developed and operated mobile X-ray units to treat the injured

3 min read
Photo of Marie Curie [right] and her teenage daughter, Irène.
Marie Curie (right) and her teenage daughter, Irène, operated the “Petite Curies” and established a program to train other women to use the X-ray equipment.
Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images

THE INSTITUTEBy 1914 Marie Skłodowska Curie had already made several pioneering contributions to the field of radioactivity, including discovering the radioactive elements radium and polonium. When World War I broke out in Europe that year, Curie saw a way to apply her expertise to help save the lives of wounded soldiers.

She realized that the electromagnetic radiation of X-rays could help doctors see the bullets and shrapnel embedded in the soldiers’ bodies and remove them, as well as locate broken bones. Many hospitals in France already had X-ray equipment, but those machines were often far from the battlefield.

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Illustration showing an astronaut performing mechanical repairs to a satellite uses two extra mechanical arms that project from a backpack.

Extra limbs, controlled by wearable electrode patches that read and interpret neural signals from the user, could have innumerable uses, such as assisting on spacewalk missions to repair satellites.

Chris Philpot

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that’s attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he’s fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today’s technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we’re tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

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