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Meet the World's First Medical Physicist


Did you know that Marie Skłodowska-Curie was the first medical physicist in the world?

At the time she did not know it either. She was the first specialist to introduce the principles of physics in the field of medicine with a focus on diagnosis and treatment of diseases. This introduction characterized what we know today as medical physics.

While studying properties of uranium and thorium, Skłodowska-Curie noticed that these elements produced spontaneous and mysterious rays which interacted with a photographic plate she had nearby. Uranium and thorium were discovered in minerals long before her birth, but their chemical properties had remained unknown until her time. In fact, uranium had been used to colour glass with its glowing greenish-yellow light in the dark, and thorium to light gas lamps. It was these new observations of their properties that led to the discovery of radioactivity, and of two new radioactive elements: polonium and radium.

As a result of their work in this area, Skłodowska-Curie and her husband Pierre Curie were awarded the Nobel prize in physics in 1903. In due course, the physiological properties and medical applications of radium were identified in a trial for the treatment of lupus scars.

Modern radio-oncology medicine began its development in the early years of the 20th century, and the application of radiation in medicine for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases has increased steadily and significantly ever since. Initially, skin cancers were the ones treated most frequently because radiation did not penetrate deeper into the body. Further refining of the technology led to the discovery of a new device capable of emitting X rays with higher energy, which could be used to treat internal cancers too.

Growing up in the shadows of illness and death, Skłodowska-Curie developed a deep compassion for the sick. She had lost her older sister to typhoid fever, her mother to tuberculosis and her husband in a traffic accident. Since she had two siblings who were doctors, she was familiar with the world of medicine. She began to think how she could contribute to saving the lives of wounded soldiers during World War I. In a letter she wrote to her daughter: “You and I, Irène, will try to make ourselves useful!"

The battlefields were far away from the hospitals, so Skłodowska-Curie thought about ways to bring them closer to the wounded. Her ingenuity led to the invention of a vehicle called the “Radiological Car”, better known as the “Little Curie”.

In this portable invention, she installed the apparatus and equipment necessary for generating X rays that would help doctors see inside the victim’s body: an electric generator, glass vacuum tubes through which X rays were generated, a table on which the patient could lie, photographic plates, a screen for radioscopy, protection gadgets for the operators, and insulated cables and curtains to ensure that light would not disturb the process. This was key for diagnosis.

Skłodowska-Curie kept expanding her knowledge of anatomy and photographic processing from the literature and specialized medical courses. She persuaded the Union of Women of France to donate money to fund her innovation, thus securing enough money to produce 20 “Little Curies” and to train 150 female volunteers as technicians and provide them with appropriate training in radiotherapy and X-ray examinations. The personnel in each vehicle consisted of a doctor, a technician and a chauffeur, but at that time, women were not allowed to drive a vehicle. Pushed by her desire to learn how to drive the “Little Curie”, she succeeded in changing the regulation and was eventually able to drive one of the vehicles to perform examinations on her own.

Skłodowska-Curie was a pioneer whose work paved the way to what is known today as medical physics. She used her knowledge of physics and familiarity with medicine to help those in need, without realizing that this opened a door to a whole new field of radiation science — a field that today ensures quality in the diagnosis and treatment of millions of patients worldwide.

It is not by chance that thousands of medical physicists celebrate the International Day of Medical Physics every year on 7 November — marking the day Marie Skłodowska-Curie was born in 1867.

Today, medical physicists play an integral role in improving the quality of health care delivery around the world, ensuring patient safety in radiation medicine by so that each patient receives the optimal radiation dose for diagnostic or treatment purposes. For example, in the field of radiotherapy, medical physicists participate in tailoring radiation treatments to patients and ensure that the radiation delivered by the machine is accurate to allow for safe, quality and effective radiation treatments.

For more information about Medical Physicists, please visit the IAEA’s Human Health Campus.

For more information about the IAEA’s Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme, which aims to inspire and encourage young women to pursue a career in the nuclear field, click here.

This article was first published for International Day of Medical Physics 2020.

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