The public’s relationship with radiation in the early days (1895 to 1930)

Radiation, in the form of X-rays, had been used to treat cancer almost since its discovery by Wilhelm Rontgen in 1895. Radium therapy for the autoimmune disease lupus began trials in 1901, with considerable success, to be followed by inserting radium chloride sources into the body to fight cancer. It was a small step to ascribe all kinds of physical benefits to the new phenomenon.

Radon soon developed a strong reputation.15 The water at Hot Springs in Arkansas had been valued for their reputed health-giving properties for many years. Indeed, in 1832 Congress established the Arkansas Hot Springs as the first federal reservation, a forerunner of the national park system. In 1903 J.J. Thompson wrote a letter to the journal Nature in which he described his discovery of the presence of radioactivity in well water. Soon it was realised that many more of the world’s most famous springs contained radioactive materials owing to ‘radium emanation’, now understood to be radon gas produced by the decay of radium deposits in the ground through which the springwaters flow.

Correlation often equals causation in the media and political mind and it was unsurprising that many assumed that the radioactivity of the springs underlay their health-giving properties. In 1910 the US surgeon general, George Torney, wrote: ‘Relief may be reasonably expected at the Hot Springs in various forms of gout and rheumatism, neuralgia, metallic or malarial poisoning, chronic Bright’s disease, gastric dyspepsia, chronic diarrhoea, chronic skin lesions, etc.’ Dr C.G. Davis, in the American Journal of Clinical Medicine, added that: ‘Radioactivity prevents insanity, rouses noble emotions, retards old age and creates a splendid youthful joyous life.’ Professor Bertram Boltwood of Yale provided the scientific basis for these miraculous properties, explaining that the radioactivity was: ‘carrying electrical energy into the depths of the body and there subjecting the juices, protoplasm and nuclei of the cells to an immediate bombardment by explosions of electrical atoms, stimulating cell activity, arousing all secretory and excretory organs, causing the system to throw off waste products and acting as an agent for the destruction of bacteria.’ (The experimental evidence for these conclusions seems to have been lost.) Health spas and resorts enjoyed booming trades: many of them changed their names to include the word ‘radioactive’ or ‘radium’ Nor was the benefit to be restricted to human health. One farmer reportedly wanted to add radium to his chicken feed so that the chickens would lay hard-boiled eggs; another argued that fertilising fields with radium would improve crop production and produce better tasting food.

An early problem to be identified was a practical one. Radon, being a ‘noble gas’ which does not interact much with other elements, does not remain dissolved in water for very long. So to get the health benefits of radon it was necessary to drink the water at the spa - it could not be bottled for remote usage, thereby depriving the poor and the infirm of these benefits.

By 1912 R.W Thomas patented the Revigator, a device which could add radon to drinking water in the home. Sales reached several hundred thousand despite it selling for $29.50 in 1929 (over $400 in mid-2010s values). The Revigator involved a jar made of radium-bearing ore which produced radon which would dissolve in the water overnight - ‘a perpetual health spring in the home’. Other devices like Thomas Cone’s ‘Radium Emanator’ could be placed in water and were small enough to be carried in a suitcase, so granting the benefits of radon to those who travelled for a living. Radiation Emanation Bath Salts, containing ‘Epsom salts - radium chloride, 1 microgramme’, were described by the manufacturer, the Denver Radium Service, as being good for nervous disorders, insomnia, general debility, arthritis and rheumatism. The directions read: ‘Empty contents in a quart of hot water. After a few moments add to regular bath solution. Remain in bath 45 minutes with cover over top of tub. Upon leaving bath relax in bed for one hour.’ (The concept, though not radium’s part in it, survives in the name of Radox bath salts, which were first manufactured in 1908 and were supposed to ‘radiate oxygen’)

The American Medical Association (AMA) was concerned that the public was being fleeced by frauds. Fearing that some of the devices might not deliver the dose of radiation they promised, from 1916 to 1929 it established guidelines by which its approval would only be granted if the apparatus generated more than 75 kBq (i.e. sufficient to create 75,000 particles of radiation per second) of radon per litre of water in a 24-hour period. The AMA therefore struck an important blow for ensuring that people received the irradiation they were paying for.

Some people came to assume that the direct ingestion of radium would be even more effective than letting it wash against the skin. From the early 1920s and right into the early 1930s it was possible to purchase radium-containing salves, beauty creams, toothpaste (radon was thought to fight dental decay and improve the digestion), ear plugs, chocolate bars, soap, suppositories and even contraceptives. For the sufferers of respiratory ailments there were the Radium Nose Cup and the Radium Respirator (‘Radium: scientists found it, governments approved it, physicians recommended it, users endorse it, we guarantee it, SURELY IT’S GOOD.’)

Out came the charlatans, of course. J. Bernard King, manufacturer of the Ray-Cura, a quilted pad that he said would emit radium emanation into the diseased portions of the body to kill the germs, came to grief when it was revealed that the pad contained ordinary soil rather than radium ore. The Degnen’s Radioactive Solar Pad claimed to get its energy from the sun and had to be charged in sunlight for several minutes prior to use. However, the manufacturers of its highly priced competitor, the Radiendocrinator, appealed to science when they retorted that the idea of charging in the sun was ‘the purest of nonsense; there is not a shred of truth known to modern science that substantiates such a theory.’ The Radiendocrinator, by contrast, was made of ‘refined radium’ encased in 14-carat gold and shipped in an embossed velvet-lined leatherette case (at a price of $150, or $2,000 in 2014 prices). Giving one example as to how their Radiendocrinator might be used, the manufacturers advised men to: ‘Wear the adaptor like any athletic strap. This puts the instrument under the scrotum as it should be. Wear at night. Radiate as directed.’ Whether this was underpinned by better science than the ‘pure nonsense’ of the Radioactive Solar Pad is hard to judge at this distance.

 
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