Monthly Archives: March 2021

Feel the Burn

Roentgen’s discovery of x-rays was easily the most exciting scientific discovery of its time. Here were invisible rays that were fairly easy to generate and that could pass through solid matter – not only that, but they could even show you what was inside that matter they’d passed through! In the case of the human body (one of the first and most-frequently objects to be x-rayed), these rays would show bones – both broken and whole – as well as internal organs and any foreign objects that might have ended up within the body.

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (March, 27 1845 – February, 10 1923) was a German mechanical engineer and physicist, who, on 8 November 1895, produced and detected electromagnetic radiation in a wavelength range known as X-rays or Röntgen rays, an achievement that earned him the inaugural Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901.


Now take a moment to consider what this would mean to a doctor. Say, for example, a mother brings in a child she thinks has swallowed a key. The child appears to be in pain, which would seem to confirm the key-swallowing, so what do you do?

You could simply watch and wait to see if the key passes through – but what if it’s hung up in a bend of the intestine and tears its way through into the abdominal cavity?

You could perform exploratory surgery – but where do you cut? And what if you search and search and don’t find the key? Was the mother wrong and the key was simply lost (in which case the surgery wasn’t necessary), or did you miss it somehow?

And now you hear of this device that takes out all the guesswork – you don’t have to wait and hope, you don’t have to cut into an otherwise healthy child, wondering if you’re doing the right thing. One quick picture and you know exactly what’s going on, and likely what you need to do. This has to have seemed nearly miraculous to doctors at that time.

With all of the x-rays that were being taken, physicians noticed they were starting to see a new kind of burn on their patients, sort of like a sunburn, but a little more painful. With time, they noticed a correlation between these burns and patients who’d had x-rays and it was easy to assume that the x-rays were causing the burns. But that was an assumption, not proof.

Elihu Thomson (March 29, 1853 – March 13, 1937) was an English-born American engineer and inventor who was instrumental in the founding of major electrical companies in the United States, the United Kingdom and France.

Enter Elihu Thomson, a physicist living in Boston. Hearing speculation after speculation on both sides of the matter, he decided to take matters into his own hands (so to speak). Over a period of time in 1896 (the year after Roentgen’s discovery), Thomson stuck his little finger, partly protected from the radiation with a small amount of lead, into the x-ray beam. It didn’t take long for him to build up enough of a burn on the unshielded part of the finger to convince himself that the x-rays were causing the skin burns.

These earliest days of x-ray use saw the development of what are now fairly standard radiation safety practices – the use of lead for shielding, the use of photographic film (actually, glass plates at the start) for personal dosimetry, limiting exposure by reducing the amount of time spent in a radiation field, and more. In fact, many of the radiation safety practices that I use today originated during these years.

The reason that safety practices were developed so quickly is that radiation injuries began piling up. To quote EF Lang in a column titled From Earlier Pages…. in the October 1978 edition of the American Journal of Roentgenology, “Percy Brown, in his book American Martyrs to Science through the Roentgen Rays, records a litany of sorrow, and describes numberless unsuccessful skin grafts and gradual dismemberment.” ( Once radiation had been proven to be dangerous, there was every incentive to learn how to work with it safely.

At this same time, medical professionals were taking their explorations of radiation even further. It’s not a great stretch, for example, to wonder if radiation can burn a tumor as easily as a finger, and then to begin experimenting with radiation therapy. This led to the beginnings of radiation therapy – inserting small capsules containing radioactivity into tumors as well as exposing them to radiation from x-ray machines and from sources outside the body.

While oncologists were learning to use radiation for cancer treatment, others were seeing what else it could treat. It’s hard to find diseases that are more important to treat than cancer, as a result, many of these experiments seem frivolous or even silly today. Radiation was known to cause hair loss, for example, and one early experiment involved using radiation to remove women’s unwanted facial hair. Less frivolously, there were also experiments trying to treat lupus and various diseases of the nervous system using radiation – the latter hampered by the fact that nerve tissue is the least sensitive in the body to radiation damage.

For a few decades, radium was fairly widely used in medicine, applied as a source inserted into diseased tissues, administered as a paste or ointment, even drunk as a medicine. As a personal aside, as a pre-teen living in an apartment above his uncle’s medical practice in the 1940s, my father often signed for packages of radium that my great-uncle used to treat his patients.

Sadly, many of these treatments were worthless or even dangerous. A radium-based “medicine,” Radithor (, contained distilled water into which at least 1 µCi of radium had been added; it was advertised as helping with any number of health issues and, such was the luster of radium at this point in history, these claims were assumed to be correct. Thus, when an aging Eben Byers, a former amateur golf champion and perennial ladies man, injured his arm in 1927 and a physician recommended Radithor to him, Byers accepted the advice without question. He continued taking it regularly until 1930 when his teeth started falling out and his jaw fell off. In 1931, the company that made Radithor was ordered to stop making the compound; Byers died the following year.

As the relative ignorance of radiation health effects of the earlier years began to be replaced by increased scientific and medical understanding and as the public began to hear stories of the effects of these patent medicines as well as the cases of the radium watch dial painters the market for patent medicines shrank and the public’s initial fascination with radium and radiation turned into a more appropriate caution. At the same time, the medical community had accumulated a degree of caution, based on accumulated experience, and had backed away from its initial enthusiasm for radiation, using it primarily for cancer therapy – the field of diagnostic nuclear medicine was still a decade in the future.

Jumping forward to the 1990s, I spent some time working for the Ohio Department of Health as a radiation safety professional. One of my tasks at one point was to try to locate some of the sites in which radioactivity might have been used in the past – virtually all fell into one of two categories, former manufacturers of self-luminous paints and products and former medical facilities. We found a good number of both; most didn’t appear to be contaminated and, of the ones that were, the majority were not too bad. In addition, the state-funded a few “radium round-ups” in which anybody could turn in any radium source with no questions asked, the idea is to simply collect as much as possible for disposal. But there’s still radium out there – in 2002, as Radiation Safety Officer at a university in upstate NY I was asked to take custody of a small foil containing several mCi of radium – it had turned up in a railroad gondola car carrying scrap metal to a plant in Indiana. While working for New York City in 2010 we found a storage area that contained a large number of radium-dial compasses, several of which were leaking contamination, and even more recently, a friend of mine found a whole curie of radium in a garbage truck. Along with the rest of the radium that’s found in public places, it was shipped for disposal – in spite of its early promise, we just don’t use radium anymore.

The Golden Age of Radium

Marie Curie was perhaps the first “rock star” scientist – she was smart, hard-working, attractive, had survived tragedy, and made history as the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in an era in which women’s role in science was more likely to be that of cleaning up the lab than organizing it. And when the world heard about this petite Polish woman, laboring in obscurity in a makeshift laboratory in Paris, who had discovered not one, but two new elements (radium and polonium) – both of them radioactive, at a time when radioactivity itself was novel and exciting the world was enchanted with Madame Curie, her story, and the radium she had discovered.

Within a few years of its discovery radium’s ability to cause skin burns had been noted, along with appropriate protective measures. By the end of the first decade of the 20th-century people knew how to work safely with radium and they were beginning to tease out some uses for this novel material.

In industry, for example, radium was quickly found to cause a suspension of zinc sulfide to emit light; mixing radium into such a suspension produced a paint that glowed in the dark. Not only that, but mixing zinc sulfide and radium into plastic created a plastic that glowed in the dark. Between the paint and the plastic, virtually anything could be made to glow in the dark.
Some of these products were made for the military; self-luminous dials for airplane instruments, self-luminous nautical navigational instruments, glow-in-the-dark patches soldiers put on their shoulders to help the person behind them follow more easily (these were great to put next to doors, light switches, and the like at home as well), and compasses that could be read in the dark were among the most common.

Bausch and Lomb AN5854-1 Aircraft Bubble Sextant. These bubble sextants were used by large planes (Mostly Bombers) during WWII to navigate by the stars (over the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans) where the natural horizon was not visible and replaced by the bubble. It had electric lights for standard illumination and radium for low-intensity illumination.

A few years ago, I was asked to survey a sextant that had radium-based paint – it didn’t give off high radiation levels, but they were clearly higher than background. And a few years before that I’d responded with the NYPD to a storage area that held a collection of antique military compasses – also with radium-painted numbers and hashmarks. Radium let people see things in the dark, and the public loved it as much as the soldiers, fliers, and sailors.

What’s interesting is that companies started using “radium” in product names, even when the product contained nary a trace of the element. In the BBC documentary Nuclear Nightmares (which was about radiation phobia) health physicist Paul Frame commented on this:

“The word radium meant ‘quality.’ It’s the equivalent today of ‘gold’ or ‘platinum.’ I have a platinum credit card; back then you’d have had a radium credit card. So they had radium condoms, radium cigarettes, radioactive toothpaste, radium show polish – not radioactive, but using that word “radium” to connote high quality.”

I mentioned earlier that radium was used to paint glow-in-the-dark dials for watches, aircraft instruments, compasses, and so forth. What I didn’t mention was that these dials were painted by hand and the vast majority of those hands belonged to young women working for one of the companies making these dials. The girls doing this work were trained to twirl the brush briefly in their lips or against their tongue to assure a good point for painting the fine lines; when they did this they ingested tiny amounts of radium. Over time, this radium was deposited in their bones and exposed them to high levels of radiation; in 1922 the first “Radium girl” died from radiation exposure, followed by an increasing number of others in subsequent years. For many, this was the first indication that radium might not be purely good.


Radium was also a huge hit in the medical arena. When it was discovered that radium could cause skin burns, physicians made the leap to realizing it might also be used to burn out cancers or other unwanted tissues. But then the quacks got their hands on radium, mixing it in with patent medicines such as Radithor. One problem with Radithor was that it killed its most prominent user, amateur athlete and industrialist Eben Byers, in 1932, after drinking an estimated 1400 bottles over the previous five years. Radium is a bone-seeking element (it replaces calcium in the bone) and Byers’ teeth, jaws, and bones were rotting away.

The Radium Girls, Eben Byers, and others who over-indulged in radium patent medicines were the first people to come to the attention of the general public to be injured by radiation. And they were sympathetic characters – young women and a famous socialite, athlete, and industrialist. By the time that Byers died, dozens, if not hundreds of Radium Girls had also become ill and many of them had died.

Within a decade of Byers’ death, radiation research would be plugging along at full speed in the US, a part of the Manhattan Project. In the 1950s, during the era of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, the health effects of radiation manifested themselves more widely, culminating in the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty.

A few decades more and environmental regulatory standards began to change, requiring the cleanup of the places where radium watch dials used to be produced. I was involved in one of these remediation projects, in central Illinois – overseeing radiation safety for the remediation. In addition to excavating thousands of cubic yards of contaminated soil, our radiation safety technicians found a radium source inside the wall of a house in town, a source that had been there for over a half-century. More interestingly, we also found a flagpole that had been painted with radium paint – apparently, it was in front of the house that had once been the governor’s home and, in the 1920s, it was felt that the governor’s flagpole should stand out (this particular vanity ended up resulting in over 10 cubic yards of contaminated soil, that had to be painstakingly excavated around a number of buried utility lines).

Since the golden age of radium attitudes towards radiation have changed dramatically. I began working with radiation in 1981 and, frankly, it’s hard for me to picture an era in which the public was enthusiastic about radiation and viewed it with hope and excitement rather than fear. But it’s awfully nice to fantasize about.