Olden Days of Radium: Patent Medicine’s Risky Practice?
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Olden Days of Radium: Patent Medicine’s Risky Practice?

By Dr. Zoomie

Patent medicine – with radioactivity!

Hey Dr. Z – I heard something about people actually drinking “medicines” that contained radium to try to feel better. Is this for real? Why in the world would anybody think that radiation might make them healthier?

This is one of those things that sounds sort of nutty when you first hear it – but, on the other hand, I’ve had a fair amount of radiation in the last year from x-rays, nuclear medicine procedures, and CT scans and I have friends and family members who have been exposed to radiation therapy to treat cancer and other ailments. So, while drinking radium compounds sounds sort of nutty, being exposed to radiation to try to improve our health happens every day in every city in the US. But that’s not really what you’re asking, so let’s get a little historical.

Put yourself in the position of a physician a little more than a century ago – before we had x-rays, nuclear medicine, and radiation therapy for cancer. Before x-rays were discovered, for example, a physician had no way to see where a bone was broken, to visualize internal damage or abnormalities, to diagnose hidden tumors. Before radium was discovered there was no way to “burn out” a cancer; before nuclear medicine there was no way to see cancer metastases. Radiation has to have seemed miraculous to the doctors of a century ago. But it turned into a panacea and became over-used.

Not to mention that we continue to use exposure to radiation and radioactivity for our health, over a century after the practices that we now deride as foolish. So the question isn’t necessarily “how could anyone ever think drinking radiation could be good for you” so much as “how do we know when radiation will help us or hurt us”?

So first let’s think about the ways that radiation can help our health. I’m getting older – solidly in middle age (or old age if you’re still in college) – so in the last year or so I’ve been exposed to radiation from x-rays and CT scans and I’ve inhaled, swallowed, and been injected with radioactivity for various medical scans. In each case I’ve understood the reason for the radiation exposure, the amount of radiation I was going to be exposed to, and its health effects – probably better than the people who prescribed the exposure and the ones administering it. And every single time I consented to the exposure because I realized that the benefit of having necessary diagnostic information outweighed the risk. I also realize that at some point in the future, doctors are likely to be saying “what were they thinking” because they’ll be using imaging technology as removed from today’s latest and greatest as our CT scanners, MRI machines, and nuclear medicine cameras are from the patent medicines of a century ago. But today, this is the best we can do. So let’s take a look at some of the things they used to do.

Sometimes x-rays can be hard to read – if used for imaging anything other than bone, for example, the images can be various similar shades of gray because the soft tissues can all look close to the same in x-ray images, even to the trained eye. But if you inject a compound with a higher density into the tissues being imaged, the compound will stop more of the x-rays than the tissues – it provides a greater contrast and can make it easier to get good images. The problem is that it’s also radioactive. So although Thorotrast (the name of the thorium-laced contrast agent) was radioactive, it served a legitimate medical purpose at the time; it wasn’t until later that anyone realized it might cause some harm as well.

Thorotrast was based on solid science, even though we later decided the risks it posed were not justified. But what about patent medicines? Strictly speaking, a “patent medicine” is simply a medicine, usually non-prescription, and intended to treat minor ailments, and it’s protected by a patent and/or trademark. This covers a lot of ground – but the term has come to primarily refer to pseudoscientific nostrums and potions that have no legitimate medical value except as placebos. In other words, they work only because those taking them believe they’ll work. In some cases those who made the medicines genuinely believed in their benefits, in other cases there was little or no intent to heal – only to make money.

One example of a radioactive patent medicine was Radithor – a radium “medicine” that promised to cure pretty much anything that ailed the patient, and that delivered a substantial radiation dose with each bottle. I wrote about the Radium Girls a few months ago (https://www.ntanet.net/the-unseen-danger-a-close-look-at-the-radium-girls/) – those who took Radithor for too long suffered similar fates. Like many of today’s dietary supplements and other modern-day equivalents to the patent medicines of the last century, Radithor made broad and extravagant claims that had little or not basis in medical fact.

Radithor is the most notorious of the radiation “cures” that were peddled a century ago but it wasn’t the only one. But this gets into a gray area as well – radiation was also used to treat conditions that could, indeed, be treated – it just wasn’t the best way to do so. One of these, for example, was using radiation to remove unwanted facial hair – this is something that radiation will do, but the exposure required to do so can be harmful in the short term and can increase one’s chance of cancer in the longer term. And then we have to ask “does this make sense?” In another use, radiation (in the form of fluoroscopy) was used to see if shoes fit properly – again, radiation could do this, but delivered more dose to those using the shoe-fitting fluoroscope than was safe.

Also somewhat nebulous, some scientists also tried to x-ray the brains of criminals to see if there was some sort of structural difference between their brains and those of “normal” people. Nothing ever came of these studies, no differences were found, but I’m not sure we can call these “crank” studies – they were well-intentioned and based on a scientific hypothesis; it’s just that today we know they were never fated to see any differences. But the reason we know this is because those studies were performed. If someone today were to suggest a study that involved x-raying the brains of criminals and non-criminals they’d likely be rejected as an unnecessary exposure to radiation serving no legitimate purpose. It was only by performing these studies a century ago that we came to realize that they’re not useful.  

And in other areas, even today people spend money to inhale radon in mines, to drink water containing natural radioactivity, and to frequent radioactive “spas” even though there seems to be nothing in the medical literature supporting these activities as being healthful. It’s easy to laugh at things that previous generations did – except that a lot of people today are doing things that are very similar.

So I guess the answer to your question is that, yes, people used to drink radioactive compounds, breathe radioactive air, and use radiation for any of a number of health reasons that we now know to have been without a basis in medical science. Some of these were fraudulent from the start, some were well-intentioned but ill-advised. But lest we scoff, we have to recognize that we’re doing the same thing today – so we might want to cut our ancestors a little slack.