Cincinnati Once Believed Radium Could Cure Anything, If Only We Could Afford It

Salesmen (and the press) learned that tonics labeled ”radium,” once the most expensive substance on Earth, flew off the shelves. Meanwhile, scientists scrambled to learn what the radioactive material actually does.

What are the most amazing things on Earth today? Way back in 1907, the Cincinnati Post reported the results of a poll to determine the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World” at that time. Topping the list was the aeroplane, followed by wireless telegraphy, radium, the Panama Canal, anesthesia, movies, and X-rays.

That radium got its own mention is unsurprising to anyone reading the newspapers around that time. Everybody was talking about radium, all the humorists had jokes about radium, all the quacks were claiming cures by radium, and all the scientists were scrambling to figure out just what this radium stuff could possibly do.

During the first decade of the 20th century, radium was the most expensive substance known to man, costing—when it could be purchased at all—for $2.5 million per ounce (or around $90 million today). Dozens of newspaper gags were based on the same formula: Something (or someone) is described as worth its weight in gold but is met by the rejoinder, “Couldn’t it be worth its weight in radium?”

Cartoonist Armundo Dreisbach “A.D.” Condo caught the radium craze in 1913 by having his character, Adolf, ingest a sample of radium entrusted to his partner, Osgar, thinking it was quinine.

From Cincinnati Post 17 January 1913, image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The hottest stage show in Cincinnati was a musical revue titled “The Runaways,” which featured a diversion billed as “The Radium Dance.” According to the Cincinnati Post [16 January 1905]:

“Cincinnatians seem to like the radium dance. It is performed while the stage is in pitch-black darkness and the dancers’ faces are masked in black. Their pajama-like costumes glow with a weird blue light, and the audience is puzzled to know how it is done.”

No matter whether a commercial product incorporated radium (unlikely) or not, manufacturers realized that anything with “radium” on the label flew off the shelves. One Cincinnati manufacturer sold “radium” razor strops in which the only connection to radium was the brand name. Likewise, a roach poison sold as Radium Roach Powder may have contained all sorts of toxic substances, but radium was certainly not one of them.

On the other hand, Cincinnati’s notorious quack doctors piled onto the radium bandwagon, offering cures that may or may not have induced radiation poisoning into their clients. A Hopkins Street man, hauled into court on fraud charges, probably didn’t harm anyone by selling “radium pads” that he claimed cured diseases. The radium Laboratories Company, though, advertising heavily in the Cincinnati Post, offered photographic proof that its “Co-Ray Tonic Tablets” were unabashedly radioactive, providing “interior sunlight” to those who ingested the pills. Co-Ray tablets were sold at all Dow Drug Stores in Cincinnati as well as independent pharmacies in Norwood, and in Kentucky at Dayton and Bellevue. The advertisements were frighteningly effusive:

“Radium is interior sunlight. Sunlight is the great antiseptic and germ destroyer of the world. Radium Emanation is the most marvelous tonic the world has ever known. By its use the system of man or woman can literally be bathed and cleansed in sunshine. Tired, pale, droopy, rundown people respond to this internal sunlight bath like flowers that have been drooping in the shade. They become energized to a marvelous extent.

The power of Radium is so great that the mind of ordinary man cannot grasp it.”

Hot Springs, Arkansas, cashed in on the radium craze by organizing excursions from the larger northern cities, including Cincinnati. An advertisement in the Cincinnati Post [17 February 1911] was typical:

“Hot Springs is the scene of marvelous cures, to which words cannot do justice. The secret of the mysterious, health-renewing waters (until recently Nature’s secret) is attributed to their radioactive curative powers, resulting from radium gasses.”

Propounding a dissenting view, well-known Cincinnati quack, Dr. G.M. “Cancer Cure” Curry opened a sanitarium at Lebanon, Ohio, at which he promised to demonstrate that “the surgeon’s knife, X-Ray, Radium and other present-day treatments, are absolutely ineffective and often cause death instead of saving life.”

Sadly, while real scientists and doctors were scrambling to find out the best ways to harness the power of radium, they were besieged by patients who, inspired by the popular press, demanded radium treatments immediately. The biggest problem is that none of the educated people knew exactly what radiation was or how it manifested, or whether it did anything at all.

The second problem is that there wasn’t a single atom of radium available to doctors in Cincinnati. Through the efforts of University of Cincinnati President Howard Ayers, a tiny particle of actual radium was shipped to the Queen City. This minute sample, housed in a glass tube inside a wooden box, was placed in the custody of UC’s physics department.

The popular press propounded all sorts of wondrous benefits for radium, claiming it would rapidly diagnose any ailment, cure most diseases and offer a cheap source of illumination as in this 1903 illustration.

Illustration from Cincinnati Enquirer 6 December 1903, image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

On special appeal to the university’s Board of Directors, UC’s minuscule allotment of radium was applied to the eyes of Judge Moses Wilson in 1903 in an unsuccessful attempt to restore his failing eyesight. Judge Wilson survived another 20 years, blind but succumbing to unrelated ailments in his 83rd year. George W. Mayer, a Cincinnati industrialist, had to go to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for radium treatments in 1914. The treatments was fatally ineffective, and Mr. Mayer returned to Cincinnati in a casket.

Other than the failed effort to save Judge Wilson’s eyesight, the UC physics department mostly used their entubed radium sample to irradiate hundreds of students through hands-on classroom demonstrations; through the creation of autoradiographs to prove that, yes, this stuff was, indeed, radioactive; and public lectures throughout the city featuring a suspenseful moment when all the auditorium lights were extinguished to manifest the sample’s faint blue glow.

Professor Louis Trenchard More, designated guardian of UC’s radium nugget, in one of his several public lectures, suggested that maybe this miraculous substance wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. According to the Post [14 November 1903]:

“He seemed to be rather skeptical that the much exploited stuff would ever become vastly popular, and didn’t think that, inasmuch as it takes about 11 tons of pitchblende to make a pound of radium, it would become particularly useful.”

The Cincinnati Post editorially rejoiced in 1910 when the price of radium declined to only $2.1 million an ounce:

“It is easy to foresee that should this decline in price continue, you may go down to the corner grocery any day and get a bit of radium.”

Or not.

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