The History of Radium (1898-Present)

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Radium is a silver-white, highly radioactive element. It's atomic number is 88, and it is the heaviest alkali earth metal, having a mass number of 226.025 (See Figure 1). Radium has at least twenty six isotopes, and all are radioactive (Shriver 1995). Since radium is chemically similar to calcium and magnesium, it is absorbed by the bones of animals. Once in the bones, it emits alpha, beta, and gamma rays (Shriver 1993). These rays shrink or destroy tissues and they are the reason radium is so harmful among humans (Raloff 1994) Radium was discovered by Marie Curie, and has been used in many medicines and medical procedures (Shriver 1995). Some of those medicines and procedures are "Radithor" by Bailey, Nasopharyngeal Radium Irradiation, and cancer treatment. Almost all uses for radium are presently obsolete. Discovery of Radium Marya Sklodowska was born on November 7, 1867 in a small boarding school for girls in Warsaw. Marya grew up to marry a Pierre Curie on July 26, 1893 when she was 27, causing her name to change to Marie Curie (See Figure 2) (Birch 1988). Marie Curie became the world's most famous woman scientist because she remains the only woman to ever receive two Nobel Peace prizes. She won her first award with her husband Pierre, and her friend Henri Becueral by discovering two new elements, polonium and radium. Her second came with her extended research of the two (Koerner 1995). To understand how the discovery of radium came about, the discovery of radioactivity must first be analyzed. The person responsible for the discovery of Walstead 2 radioactivity is Henri Becquerel. He performed many experiments with newly discovered x-rays. He found that by exposing graphic film to any type of light including x-rays, the film darkens. He first used visible light to find that the more intense the light is, the darker the film becomes. Becquerel discovered that when graphic film is placed on one side of a human body, and an x-ray machine on the other, the result is an imprint of the human's body on the graphic film. The imprint contains the complete outline of the person's bone structure because x-rays do not pass through bone, thus causing the fleshy parts of the human to allow more rays to go through and darken the film (Birch 1988). Barcqueral wanted to know if any elements gave off rays naturally. So, since light darkens the film, Becquerel wrapped it in several layers of black paper to keep the light out, but at the same time let x-rays in. When placed in a dark cavity, such as a drawer, where sunlight could not act upon the element, the only element to darken the film through the black paper was uranium. Thus, uranium was giving off some kind of ray all by itself. Through more experiments, he found that this unknown ray was not an x-ray, but something far stronger (Birch 1988). After hearing of these mysterious "uranium rays", Marie Curie decided to begin her own experimentation. She found that another element, thorium, also gave off those same rays. She then could not call the mysterious rays "uranium rays" any longer. A more general word, "radioactivity", was put into use (Curie 1937). Marie concluded that only compounds containing thorium or uranium were radioactive, and spend her time dealing with only those two elements. While testing the radioactivity of samples containing uranium and thorium, Curie found that the radiation Walstead 3 levels by far exceeded the amount of radioactivity possible. An example of this is a mineral called pitchblende. Pitchblende contained four times the amount of radiation than did chemicals that contained the same amount of uranium (Birch 1988). Curie performed the experiment time and time again, but her results remained constant. There was a minute amount of something in the pitchblende that was far more radioactive than uranium or thorium (Curie 1937). Since Curie had already tested every other known element, she was on the trail to discovering a new element. Her husband Pierre, watching her through her experiments on radiation, became so interested, that he too helped her with her experiments (Birch 1988). To find this new element, the Curies used pitchblende, and separated all known substances from it. They were able to find not one, but two new elements, and by July of 1898, the discovery of one new element was confirmed; polonium, named after their home country, Poland. After more experimentation, there were certain of the second, and they named it radium (Curie 1937). They deduced that radium existed in pitchblende in very small amounts. To prove that they had found a new element, they would have to break down enough pitchblende to produce a valid amount of the element (Birch 1988). They ordered tons of pitchblende from companies and went through an ever-tiring process in which to obtain pure radium. They first sifted the pitchblende to remove rubbish. Next they ground it and boiled it with soda so that it separated into a liquid and a precipitate. After discarding the liquid and adding different acids, the Curies were able to eliminate unwanted substances (Curie 1937). Finally, through sifting, mixing, draining, Walstead 4 heating, dissolving, and so on, the Curies were left with pure radium. The major limitation was that sackfulls and sackfulls of pitchblende resulted in only grains of radium (Birch 1988). After four years from 1899 to 1902, the Curies could prove their statement that radium existed. Marie was able to put forth a tenth of a gram of pure radium (Birch 1988). Radium actually did exist. After the discovery of radium, scientists everywhere were using the new element to find out as much as they could about radioactivity. Pierre himself actually found that objects placed near something radioactive would actually turn radioactive themselves. This occurrence is known as induced radioactivity (Birch 1988). Many discoveries such as that were found in the following decades. Many uses, some valid and some hoaxes, were immediately instituted for radium. The most famous use of radium was during the early twentieth century by a man known as William J. A. Bailey (Macklis 1993). He was the most crucial player in the "era of mild radium therapy". The Era of Mild Radium Therapy Marie Curie's mild radium therapy is a theory that states that if taken, minute quantities of radium will maintain perfect health. This directly branches from medical theories of the 19th century which stated that "tiny quantities of naturally occurring materials" (Macklis 1993), with exercise, sleep, and sunlight, cures most illnesses. One of the most crucial men to make advancements in mild radium therapy was an American, William J. A. Bailey. Bailey was a "college dropout who gave himself the title of doctor." Walstead 5 (Macklis 1993). He followed the theory of mild radium therapy in the production of numerous radium laced medicines. Yet, for the most part, mild radium therapy and other theories for good health were confined to Europe. But in 1921, Marie Curie went on her American tour (Macklis 1993). This tour sparked the flame that would burn in the minds and hearts of scientists to develop new radioactive treatments, and it would be present also in the hearts and minds of civilians wanting to accept the treatments. This new interest of modern medical practices could not have come at a better time for Bailey, for in the early 1920's, the same time that Curie toured America, Bailey incorporated a company called the Associated Radium Chemists, Inc. This company produced a series or radioactive medicines. Of the medicines produced, there was Dax for coughs, Clax for Influenza, and Arium for rundown metabolisms. Unfortunately for Bailey, this company was shut down due to false advertising (Macklis 1993). Soon after the shut down of that company, Bailey went on to found "the Thorone Company (Thorium Hormones) [which] produced cure-alls containing radium and thorium for 'all glandular, metabolism, and faulty chemical conditions,' especially impotence." (Macklis 1993). His second company released the "radioendocrinator, a gold-plated radium-containing harness that could be worn around the neck (to rejuvenate the thyroid), around the trunk (to irradiate the adrenals or ovaries) or, for enervated males, under the scrotum in a special jockstrap." (Macklis 1993). Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had its qualms about the products, they could not do anything because its jurisdiction did not extend to radium, Walstead 6 which is classified as a natural element, not a drug. Yet, the medicines previously released were nothing compared to the product that made Bailey millions. It happened in the same year that chemists and radium dial painters died of mysterious cancer, "marking a beginning of the end" (Macklis 1993) of the era of mild radium therapy. Bailey's new product, the flagship of all his medicines, was called Radithor (See Figure 3). Radithor is sold in half-once bottles, and is made up of triple distilled water combined with approximately one microcurie each of radium 226 and radium 228 (See Fig. 3) (Macklis 1993). The person feeling ill simply drinks the bottle of Radithor and will miraculously be cured. Bailey received the radium wholesale from the nearby American Radium Laboratory, bottled it with distilled water, and marked up the rice 500 percent. In years between 1925 and 1930, over 400,000 bottles were sold, making Bailey a rich man (Macklis 1993). As more and more people began buying the "wonder drug", more and more became ill. Still, "the FDA issued warnings, but it had no recourse to legal action." (Macklis 1993). It was not until Eben Byers, a big consumer of Radithor and a famous "athlete and ladies' man" became so ill with cancer that his upper and lower jaw had both been surgically removed, and holes were developing in his skull, that people took note of the long term effects of Radithor. With even more deaths, consumers quickly stopped buying and using the medicine (Macklis 1993). Bailey claimed that he himself drank more Radithor than any one person, and he was in perfect health. Scientists explained this occurrence by stating that "some individuals Walstead 7 can tolerate high amounts of bone-seeking radioisotopes, such as radium. Among these comparatively lucky consumers of Radithor was Bailey himself." (Macklis 1993). Thus, William Bailey, "the dean of the radioactive quacks, played a major role in the beginning, the climax, and the end of the era of mild radium therapy." (Macklis 1993). Yet this is not the last time radium is used in medicine. The next largest event in history that institutes the wide-spread use of radium is involving nasopharyngeal radium irradiation. Nasopharyngeal Radium Irradiation Nasopharyngeal radium irradiation is an experimental therapy developed at John Hopkins University in Baltimore that cures areotitis media by inserting an enclosed capsule of radium deep into the nostrils of affected people (See Figure 4). Areotitis media is a disorder which develops in aviators because of unpressurized cockpits, and also in divers, thus making them experience "pain, temporary deafness, and any of a host of symptoms that included vertigo, nausea, a ringing in the ears, bleeding, and even a ruptured ear drum." (Raloff 1994) This procedure used during World War II was successful about 90 percent of the time (Raloff 1994). The way this treatment works is that a six inch long tube is used as an applicator to insert a radium filled capsule into each nostril of the recipient. The capsule is then left there for 8-12 minutes (Stolwijk 1996). While in the nose, alpha, beta, and gamma rays are emitted from the radium. These rays shrink excessive lymphoid tissue around the ends of Walstead 8 the Eustachian tubes, thus freeing the blocked Eustachian tube valves so that the middle ear could equalize with the pressure of high altitudes (See Figure 5) (Raloff 1994). During the 1940's, as many as 8000 World War II servicemen and 500,000 to 2 million civilians with ear problems or deafness received this treatment to reduce lymphoid tissue (Skolnick 1996). In time, the appearance of risks such as many types of cancer came about in the 1960's, and scientists were urged to discontinue treatment and dispose of all applicators (Raloff 1994). Physicians now in the 1990's call this experiment "probably the biggest controlled [radiation] experiment ever done." (Raloff 1994), yet only two moderately large studies have been conducted on the long-term effects of nasopharyngeal radium treatments. One has been done at John Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health and has showed a "5-fold increase in brain cancer deaths and a more than 8.6-fold increase in Graves disease among 904 persons treated with nasopharyngeal radium, compared to a cohort of 2021 persons who had not been treated." (Skolnick 1996). The other experiment was conducted at the Hospital of Sittard in the Netherlands and showed "no statistically significant increase in cancer risk among 2510 persons treated with nasopharyngeal radium, compared with a cohort of 2199 persons who had not been treated." (Skolnick 1996). Although scientists and doctors disagree, President Clinton's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments said that "notification and follow-up are not necessary for veterans who received nasopharyngeal radium treatments." Besides the fact that the government dubbed the matter closed, there is still a hotline open for veterans who received the treatment that is run by the Submarine Survivors Group (Skolnick 1996). Walstead 9 Other uses of radium that has been used through time is paint on watch dials and radiation therapy for cancer patients. Radium paints have been discontinued because of the risk they pose of causing cancer, and other elements such as cobalt 60 has replaced radium in the fight for cancer. Also, there still holds a problem in how to safely dispose of the element (Shriver 1995). Ultimately, through the past 100 years, science itself has evolved greatly. Marie Curie has definitely helped it progress with her discovery of radium. The discovery of radium has caused the field of radioactivity to be more understood and researched, as well as being one of the first soldiers in the fight for cancer. Although there have been times when Bailey or even the United States government has misused radium, without the element, the world that exists today would not scientifically be the same.

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