Horrific 20th Century Quack Medical Devices That Contained Radium

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, discovered radium, a radioactive element, back in 1898. However, people didn’t realize how dangerous the element was, and they began to use radium in household items. This led to radium in makeup, as well as in medical devices that claimed to cure everything from impotence to arthritis. However, what these quack devices actually led to was a plethora of surprisingly poisonous things, such as toothpaste, hair tonic, and suppositories. 

When people began dying of mysterious diseases, such as the ones suffered by the Radium Girls, who painted luminous watch dials with Undark, a radium-based paint that they wound up ingesting via their paintbrushes, doctors finally realized that radium was dangerous.

The history of radium poisoning is full of odd devices designed to improve one’s health and outer appearance. These everyday poisons were sold through magazine and newspaper ads – and in regular pharmacies. Thankfully, by the beginning of World War II, they had been phased out and are now an odd anecdote from American history. 

Radium-Lined Cups Were Used To Make Radioactive Beverages

Photo: Andrew Kuchling/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

These days, people drink bottled or filtered water. Back in the early 20th century, those who could afford it drank radioactive water. One popular way of making this water, which supposedly could cure many different ailments, involved the use of a metal cup or container that was lined with radium. Any water poured into the vessel was exposed to the radioactive material and picked up its properties. The Revigator was one such device; its makers claimed that it contained radon. Of course, this only “worked” if the device actually contained radium – many of the “radioactive” medical marvels on the market were scams. 

People Submerged Themselves In Radium-Laced Water At Spas

Photo: Eternalsleeper/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Going to spas and spending some time submerged in radioactive water was supposed to be an invigorating experience. In actuality, the natural radiation in these mineral hot springs might have made the spa goers feel relaxed – that is, until a few decades later when they realized that the “hot” water did more harm than good. During the time period, however, even reputable medical journals touted the healing abilities of radium and similar materials, and some claimed radium hot springs were a literal fountain of youth that could help slow the aging process. Some radium-filled hot springs are still in business today, but they limit people’s exposure to any radioactive elements in the water. 

Laying In Radioactive Sand Was A Treatment For Arthritis

Photo: André Castaigne/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

One of the main byproducts of radium manufacturing is a fine-grained sand that is, of course, highly radioactive. Back in the early 1900s, before people realized how harmful exposure to it was, they claimed that exposure to the sand could successfully treat arthritis pain. Many spas opened up rooms where people could sit and rest their feet on the sand in the hopes of being cured. The ironic thing is that, even though people knew of the dangers that radioactivity could pose, these “Uranium Sitting Houses” were in business up through the 1950s. 

Men Placed Wax Coated Radium Rods In Their Urethras As A Cure For Impotence

Photo: Мосрекламсправиздат/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Men have always struggled with impotence. Now, there are medications like Viagra; back in the early 1900s, there were “bougies.” These were radium-laced wax rods that men inserted directly into their urethras to treat impotence. This treatment is now cringe inducing not only because of the way it took place, but also because placing radioactive material close to reproductive organs is a very bad idea. 

Radium Toothpaste Claimed To Make Teeth White And Shiny

Photo: Metaweb/CC-BY

Radium wasn’t just used in medical devices – it made its way into everyday beauty and household products as well. One of these hygienic products was toothpaste. According to ads, a small amount of radium in the toothpaste promised to make users’ teeth very white and super shiny. Whether or not it worked is up for debate, but what is known is that radioactive exposure can actually make one’s teeth fall out and result in a jaw rotting from the inside out. 

Radithor Supposedly Cured Impotence And Other Health-Related Woes

Photo: Sam LaRussa/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

Radithor was a radium- and thorium-laced water that was sold in small vials. A few drops of it a day could cure impotence and “restore vigor” – or, so it purported to be the case. The product was made by Bailey Radium Laboratories of East Orange, New Jersey, who actually encouraged users to disprove its claims of containing the radioactive substances. The product was removed from the market after one heavy user who reportedly went through around three vials a day of the stuff, playboy Eben Byers, died a horrific death when his jaw disintegrated. 

Radium Suppositories Restored People’s “Vigor”

Photo: Mausweisel/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Speaking of restoring “vigor,” how about a radium suppository? These small, radioactive pellets were sold in boxes and claimed to help men with their impotence issues. Made by several different companies, including the Vital-O-Gland Company and the General Remedies Company, there is no proof that the suppositories actually contained any radioactive material, or that they worked as they were supposed to. Thank goodness.

Glasses With Radioactive Lenses Corrected Vision Problems

Photo: Conrad von Soest/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Before there was laser eye surgery, there were Dengen’s Radio-Active Eye Applicators. This device looked like a pair of simple spectacles, only instead of lenses, it had opaque pods that contained radium and other radioactive materials. Not only could they cure your eye ailments, claiming to repair things like nearsightedness and farsightedness, but they also took care of headaches and eye strain. What’s even more disturbing is the fact the eye applicators came in three different strengths. 

Tho-Radia Cosmetics Claimed To Brighten Skin

Photo: Rama/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

Tho-radia was a line of makeup and skin creams that contained radium. It was heavily marketed to women in the United States and France, who purchased the items in the hopes that the product’s claims – to rejuvenate and brighten skin – were true. To add a little extra cachet to the brand, its creator,  Dr. Alfred Curie (no relation to Marie and Pierre Curie) put his name on the ads. 

Radium Emanation Bath Salts Cured Insomnia

Photo: Myron Metzenbaum/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Radium bath salts, which worked like modern-day bath salts – as in you dissolve them in your bath water before soaking in them – were sold as a cure for insomnia, various nervous disorders, and even rheumatism. What made them even worse (from a modern perspective, of course) was the fact that dissolving the radioactive bath salts would send small particles of them into the air, where they were also breathed into the lungs. These products were made by several different manufacturers, including the Denver Radium Service on what is now a Superfund site. 

Endocrine Glands Were Regulated With The Radiendocrinator

Photo: Hotel Will Rogers/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The endocrine system regulates the body’s hormone production. The glands in the endocrine system include those in the neck – the thyroid – as well as the pituitary gland in the brain. However, the horrifying detail here involves the glands that men would treat with the Radiendocrinator – their testes. Treatment via the Radiendocrinator involved holding the device in place sometimes for hours at a time, with the handy (and included) strap that resembled an athletic supporter. Ironically, the creator of the device, William J.A. Bailey, died of radiation-induced bladder cancer in 1949. 

Gout And Neuralgia Were Taken Care Of With Radium Tablets

Photo: Wellcome Library, London/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Radium tablets are still a legitimate medical treatment for people suffering from various types of cancer. However, back in the late 19th century, these tablets were sold on pharmacy shelves and supposedly cured gout, neuralgia (stabbing nerve pain), and numerous other ailments. These radioactive tablets, sold under brand names like Arium and Radione, were taken daily by people who simply wanted to feel better or have “the strength of iron.” 

Radioactive Heating Pads Cured A Number Of Ailments

Photo: Noble M. Eberhardt/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A radioactive heating pad that was lined with radium claimed to cure everything from rheumatism to standard aches and pains. The instructions for this particular device include warming it up, keeping it dry, and then applying it to the area of the body that hurts. Users could supposedly leave it on for up to 12 hours a day, and they were even encouraged to roll it up around a painful body part, such as an ankle, and tie it into place. 

Uranium Blankets Helped With Arthritis P

Photo: Francis Mould/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

These days, uranium blankets are a part of nuclear reactors, and they aren’t even a little bit related to the therapeutic ones touted as cures for arthritis pain in the early 20th century. Those particular blankets looked like standard, quilted ones, only, within the fabric squares, were bits of uranium. These blankets were sold as cures up through the 1950s, even after the dangers of uranium exposure were well known. 

Radium Tonic Prevented Gray Hairs

Photo: Sinclair Tousey/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A product called Caradium was created in the early 1900s. It was a tonic that was applied to hair to prevent gray hairs from growing, thanks to the power of its active ingredient – radium. It also promised to make any current gray hairs revert back to their old color. Caradium was the invention of Frederick Godfrey, a man whose credentials included “hair specialist.” 

Vintage Shoe-Fitting X-Ray Machines Will Zap Your Feet

How do you tell if a shoe is a good fit? Take a short walk? Squeeze the front-end with your fingers to make sure there is space for your toes? What about a dangerous, 20-second blast of unshielded x-rays? If you were buying shoes in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, it’s likely that you regularly inserted a tootsie into one of these death-rays.

The wooden cabinets, possibly first built by a Clarence Karrer in Milwaukee in 1924, had the x-ray source in the base, and it would fire upwards through your foot and shoe. Due to a lack of any kind of shielding, it wouldn’t stop there: the radiation would shoot right up into your baby-maker, clearly a perilous occurrence.

The machine, called a “Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscope” put out 50 kv from its x-ray tube, which – according to Wikipedia’s figures for today’s machines, isn’t too bad:

In medical radiography voltage from 20 kV in mammography up to 150 kV for chest radiography are used for diagnostic. Energy can go up to 250 kV for radiotherapy applications.

The problem was repeat exposure. While it was recommended that children not be subjected to more than 12 doses a year, there was no such luck for shoe-store employees. According to the article Shoe-fitting with x-ray in National Safety News 62 by H. Bavley (1950), store clerks would put their hands into the beam to squeeze shoes during fitting. Worse still was the fate of a poor shoe model, “who received such a serious radiation burn that her leg had to be amputated.”

Thank God there’s nothing this dangerous around today. Like, you know, full-body backscatter x-ray machines in airports.



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