Tales from the Atomic Age

Paul W. Frame

Professional Training Programs, Oak Ridge Associated Universities

The following three tales are based on incidents recorded in "Radium - Lost and Found" by Robert B. Taft (1946). They originally appeared in the Health Physics Society Newsletter.

In the Groove

Montgomery, Alabama 1935 -1943. There could be no doubt that there was something valuable inside the tiny leatherette case. So when the woman standing in front of the Brill Building placed it down on the curb, the thief made his move. You couldn’t blame her for what happened - there were radium needles inside and the exposure rates were rather high. But what had seemed a sensible precaution moments earlier, soon became a source of regret. When the taxi to the hospital arrived and she reached down to pick up the case, it was gone! Stolen!

In an act of desperation, the radium’s owner, Dr. F. P. Boswell, placed an advertisement in the papers seeking the return of his property. Miraculously, the ad paid off in the form of a phone call, and a mysterious voice gave directions to a house where the negotiations could take place. Anxious though he was to recover the pilfered radium, Boswell wasn’t about to go after it himself. He notified the police.

When the officers arrived at the address, they discovered a large dilapidated house where the caller, a transient, had established a temporary residence. In the South, even the down-and-out possess a certain measure of refinement and the police found him listening to music from a phonograph! After recovering from his surprise at the unexpected appearance of the law, the thief proceeded to engage the officers in polite conversation. He expressed his disappointment in the quality of the recording, complaining that his music "didn’t come out so good!" The police might not have been audiophiles, but they were trained investigators, and they quickly discerned the source of the problem. There, positioned at the end of the tone arm, was the most expensive stylus to ever track a record - one of the missing radium needles!

In the Pink

It wasn’t always possible to recover lost radium by advertising in the newspapers. As often as not, the services of a radium hunter were required. And where ever the radium hunter went, so did his trusty radium hound - a.k.a. the detector that led the hunter to the prey.

Sioux Falls, South Dakota, August 1935. In a complete failure of source accountability, a nurse at Moe Hospital discarded a radium needle into the trash.

The hospital authorities knew just who to call: Drs. Buchta and Barber, the well known radium hunters operating out of the University of Minnesota.

These modern day Nimrods quickly tracked the hospital garbage and, they hoped, the radium needle to a trash site at a nearby pig farm. Buchta and Barber meticulously surveyed each rubbish pile, but their radium hound, a gold leaf electroscope constructed, appropriately enough, from an ash can, detected nothing. Then, without warning, the gold leaf suddenly flattened against electroscope rod! The hound had the scent! But just as suddenly the trail went cold, and a repeat measurement showed nothing! Puzzling the matter over, the frustrated hunters realized that the discharge had occurred just as a herd of pigs had been passing by. One of the swine must have swallowed the source. Irradiated pork on the hoof!.

Buchta and Barber weren’t exactly dealing with a needle in a haystack, but it was close, and they had before them a task worthy of Hercules. Rather than measure each of the 500 pigs one at a time, Buchta and Barber instructed the farmer, F. L. Tibbles, to divide the herd into five groups. The hound quickly traced the source to one of the five and that group was subdivided further. After a few more iterations, the unlucky animal had been located.

By this means, and with a little help from a butcher, Buchta and Barber brought home the bacon.

And that, believe it or not, is the earliest documented instance of a source container being called a pig.

In the Dumps

Monroe, North Carolina, winter 1935. The two 12.5 mCi radium needles that should have been safe and snug inside the hospital vault had taken a walk! There was only one thing to do: wire Robert Taft, radium hunter extra ordinaire. Taft and his assistant Ben Heyward, gathered together their excited pack of radium hounds and "sallied forth to Monroe."

Despite the fact that this was 1935 and North Carolina had yet to designate a disposal site for radioactive materials, it was determined that the sources had made their way to the local city dump..

So, bright and early the next morning, Taft, Heyward and their radium hounds began sniffing around the dump. H.L. Burdette, the city manager, helped narrow down the probable location of the radium to a 40 by 200 foot area. Then, in the first recorded use of a reference grid in a radiological survey, Taft marked off the area into 8 by 6 ft blocks with yellow flags. By modern standards, the survey was distinctly sub par: the survey plan incorporated no statistical basis for determining the appropriate number of measurements, it exhibited utter disregard for the triangular measurement pattern favored by MARSSIM, and there was no Data Quality Objectives Process. In a word: barbaric!

As soon as the grid had been established, the hounds were unleashed and placed next to the flags at one end of the gridded area. Five minutes later, the positions of the electroscope leaves were checked and the hounds moved forward to the next line of flags.

The advance was slow and the conditions brutal. Our intrepid surveyors had to negotiate burning heaps of garbage and piles of scrap iron. They traversed ice, and fought their way through brambles. At times the instruments had to be covered with tin cans to protect them from ashes and dew. At one point a Chevrolet crankcase was scavenged to float an electroscope on the ice. Another time a discarded high heel shoe was used to prop up the detector on a steep incline.

It was only just that these exertions didn’t go unnoticed - they were recorded for posterity by a distinguished member of the fourth estate. Taft never explained the presence of the reporter at the waste dump in Monroe, but he couldn’t have been unaware of the extra business a little publicity might send his way. Whatever the reason for the reporter’s presence, divine justice or a well timed PR campaign, we are indebted to the Associated Press for the following account: "At 11:30, one detector responded. Radium was near. All the detectors were brought into play. The ‘pack was in full cry’. Then the searchers started to dig. Each scoopful was tested and finally one was ‘hot’. It was sifted and at noon the first fragment of the precious substance was recovered."

Before the day was over, the remaining needle had been located and it too was on its way home to the hospital.

Taft and Heyward were also eager to head home, but according to the press release, the first thing Taft did after his successful hunt was take a bath. It was an image certain to elicit smiles from the more gentile readers of the AP account. But personal hygiene isn’t necessarily the highest priority of someone who has just performed a radiological survey over a waste site. Taft admits that his first act was to get himself a drink.. The bath came later.


Taft, RB Radium - lost and found. Walker, Evans & Cogswell Co.; 1946

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