Radioactive Quack Cures

Radioactive Curative Devices and Spas

Paul W. Frame, Oak Ridge Associated Universities

This article was originally published in the Oak Ridger newspaper, November 5, 1989.


The idea that certain springs have miraculous healing power is not a new one. For thousands of years, the ill and infirm have journeyed long distances seeking cures at the waters of Bath in England, Badgastein in Austria, and countless other locations.

In the United States, the most famous curative waters are those at Hot Springs, Arkansas. Indeed, the properties of these waters have been valued so highly that in 1832 Congress established the Arkansas Hot Springs as the first federal reservation, a forerunner of the national park system.

Even the military recognized the importance of these waters and established the Army and Navy General Hospital there in 1879. At first, personnel undergoing treatment were required to lie in tubs of water that was pumped in directly from the springs. However, the 140-degree temperatures generated grumbling from patients who did not appreciate what was good for them. In response, cooling towers were installed to reduce the temperature.

In 1903, the discoverer of the electron, J.J. Thompson, wrote a letter to the journal Nature in which he described another remarkable discovery of his, the presence of radioactivity in well water. This led to the discovery by others that the waters in many of the world's most famous health springs were also radioactive. This radioactivity is due to the presence of radium emanation—what we now call radon gas—produced by the radium that is present in the ground through which the waters flow.

Who could doubt that it must be the radioactivity that was responsible for the curative properties of the health springs? Certainly not Surgeon General Dr. George H. Torney, who wrote (ca. 1910) that "Relief may be reasonably expected at the Hot Springs in... various forms of gout and rheumatism, neuralgia; metallic or malarial poisoning, chronic Brights disease, gastric dyspepsia, chronic diarrhea, chronic skin lesions, etc."

Further details were provided by Dr. C.G. Davis, who noted in the American Journal of Clinical Medicine that "Radioactivity prevents insanity, rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid youthful joyous life."

Professor Bertram Boltwood of Yale explained the scientific basis for the cures in the following way: The radioactivity was "carrying electrical energy into the depths of the body and there subjecting the juices, protoplasm, and nuclei of the cells to an immediate bombardment by explosions of electrical atoms," and that it stimulated "cell activity, arousing all secretory and excretory organs... causing the system to throw off waste products," and that it was "an agent for the destruction of bacteria."

Radon was believed to be so important to water that it was considered its life element. Without it, water was dead. Radon was to water what oxygen was to air.

Now that turn-of-the-century science (or at least some practitioners of it) had an explanation for the curative properties of the springs, the health spas and resorts associated with them began to do a booming business. Names were changed to include the magic terms radioactive or radium. Visitors came from near and far to soak in the waters and inhale the air. Marble palaces (still open for business) were built over the springs in Joachimstal in what is now the Czech Republic, and luxurious spas sprouted like weeds in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Good times!

A Problem and A Solution

There was a down side to the euphoria: radon cannot remain in the water very long before it decays or escapes into the air. Because of this, water bottled at the spring does not survive. Its "life element" is lost before it can be consumed. Radioactive water must be drunk at the spring to be effective. How then could the poor and infirm benefit if the costs and effort of traveling to the springs were prohibitive?

The solution came with the invention of devices that could be used in the home to add radon to drinking water. In this country, the first and most popular was the Revigator, based on a patent taken out in 1912. Although its inventor, R.W. Thomas, was not related to Thomas Edison, he was claimed to be of equal genius, at least in the sales brochures of the Revigator Company. This company, headquartered in San Francisco, was large enough to maintain numerous branch offices across the country. Revigator sales reached several hundred thousand, a remarkable record in view of its relatively high price, $29.50 (in 1929).

The Revigator itself was a "radioactive water crock." A jar made of radium-containing ore, it held several gallons of water, came with its own spigot, and had the following instructions on the side: "Fill jar every night. Drink freely... when thirsty and upon arising and retiring, average six or more glasses daily." The radon produced by the radium in the ore would dissolve overnight in the water. In effect, it served as a "perpetual health spring in the home."

Many similar devices were also available. Among the better known were the Thomas Cone, the Zimmer Emanator, and the Radium Emanator. However, these devices were placed in the water instead of the water being placed in them. They had the advantage of being less expensive than the Revigator and were small enough to fit in a suitcase. With one of these, you could enjoy the benefits of radon on the road as well as at home.

As one might expect, the American Medical Association (AMA) was concerned that the public was being fleeced by charlatans. To prevent this the AMA established guidelines (in effect from 1916 to 1929) that emanators seeking AMA approval had to generate more than 2 µCi of radon per liter of water in a 24-hour period. Few devices (even the famous Revigator) could meet these exacting standards.

Radium-Containing Products

While almost everyone recognized the efficacy of radon in water, many felt that the ingestion or application of radium (the parent of radon) would be even more effective. And so, in the 1920s and early 1930s, it was possible to purchase radium-containing salves, beauty creams, toothpaste (radon was thought to fight dental decay and improve the digestion), ear plugs, chocolate bars, soap, suppositories, and even contraceptives.

Radium-containing pads that were applied to the body were especially popular. One brand, Degnens Radioactive Solar Pad, was said to get its energy from the sun and had to be charged in sunlight for several minutes prior to use. Its $19.50 (U.S.) price tag was reasonable and it came with a money-back guarantee.

Too good to be true? That is what the manufacturers of a high-priced competitor, the Radiendocrinator, thought. Their literature warned the unwary about such radioactive pads and claimed that charging in the sun was "the purest of nonsense. There is not a shred of truth known to modern science that substantiates such a theory."

In comparison, the Radiendocrinator was made of refined radium, encased in 14-carat gold, and shipped in an embossed velvet-lined leatherette case—all for only $150. In general, the Radiendocrinator was meant to be placed over the endocrine glands. Giving one example as to how their Radiendocrinator might be used, the manufacturers advised men to "Wear the adaptor like any athletic strap. This puts the instrument under the scrotum as it should be. Wear at night. Radiate as directed."

For the sufferers of respiratory ailments, there were pads worn over the mouth and/or nose, e.g., the Radium Nose Cup and the Radium Respirator. Their efficacy was beyond dispute; the radium purified the inhaled air by adding radon to it! To quote the manufacturer of the radium respirator (Radium Health Products), "Radium: scientists found it, governments approved it, physicians recommended it, users endorse it, we guarantee it, SURELY ITS GOOD."

Needless to say, a few individuals took advantage of the publics faith in the healing powers of radium. One such individual was J. Bernard King, manufacturer of the Ray-Cura. This was a quilted pad that King said would emit radium emanation into the diseased portions of the body to kill the germs. More specifically, he claimed it would cure cancer, epilepsy, tuberculosis, and numerous other diseases.

Ultimately, these false claims caught up with him. Foremost among those cited by the federal authorities when they halted its distribution in 1929 was King's claim that the pad contained radium ore, when in fact it was filled with ordinary soil.

The Close of an Era

In many ways, the public would have been much better off if all these products were as fraudulent as the Ray-Cura.

A case in point is Radithor. This product, a liquid, came in half-ounce bottles with each bottle guaranteed by the manufacturer to contain 2 µCi of radium. Eben Byers, the well-known Pittsburgh industrialist, U.S. amateur golf champion, and a man-about-town, could attest to the veracity of the manufacturer's claims. He was so convinced of the product's worth that he averaged three bottles a day—at least until he died of radium poisoning in April 1932.

His widely publicized death as well as the deaths occurring among the radium dial painters helped cool the public's appetite for these radioactive cure-alls. Manufacturers of these devices countered by cautioning against excessive doses of radium and recommending moderation.

Nevertheless, the heydays of the late 1920s and early 1930s were replaced with an appreciation of the potentially lethal properties of radium. An era was drawing to a close.

Old Solidiers Never Die

Radioactive quack cures, like old soldiers, never die. They just fade away. Despite legal restrictions, many continued to be manufactured into the 1940s and 1950s. For example, the radium contraceptives mentioned earlier were advertised and sold as recently as the early 1950s by a Denver company.

That these old products continued to be used into the 1950s might be considered mildly curious. What is astounding is that similar, but entirely new, products have continued to be developed in the 1960s and 1980s!

The 1960s saw the production of the Gra-Maze Uranium Comforter in La Salle, Illinois. It was a quilted pad containing uranium ore and was meant, of course, to be placed on whatever part of the body was ailing. Unlike Bernard King's Ray-Cura, on which it was based, this device made no false claims. It really did contain uranium! Unfortunately, this wasn't enough to keep it out of trouble with the authorities. Production ceased rather abruptly in 1965 following a search and seizure operation by federal agents.

About the same time, a similar fate befell the operations of the Ionic Research Foundation in Winter Park, Florida. The main product of this company was the Ionic Charger, a device intended to add radon to drinking water. As the manufacturer pointed out to his customers, people have "been brainwashed by bureaucratic screaming about fallout and the truth of the famous spas has been lost sight of." His literature claimed many things for the product, even stating that its use would have a "sedative effect on the nervous system" and that "highly strung individuals... become less irritable and lose their distressing tendency towards insomnia." Oddly enough, one of these devices was discovered in the early 1970s in the basement of the Department of Energy (then the Atomic Energy Commission) building in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Whether it was actually used there is not known and any cures have gone unreported.

Another interesting item from the 1960s was the Lifestone Cigarette Holder. It was 4 in. long, made of gray mottled ceramic, and contained a small quantity of radium. Inhaling the smoke over the radium was said to diminish nicotine, make the tobacco sweeter and milder, and "protect users from lung cancer, promise them beautiful faces, and excellent health."

In 1985, an importer in Kansas managed to distribute 20,000 Endless Refrigerator/Freezer Deodorizers at U.S. $10 each before the inevitable visit from federal agents. This deodorizer, which is still manufactured today, is made of green plastic into which has been mixed thorium-containing monazite sand (thorium's 10 billion-year half-life is reasonably close to endless). Users are instructed to hang it in the refrigerator where the emitted radiation is said to purify the air by destroying odors.

Another device from Japan is the NAC Plate. Its outward appearance is similar to that of a playing card, but with one important difference: it contains low-grade uranium ore on one side. The plate is intended to be slipped into a package of cigarettes where the radiation "denatures and reduces nicotine, tar, and harmful gas" and that with the NAC plate "you enjoy... the golden moments of watching (the) smoke rise slowly" and "with your nerves relieved and refreshed you can get back to work."

Regrettably, this fine product is not available in our country although an importer did contact the Nuclear Regulatory Agency and the Food and Drug Administration about it in 1983. The replies from these agencies suggested that permission to import the NAC plate could probably be obtained, but the matter seems to have been dropped.

Were the NAC available, one might be inclined during the golden moments of watching the smoke rise to reflect on the fact that the NAC plate is the modern version of the Lifestone Cigarette Holder. Upon further reflection, its origins might be discerned in the Radium Nose Cup, Radium Respirator, and ultimately, the radon-containing mists rising from the hot springs.

Not so long ago, I met a health physicist from Bechtel while having lunch in a local restaurant. We got to talking about the radioactive monazite sands on the beaches of Kerala in India since he had lived there and was quite familiar with them. In the course of the conversation, he mentioned that the Japanese had been performing remedial action on the beaches and were sending the wastes to Japan!

What a revelation! Could it be that the Japanese have found the answer to radioactive waste disposal, i.e., incorporate it into consumer products and export it around the world? Technically, this procedure is known as "dilute and disperse."

Today, flea markets are the only places where there is the remotest chance to obtain a radioactive device designed to purify the air, apply to the body, or add radon to drinking water. However, those well enough to travel have a couple of options at their disposal.

The first is to bathe at the spas of Hot Springs, Arkansas. True, the "radioactive water" signs have disappeared but enough visitors still go there to warrant the recent opening of additional facilities. [at Saratoga Springs in New York, radioactive water signs can still be found].

The other option is to visit the uranium health mines in Boulder, Montana, where the air is radioactive and they are proud of it. In fact, the largest of the six operating mines even calls itself "The Free Enterprise Radon Health Mine." Its brochures attract visitors with the phrase "the unmedical approach to arthritis." Presumably such wording avoids classification as a medical claim and the legal constraints that would go along with it. The mine's billboards employ another claim few operations would care to make, but one I would certainly have a hard time resisting: "As seen on 60 Minutes."

Emanators for Adding Radon to Water

Jars for Adding Radon to Water

Pills, Potions, and Other Miscellany

Radioactive Pads

Twenty-first Century Products