News and Notes
October 31, 2012
Radium Therapy in America, 1898-1939
University of Minnesota
2012-2013 Dissertation Research Fellow
Radium Therapy in America, 1898-1939
I am working on my dissertation on American radium therapy and the involvement of physicists with the development of this field. Knowledge of physics, and the direct involvement of physicists in academia, industry, and medicine, were important for the establishment of radium therapy and its acceptance by the broader medical community. Radium therapy was used for a wide variety of illnesses — especially considering the array of medical consumer products containing radium (and many more claiming to contain radium) available — but was most effective at treating cancer. Radium therapy was, because of this, most closely identified with cancer and became an important part of cancer care as it moved into hospitals in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In Philadelphia I found good resources in the history of medicine and the history of physics sides of my story.
I spent the majority of my time in the library of the College of Physicians, and I also visited the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Barbara Bates Center for the History of Nursing. I found some excellent photographs of radium therapy at the Historical Society. These were part of a series of photographs of medical instruction for soldiers, and these are the first photographs of actual radium therapy which I have been able to see and analyze. The Barbara Bates Center has lecture notes taken by a student nurse in 1925, including from a course she took on radium therapy. The focus of that course was on cancer treatment, unsurprisingly, but surprising to me was the lack of discussion of physics and, even more so, safety. It seemed to be a short course, but I am still very surprised that she took no notes on safe handling of radium; the notes also include a final exam or a practice final exam and that also makes no mention of safety. The nurse’s notes are invaluable to my project because they are the most personal and direct source I have in studying how radium therapy was taught. Additionally, nurses were a key part of radium therapy, as they were often the ones who were responsible for applying the radium tubes and monitoring the patients’ responses to the therapy.
At the College of Physicians, I looked at the Frank Hartman papers, some of their trade ephemera, and several books and journal articles. Frank Hartman was widely involved with radium: he made and sold radium paint, moved into selling radium and radium apparatus to individuals, doctors, and hospitals, and finally did “radium hound” work, searching for hospitals’ lost tubes of radium. His first-person perspective is very interesting and important. His papers also have good information on radium prices and the amount of radium held in hospitals, especially Philadelphia hospitals. His papers will be a key source in my dissertation, because they provide a thoughtful and opinionated personal view onto a wide range of experiences with radium therapy, a view which is unique in the sources I have looked at for my dissertation.
The trade ephemera at the College of Physicians were mostly from companies selling internal radium therapy, and should be very useful as I sort out how physicians began to disavow this therapy. There was also information on radium and radon rental, which I knew very little about. I was also able to read several important journal articles I had been unable to find elsewhere, and a few textbooks which will be an important part of my chapter on education.
This research trip gave me several new perspectives on my subject and allowed me both greater scope and depth in several areas, and I am grateful to PACHS for this great opportunity.