|Cover of first issue of new journal, Radium (April 1913)|
As reports of the curative powers of radium multiplied, more and more physicians grew eager to make use of this new therapy. In September, 1917 the University of Iowa announced that it had purchased "two tiny tubes of radium, the weight of which was but 50 milligrams, combined." Although the acquisition had been pricey—$5000—Dr. Bundy Allen declared that "the state now has a valuable equipment for the cure of cancer and other malignant diseases" (Marshalltown Times-Republican, September 29, 1917). Saying so did not prevent the university from losing its precious medicine. As the Daily Iowan reported, the radium was lost in the course of treating a cancer patient who had a tube containing radium placed in her mouth.
When the time came for its removal it was found that the contents of the tube had entirely disappeared. The patient was ignorant of the way in which the radium was lost (Daily Iowan, November 28, 1920).Iowa was not alone in losing track of these minuscule, but costly, radium batches. The Des Moines News (November 12, 1920) reported that a Utica, New York hospital had also lost its radium while treating a patient. "The radium burned [a patient] and in irritation she took off the bandage containing the tiny radium tube and threw it down a drain pipe," obliging the hospital to tear up its sewer system in search of the precious commodity. Closer to home, a physician in 1928 Waterloo sought help from Coe College's electroscope to retrieve a tiny ("one-fortieth as large as a dime") bit of radium that was "thrown by accident into a furnace, along with some surgical refuse" (Coe College Cosmos, October 28, 1928).
|Undated photograph of A. James Larkin (1888-1936 )|
(History of Medicine and Surgery and Physicians and Surgeons of Chicago [Chicago: Biographical Publishing Corporation, 1922], p. 645)
Given the potency of the chemical, radium treatment demanded only small quantities applied for brief periods. In practice this meant placement of a small tube or needle of radium directly on or within the affected area. The idea was that the radium would "burn away" tumors, which seemed more susceptible to the radioactive emissions than healthy tissue. The difficult part was to make certain that the radium damaged only cancerous cells; when this goal was achieved, radium treatment became an effective competitor to surgery.
|Illustration of containers used in radium therapy |
(A. James Larkin, Radium in General Practice [NY: Paul B. Hoeber, 1929], p. 6)
|Title page of L. L. Myers's study|
(University of Iowa Studies in Medicine v. 1, n. 5 [July 1919])
A similar argument was made for many other surgical therapies, which helped encourage physicians to prefer radium treatment over the scalpel. For example, in an era when tonsillectomies were very common an increasing number of physicians applied radium cylinders directly to the tonsils. Doing so removed some of the dangers of infection and helped patients resume normal activities sooner. The same dynamic influenced the treatment of skin disorders and other medical specialties.
***Grinnell received its first radium in the spring of 1920. Weighing only 12.46 milligrams (about one-quarter the size of the sample that the University of Iowa had acquired), Grinnell's radium arrived "cradled in a needle, fastened in a strong box with boxes and boxes and wrappings and wrappings on the outside." This "tiny but mighty" package cost the Grinnell Community Hospital $1507.20, a staggering outlay for a small-town hospital.
|Grinnell Herald, March 12, 1920|
How often and how long Somers pursued radium therapy in Grinnell presently-available records do not make clear. The October 1923 issue of the Grinnell Community Hospital Bulletin devoted a special article to cancer, firmly embracing radium therapy:
The best practice in the treatment of cancer is early removal. It is always preceded by the exposure of the part to Radium where this is feasible, and the area from which the growth is removed is again treated with Radium afterwards. Radium is the best single agent in the treatment of cancers and should be used in all inoperable cases and is the treatment of choice in cancers on the skin.Each year the hospital published data on the number of patients treated and the therapies applied. The February 1923 bulletin, reporting on 1922 admissions, identified 58 "radium cases" that year, compared with 91 surgeries, figures that confirm the hospital's confidence in radium therapy.
The Drake Community Library Local History Archives does not hold a complete run of the Community Hospital Bulletin, so it is difficult to know exactly how long radium continued to be employed as a cancer treatment at the hospital. The February 1931 issue, however, indicates that at some point before 1930 radium had disappeared entirely from the hospital's cupboard of therapies, perhaps because that year the hospital purchased a new x-ray machine intended for therapeutic as well as for diagnostic use. Consequently, the February 1933 report on hospital admissions in 1932 reported 135 surgical patients and 56 treated by x-ray; no use of radium was reported. The following year showed a similar distribution, again with no reference whatever to radium. Figures for 1937 showed nearly as many patients treated with x-ray (120) as with surgery (124), and in 1938 and 1939 patients treated with x-ray therapy outnumbered surgery patients. Evidently the physicians at Community Hospital had decided sometime in the 1920s that radium therapy was no longer a preferred—or even complementary—therapy for cancer. Perhaps the scare occasioned by the 1925 discovery of disease among women who painted radium onto watches helped persuade Grinnell physicians to seek alternative therapies.
|Admission Register of St. Francis Hospital, 1919-1935 (Grinnell Historical Museum)|
After that, Dr. Howell applied radium treatment sporadically, sometimes more than once to the same patient. For example, Mrs. Mary E. Turner entered St. Francis November 14, 1933, was treated with radium, and then dismissed November 18. Two months later (January 13, 1934) she was back in hospital, once again receiving a dose of radium before being sent home the next day. That summer Turner was once again a patient at St. Francis, being admitted August 21 and dismissed Aug 22 after her third radium treatment. J. A. Breeden of Newburg went through two radium treatments at St. Francis, the first occurring in late January 1934 with a follow-up in mid-March. Mrs. J. G. Strovers (Kellogg) and Mrs. Charles Newcomer (Newburg) also both received two radium treatments in 1934. Four other persons underwent at least one treatment at St. Francis in 1933 or 1934, but between the time Mrs. Newcomer was dismissed in late November 1934 and the end of this volume of the St. Francis register (July 31, 1935), no other hospital patients had resort to radium. Without access to the next volume of hospital admissions we cannot know if Dr. Howell continued to use radium therapy, but if he did, his use of radium did not last long, as Howell himself died of a heart attack in 1941.
With so little information, it is difficult to know what to make of Howell's practice, but it appears that his patients may have benefitted from their encounter with radium. Mary Turner, for example, who had had three radium treatments in 1933-1934 lived until 1984 when she died at age 74 "following a lengthy illness." If Howell had treated her for cancer (as the three treatments imply), the radium treatments may well have prolonged her life, even if it was cancer to which she ultimately succumbed. James Breeden did not live so long as Turner, but it was an automobile accident, not illness, that took his life in 1957 when he was 66 years old. Ross Coutts, who apparently had just one encounter with radium therapy, died in 1965 in the Grinnell hospital, but he was then 81. Therefore, it may be that Dr. Howell's St. Francis patients benefited from radium therapy.
Nevertheless, as practice at Grinnell's Community Hospital indicated, the therapeutic use of radium had clearly peaked by 1930, replaced by newer, safer therapies. In its heyday, however, the very word—even without its potent radioactive energy—exerted enormous power across American culture, and was especially prominent in the marketplace, tempting entrepreneurs to associate almost any product with radium.
***Many of these products never came near actual radium, but bore the name in the hope that buyers would eagerly scoop up anything associated with the latest wonder. Dry goods stores, for example, advertised that seamstresses could purchase "radium silk," and clothing stores offered pajamas or petticoats made of "radium silk." As a 1922 advertisement for Grinnell's Brintnalls Dry Goods store put it, "What girl's heart wouldn't be joyous just to feel the soft, clinging Silk in these garments" (Scarlet and Black, December 6, 1922)? "Radium slips," which advertisements admitted were made from rayon satin, were on offer from Younkers in Des Moines, so almost certainly some women in Grinnell wore them. Men's stores in Marshalltown sold cotton socks bumped up by being called "Radium 100" or "Radium 400," so these too could likely be found in Grinnell dressers in the 1920s.
|Advertisement from Des Moines Daily News, May 25, 1912|
|Headline from the Ames Daily Tribune, April 1, 1932|
|Advertisement from Mason City Globe-Gazette, October 21, 1930|
|Advertisement from the Scarlet and Black, October 6, 1918|
|Advertisement from the Chicago Tribune, March 9, 1919|
|Advertisement from Des Moines Register, December 13, 1925|
|Journal of Iowa State Medical Society, vol. 11(1921)|
But then radium's moment in the sun passed. Even the journal Radium, which had been born on the eve of the element's explosion into medical practice, closed down, its last issue published in 1925, the same year that the public heard about "Radium Girls." Soon the country's newspapers reported the sad tale of Eben Byers's deadly embrace of Radithor, further dulling the gloss on radium's future. As the Great Depression bore down on the country and a new war gradually came into view, radium—dangerous and expensive—lost its hold on the medical profession. The early deaths of enthusiasts like A. James Larkin did nothing to stall radium's death spiral. No longer did hospitals need to spend large sums for tiny tubes easily swallowed, thrown into the toilet, or otherwise lost. Radium's replacement, X-ray therapy, was also expensive, but provided a more controlled dose to aim at tumorous tissue without the same risk of loss, and rapidly edged radium out of medical practice. Certainly in Grinnell the Community Hospital abandoned radium therapy already in the 1920s; why it made a brief comeback at St. Francis Hospital in the 1930s is unclear, but after the death of Dr. C. W. Howell, radium therapy in Grinnell seems to have come finally to an end.
Public fascination with this wonder remedy also passed. Suddenly radium butter and radium silk seemed much less appealing than they had seemed a decade earlier.