I recently encountered an odd thing: a glass bottle of water that promised all kinds of health benefits if you drank it regularly. Trying to sell water because of some supposed health benefit was not surprising since most brands of bottled water today claim to boost health in some way. What wassurprising, though, was the purported source of these health benefits—radium.
Cole’s Radium Springs Water, ca. 1925-1932
“This water contains 15 mache units of radioactive energy per litre per second when bottled at the springs.
It is used as a remedy for rheumatism, eczema and other skin diseases, nervous diseases, gouty conditions, stomach and kidney disorders and as a general tonic to improve health.”
The bottle I had encountered was not radioactive. Although the water had been drawn from a radioactive spring, that radioactivity would have completely dissipated by the time the bottle reached a store.
This bottle was from the late 1920s and gives a glimpse into a strange health fad that swept the U.S. in the first few decades of the twentieth century: drinking radioactive water. I became interested in this bottle after encountering it in our artifact vault one day. Why would people have drunk radioactive water?
It turns out that people not only drank radioactive water on a daily basis; they were eager to do so. Radium water was one of the biggest health crazes in the U.S. in the early 20th century. Its popularity died off when industrialist and millionaire socialite Eben Byers died due to radium poisoning in April 1932 after drinking Radithor—whichwasradioactive—daily for years. His death was widely reported in papers across the country, dampening—but not killing—public hopes that radium would turn out to be good for health.
By Sam LaRussa from United States of America – Radithor, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57841049
This radium health craze began with Marie Curie’s discovery of radium itself. Not long after the discovery in 1898, scientists and doctors began experimenting with how this new element interacted with the human body. They quickly discovered exposure to radium reduced the presence of cancerous tumors and promptly created early forms of chemotherapy. One method—known as “the sipping cure”—involved infusing water with radium. A patient with cancer would drink a dose of the radioactive water every 20 minutes for several hours. Doctors were widely in support of this method, at least for treating cancer.
The popular press took the experimental practices of doctors investigating cancer and ran with them. But rather than see radium as a potential healing agent, the broader discourse became about how radium provides energy more generally, adding to what the body already had. Instead of just destroying unhealthy cells, the argument went, radium could also strengthen already healthy cells.
Newspaper accounts circulated widely, telling of ordinary people becoming extraordinary after drinking radium water. One such account told of a down-and-out young man dissatisfied with his life. After drinking a vial of radium water, he felt full of energy and literally began glowing. Suddenly, employers and lovers alike courted him en masse. Radium gave his life energy.
Another account featured the “Sunshine Dinner” held at MIT in 1904. This dinner became legend in newspaper reports across the country. Guests were given cocktails with small vials of radium. The lights were turned off and the cocktails glowed like fireflies in the dark room as guests toasted and drank. Most guests reported that the event was interesting, but they did not believe there was any particular health benefit from the radium. Newspapers, however, injected this story with more imaginative power. These “liquid sunshine” cocktails, as they became known, had energized the dinner guests as though they had taken a bite out of the sun: their bodies glowed and they began sweating sparks. In short, journalists said, their bodies had been supercharged.
These accounts contained as much—and usually more—fiction than fact, but they spoke directly to a host of anxieties in this era. In a historical moment when virtually everything seemed flipped upside down, many people were thrown off kilter. Faster forms of transportation and methods of communication compressed the world and sped working life up, especially when combined with new technologies and industrial practices, like the assembly line. Efficiency experts were also telling everyone from housewives to lawyers to students to work efficiently to prevent fatigue from wasted energy.
Radium promised a way out of all these problems. It promised to rid society of these growing anxieties about productivity.
It’s no coincidence that another radium craze happening at this same time was the radium watches. The early twentieth century was probably the first time the public became obsessed with time—keeping time, being on time, being efficient with time—and so watches and clocks proliferated. Some of these watches featured numbers painted with radium to glow in the dark—to keep time even in total darkness.
As the historian Carolyn Thomas de la Peña explains in her book The Body Electric,three themes emerged as central to how people (mis)understood radium in the first decades of the 20th century. First, radium promised to overthrow the laws of thermodynamics since radium seemed to continuously give off energy without entropy. Second, radium created energy far in excess of anything previously imaginable. And finally, that abundance of energy could be absorbed by the body to not only provide an immediate boost to mental and physical energy, but also to make that boost permanent.
There was just one problem: radium ore was extremely expensive, potentially the most expensive substance on earth at the time. Only the very wealthy and well-funded research laboratories had access to it. Ordinary folks could not host their own “Sunshine Dinners”—each one of those “liquid sunshine” cocktails cost thousands of dollars. If the supposed health benefits of radium were to reach the masses of enthusiastic believers, there needed to be a less expensive alternative.
The high cost of radium led to two developments: the first was a host of products that claimed to be radioactive, but which were simply marketing gimmicks. Adding the word “radium” would probably make anything sell faster at this time. Many opportunists made a lot of money selling such snake oil.
The other development was radium water, which promised a way for ordinary people to finally have a taste of the “liquid sunshine” before only accessible to the wealthy. At first, radium water was sold in bottles, filled from hot springs soon after scientists discovered that such hot springs were radioactive. Cole’s Radium Springs Water was one example.
When consumers learned they were not getting truly radioactive water, they wanted a better alternative. That alternative was the radium ore revigator, a ceramic jug lined with real radium ore to make freshly radioactive water each day by infusing the water as it sat overnight. Several hundred thousand of these revigators were sold between about 1924 and 1932.
“The millions of tiny rays that are continuously given off by this ore penetrate the water and form this great HEALTH BENEFIT–RADIO-ACTIVITY. All the next day the family is provided with two gallons of real, healthful radioactive water…nature’s way to health.” Radium Ore Revigator Brochure
The American Medical Association, fearing the public was being swindled by fraudulent products, established guidelines that radium water infusers needed to generate more than 2 µCi of radon per liter of water in a 24-hour period in order to get AMA approval. Most devices did not generate this much radiation. The radium ore revigator did not meet this demand in spite of having real radium in it.
Radithor, on the other hand, contained 2 µCi of radon in each ½-ounce bottle. Eben Byers, the millionaire socialite, drank upwards of 4 ounces of Radithor each day until his death from radium poisoning in 1932.
The death of Eben Byers also signaled, for the most part, the demise of radium water and the idea that radium had health benefits, or, at least health benefits that outweighed its dangers. To most modern observers, the whole radium water episode appears insane, a case of people doing crazy things to their own bodies just because some other people claimed it was good for them.
But this fad—as well as every other health fad that promises miraculous health benefits—speaks to much deeper desire to break out of the limits of the biological body, to transcend the body’s inherent vulnerability. Instead of a body that is frail and vulnerable to injury, fatigue, and disease, these fads promise new bodies, bodies that won’t fail us or break down. At times when medicine is focused on curing the sick and mending the broken, these fads asked whether we could avoid that sickness and brokenness completely.
This has been one of the defining drives of modernity. This relentless focus on productivity and breaking free of the limits of the biological body has fueled both scientific research and popular imagination. It’s an obsessive mission to produce bodies that can always do more in a time where work and productivity reign supreme.
Nick Williams is a UMN food fellow and Assistant Curator at the Bakken Museum in Minneapolis, where an encounter with a bottle of Cole’s Radium Springs Water sparked his interest in this history.