Radium woo: the bad health science of yesteryear wants to irradiate your colon

Modern quackery might be full of terrible, life-threatening health advice, but it's really not got a patch on the golden age of radium-based medicine, when the newly discovered radioactive material was held to cure practically anything, especially in suppository form. Yowch.
If this was 15 May 1915, we could all be attending the Illinois State Medical Society's annual meeting at the Masonic Temple in Springfield, Illinois.And if we went to booth 18, we could've bought some fine, newish radium-based products that would be enjoyed drinking or bathing in. And all for the cause of human progress, the radium-based nonsense promised cures for all sorts of ills: rheumatism, dandruff, dull teeth, gout, sexual problems, general malaise, and on and on...

Many of these companies employed the real stuff, affecting thousands of people, radium-based cure-alls being ingested, injected, applied and bathed-in. For example, there were numerous companies distributing 'radium water" (such as "Radithor" by William J.A. Bailey's company), radium suppositories ("in a cocoa butter base"), toothpaste ("Doramad", distributed by Doramad Radioaktive Zohncreme during WWII, to Germans), cosmetics ("Tho-Radia"), and many different varieties of radium-enriched healing belts (to be worn or slept on). There were plenty of other products that used the "radium" name but didn't actually use the substance itself, further selling the idea of its usefulness on the individual level. There was radium beer, nail clippers, starch, cigars, polish, headache tablets, razor blades, butter and of course, condoms.

Radioactive Suppository Sex Aids & Radium Toothpaste: Shining Lethal Nonsense (via IO9)


  1. Author Sinclair Lewis had medical treatments — I don’t remember if it was acne or sinus troubles — that involved radium. They didn’t kill him — the drinking did that — but they kind of cooked his face.

  2. I wonder what they will say about our radiation and chemo treatments in the future.
    Seems that the rule for ye olde medicine is that if it was expensive, rare, neato like liquid mercury or glowy like radium phosphorus mixes it must have magic powers of healing.

  3. This just reminds me of the huge tragedy that was the closing of the Minneapolis Museum of Questionable Medical Devices. It had all sorts of machines for either irradiating or electrocuting or bleeding just about every part of your body–for health! Radiation was good for the eyes, would make your shoes fit better, invigorate your sex life, balance your humors and cure women of hysteria!

    Somewhere I still have the summary of the ancient but working phrenology machine they had there… Good times.

    i know the founder of the museum passed on. I hope all those wacky (and often dangerous) devices found a good home.

    1. It had all sorts of machines for either irradiating or electrocuting or bleeding just about every part of your body–for health!

      Bleeding has actual medical uses.

      1. Antinous/Moderator #26

        True… bleeding has medical uses. If a man has too much iron in his blood (a common condition, and bad for the heart) bleeding is one way to correct the problem.

        As far as mercury, I remember reading an interview with Groucho Marx, where he talked about it as the standard treatment for VD in the old vaudeville days. The saying was: “one night with Venus, and a lifetime with Mercury” or something like that.

      1. “never wanted to see together”? There’s people somewhere on the Internet that’ll pay to see it used…

  4. #2: I’m guessing they will say that radiation and chemotherapy worked much better than what we had before. I’m also hoping they’ll say they didn’t work nearly as well as what they’ll have by then.

    Seriously, we’re comparing effective cancer treatments to radium suppositories “for sex power?” This is somehow a contest?

  5. Yeah Baby! Vitalized like an atomic bomb!

    On a slightly less lighthearted note, to me at least, you don’t have to set the Wayback Machine to 1915 to find similar quackery. I received radiation therapy, via radium tipped swabs shoved up my nose, in Houston Texas in 1965. All to help me open my middle ear by shrinking the tissue around the opening of my eustachian tubes.

    This therapy was pioneered by doctors trying to make it easier for Russian submarine sailors to clear their ears when diving. It was apparently popular for about 15 minutes in the U.S., and I was lucky enough to meet the right doctor at the right time to receive the therapy.

    It involved shoving a metal rod with a cotton swab on the end, dipped in radium paste, up my nose and into the opening of the eustachian tube. I had to lie in a reclining chair with my head tipped back for three sessions of about 15 minutes each.

    The end result was that it worked like a charm, and I can now SCUBA dive or fly in a plane and clear my ears just by thinking about it. Seriously. I’d recommend it to everybody, except for the brain cancer angle. It seems like that is an unfortunate side effect, but I’m 53 now and golden, so far.

    The ENT specialist I saw, as an adult, after doing a little research on the subject, said it might be prudent to get a checkup every five years or so, but that’s a small price to pay for progress, right? Um, right?

  6. A doctor shoved radium pellets up Frank Zappa’s nose as a child to treat his sinus problems. We will never know for sure if this hastened his demise from prostate cancer in 1993, but it seems reasonable to me that it did. It’s a wonder the species has thus far survived such mystical quackery.

  7. [Squick warning]
    If you want modern quackery that’s actively harmful, there’s always “black salve“. It’s used for getting rid of skin growths such as cancers or noses.

  8. A radioactive suppository, hmm? Sounds like some “double-trouble” (the kind that I might like if the ad is true) :O

  9. It’s not quite in the same league of lethality, but I still encounter the advertising and sale of such quackery as “magnetical” belts, and various devices claiming to harness the miraculous properties of “bio-rays” and Tibetan Ox Horn.

  10. Didn’t Marie Curie’s fingers fall off before she died? Didn’t she love to sleep with a vial of radium glowing by her bed. She gave up a lot for science. Her life.

    It is similar to the use of mercury in medicine. People thought that anything as beautiful as quicksliver had to be good for them. Luckily for us poor people both liquid mercury and radium were so expensive, at least in the beginning, that they mainly harmed the wealthy.

    1. Knowledge sometimes comes at a very high price indeed: how do you think that we have discovered which mushrooms are edible, and which are deadly poisons?

      1. I’ve often wondered about that. I figure it was usually adolescent males who did so as they’re often the ones who get hungriest, or to gross out their friends, win a bet or to try to impress chicks.

  11. My dad used to tell us of the radium dial clock factory in Vermont, where artists would lick the lettering brushes to straighten the bristles while hand painting the dial-numbering made with radium paint, so you could tell what time it was at night.

    1. Anon #18: Their story is also told in passing, in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel ‘Slapstick’, IIRC: they all eventually contracted cancers of the tongue, larynx, and stomach, IIRC.

  12. We laugh at the quackery of the past, but look at all the pharmaceuticals being advertised on tv with their horrifying side effects. Some of our older folks are walking around with three or four medications interacting with each other. Everyone’s got a story about how either they or a relative or friend was harmed by a pharmaceutical.
    How will future generations look back at us? Will they be posting year 2014 levitra or abilify commercials and laughing at them the way we laugh at radium suppositories?

    1. Instead of laughing at “levitra or abilify commercials,” it’s possible that future generations might be laughing at some of the comments on this thread … possibly even this one.

  13. I sit reading this and drinking my fluoridated chlorine enhanced organic coffee and eating my genetically modified fried tomatoes and free range eggs.

  14. Many years ago, I worked in the technology library on a university campus. One day, while shelf-reading, I came across a booklet published in the late 40s by the Atomic Energy Commission. It was about the joys and rewards of uranium mining.

    The booklet was illustrated in cartoon style, and featured a happy man bounding around the desert in his truck, reacting with glee when his Geiger counter started ticking madly, picking up radioactive rocks in his hand, and amassing an impressive pile of glowing rocks in his pickup’s flatbed. Hey, it’s the new Gold Rush! Your fortune awaits! Plus, you’ll be helping your country with a vital national-security need!

    My librarian’s ethics prevented me from simply pocketing the booklet, since it was part of the library’s collection. But there’s been many a moment when I wish I had the thing. It was such an amazing monument to American hubris.

  15. @Allia #17 – Mercury has been misused in quackery for centuries but it does have valid uses in real medicine. One example being Salvarsan, the first effective intervention against syphilis.

    The name of the game is ‘Differential Toxicity’, the idea that the poison you’re administering is nastier to the pathogen than to the patient. If the disease is fatal when untreated, you might contemplate extremely toxic compounds…

    And in this age of antibiotic resistance, the only antibiotics we’ve got left cause kidney damage, nerve damage, and systemic toxicity that makes Salvarsan begin to look attractive again.

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