Two years ago at a waste facility in Norristown, Pennsylvania, the radiation-detection alarm suddenly blared. The cause, nestled in the debris, was a nearly century-old medical kit, the contents of which included a small lead box. The heavy container contained capsules of radium adding up to a gram. According to David Allard, the director of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Radiation Protection, radium alarms at the state’s landfills and waste-processing plants often get set off by small objects — for example, old watch dials or crucifixes painted with glow-in-the-dark radium-infused paint — but a gram is a “truly out of the ordinary” amount. It’s enough to cause concern.
In the hopes of identifying where the material came from, Allard’s office circulated a flier (“We are concerned about the health of anyone who may have handled” the radium capsules), interviewed the contractors who hauled the waste out of a gated community in West Chester, and alerted health officials to keep an eye out for anyone with unusual blisters. But they came up empty-handed. “Some grandkid or whatever finds it when cleaning out his grandfather’s attic and drops it in a dumpser,” is what Allard imagines happened. The medical kit’s origins remain a mystery.
Such a situation of unknown, unaccounted-for radium is exactly what Frank Hartman labored to prevent. “Radium lost must be found,” Hartman insisted in an entry in his diary, held at the library of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia. During the early to mid 20th century, Hartman was a radium dealer, and his papers include price lists that he would bring to institutions such as the American Oncological Hospital and other medical facilities that might want to pay the steep price for radium that could be used for the newest cancer therapies.
Working at a time before the government instituted radium control programs, he insisted on giving tutorials about safe-handling practices to those who bought his product. When they didn’t heed his advice, he would grab his radium detector and, clad in gloves and rubber boots, poke through the hospital or clinic to locate radium that had gone missing. Hartman was unofficially known as “the Radium Hound,” and his diary, mostly covering the 1940s and ’50s, chronicles more than 120 episodes in and around Philadelphia when he found lost radium-filled needles in incinerators, mopped up spills in laboratories, and otherwise recovered the costly stuff.
“There are possibly three or four individuals in the country who sell radium,” the Daily News wrote in a July 1955 profile. “Hartman thinks there are no others, however, who both sell and ‘service’ it.”
What could go wrong?
Radium is creepy. Its danger is invisible. Its power is measured in a half-life that lasts about 1600 years in its most stable form: in a hundred years, almost all its potential to harm remains intact; in 1000, nearly three-quarters persists. “Either X-rays or radium — and the two were very closely conflated — was the scientific thing that taught people to wait for the other shoe to drop,” says Matthew Lavine, author of The First Atomic Age: Scientists, Radiations, and the American Public, 1895–1945.
These days, we might pour an artificial sweetener in our coffee or hold a cell phone to our ear and vaguely wonder, “Will it turn out, 50 years down the line, that this is bad for me?” Radium and its cousins created that category of fear in people. Before it, if there were, say, a factory polluting a lake, “The implication was that you can clean it up,” says Lavine. “You shut the factory and the lake clears up. Whereas this stuff just sits there.” Radium is going to “stay there forever, unless you literally move all the dirt away.”
After it was discovered in 1898, though, radium’s first associations were not with its consequences but with its promises. It was marketed as something healthy and marvelous. It was put into face creams and toothpastes. Radithor, a brand of radium-infused water, would energize you. Curie Hair Tonic would prevent hair loss. Those knickknacks coated with radium paint that today set off radiation detectors at Pennsylvania waste facilities turn up so regularly because they fed the early-20th-century radium fad.
People were fascinated with radium for a simple reason: it was unlike any other substance that had been discovered or developed. Since the element was utterly new, the benefits could be of the never-before-seen variety. A radium emanator sitting on the counter in your home to produce radiation-infused water signaled all this: novelty, advancement, miraculousness.
The popular craze had a specifically medical component. “In the 1920s and ’30s, radium used to get a lot of publicity,” says David Cantor, a historian in the Office of History at the National Institutes of Health. “When radium arrived in town it would get newspaper coverage.” The acquisition of radium was “something a hospital would use to publicize itself.” Yet its powers were often portrayed as limitless, its effect a cure-all. “A lot of physicians were concerned about this [hyperbole] — that it would undermine its true value.”
In a paper titled “Radium and the Origins of the National Cancer Institute,” Cantor notes that during the same period, debates over radium’s effectiveness “intensified as large numbers of physicians flooded into the field.” Serious concerns grew “among cancer agencies about inexperienced physicians taking up the therapy without sufficient understanding of its dangers, or the complexities of dosage, filtration, and administration.” And of course, some people realized they could make a tidy profit from recommending the high-profile treatment.
And there, at the intersection of promise and danger, stood Frank Hartman, giving popular lectures at colleges such as Villanova, making genteel sales calls at doctors’ offices to hand out pamphlets listing the kinds of radium needles available (“Prices upon request”), and then labeling the first page of his diary “Memorandums of radium work which could not be trusted to any one but myself; due to the hazards and risks involved.”
After one doctor was exposed to an exploding radium tube, Hartman wrote, “I trembled with fear, scrubbing Dr. Cleaver in the bath tub at my office, with soap and alcohol.… But how the doctor is able to live, or even myself, without some harm I cannot explain.” Lavine considers him an “emblematic figure, because he’s displaying all the various reactions people have to these things, which is to say: extreme fear, extreme trepidation, but also extraordinary optimism.”
In August 1947, Hartman was summoned to the American Oncological Hospital at 33rd Street and Powelton Avenue in West Philly to assess a radium spill he described as “the most pityful sight I ever wanted to see or expect to see.” Despite that dire assessment, the hospital delayed dealing with it for five months — Hartman intimates in his diary that the cause was insurance haggling — and then the newspapers got a hold of the story.
Hospital officials dissembled, saying the situation had been under control and no danger existed. But an Evening Bulletin reporter contacted the man finally given the go-ahead to clean up the mess, and this is the quotation from Hartman that appeared in the February 13, 1948, edition of the paper: “It was the worst thing that could have happened next to an atomic bomb explosion.” Which is pretty much the most inflammatory pronouncement he could have made, and he surely knew that. The reason was likely spite born of anger and exasperation over the delays. Part of his January 27, 1948, diary entry reads:
In these past five months I found shoes of many of the doctors and physicists radioactive. Why didn’t they keep this room closed as I had requested? Radium is in the corridors; in fact, it was traced into the room where films are kept. I swear I never want another job like this for the rest of my days.
As Lavine points out, Hartman shows how people could hold simultaneously contradictory notions about this astonishing element: being both fascinated and terrified. And the American Oncological Hospital incident is just one of 120 recorded in his diary where Hartman is trying to contain the danger lurking in the product he was selling. Obviously the peril wasn’t imminent. Members of the medical staff, after all, were blithely walking around in contaminated hallways, and nobody was collapsing as a result. The danger was elsewhere, waiting.
Do no harm
Joel O. Lubenau met Frank Hartman a few times between 1965 and 1967, when Lubenau was working in the state health department’s Philadelphia office as a certified health physicist, the title for a specialist in radiation protection. “Frank was probably the first health physicist in Pennsylvania, even though that title didn’t exist at the time,” says Lubenau, now retired. “Anyone he sold to had to sit down with him and take a short course on radium protection, and he never charged any of the people who asked for his assistance to find radium or clean it up.”
In the end, though, the efforts of one man could never have been enough. Because of the radium fad, the element was in toiletries and in pendants hanging around people’s necks. Hartman’s 120 diary entries are a list of only those times when someone knew to summon the Radium Hound. “We can’t turn a rock in Pennsylvania and not find an old radium site,” says Allard, the radiation bureau director.
Radium has a spectral quality. And it’s hard to fathom. If a box of it gets dropped in a dumpster, you won’t feel it when you’re nearby. Its energy is logarithmic: you can be six feet away from it and be fine, then you can move to six inches away and still be fine, and then you move slightly closer and it’s suddenly causing you grave harm. One can imagine this mystery fueling all the stages of people’s reactions to radium, as Lavine identifies them: the fascination, the commodification, the backlash when, as Lavine puts it, “People got tired of waiting for the miracle to happen.”
Now Allard and his radiation-protection team are the ones mopping it up in Pennsylvania. What they find can sound startling to the layperson. He tells about a plant in Lock Haven, designated as contaminated in 2008, that once manufactured aircraft instruments, many of which were coated with radium paint so they’d glow: one building razed, 543 tons of soil carted away. Or a whole neighborhood in Lansdowne that needed cleaning up because in the 1930s a University of Pennsylvania physics professor enriched radium in the basement of his house; five decades later, after the contamination was discovered, the house was demolished, the sidewalks and portions of the street torn up, the sewer line replaced.
Frank Hartman didn’t know about these radium sites, but even when he tried to prevent radium from creeping into the future, he wasn’t always completely successful. Consider the building that housed the American Oncological Hospital, the site of that “most pityful” spill where months later Hartman detected radium on doctors’ shoes and in the corridors. It’s now the Psychology, Sociology, and Anthropology Building on Drexel University’s campus.
“There’s still some residual contamination that eventually will need to be cleaned up,” says Allard of the building. What made his office check it out now, after all these years? A recent perusal of Hartman’s diary.
Theresa Everline is a Philadelphia freelance writer interested in arts, culture, and urban affairs. A former editor-in-chief of Philadelphia City Paper, she has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post’s travel section, Next City, and Preservation Online, and is a contributor to SmartPlanet.com. Her essay about living in Cairo was selected as a “notable essay” for The Best American Travel Writing 2005.
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Correction: The original version of this article stated that radium’s half-life of 1600 years meant it would have half its potential in 800 years. Sorry: that should have been three-quarters, and the editor takes the blame for this. Updated with a link to a definition of half-life.