Radium: a medical treatment in the early 20th century

Marie Curie and her husband and lab partner, Pierre. From the Frank Hartman papers, MSS 2/340.
Marie Curie and her husband and lab partner, Pierre. From the Frank Hartman papers, MSS 2/340.

Early in the 20th century there was a medical practice that revolved around a new treatment involving the radioactive material called radium. After the discovery of radioactivity in 1896 by French physicist and Nobel Prize winner, Antoine Henri Becquerel, many other scientists began to search for uses of radioactivity. Becquerel would take Marie Curie under his tutelage as a doctoral student where they pursued the discovery of radium and other radioactive minerals. Only two years after Becquerel’s breakthrough, Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, discovered radium.

Marie Curie was a Polish-born and French-naturalized physicist and chemist, as well as the first woman in history to win the Nobel Prize, and the only woman to win twice. Marie would marry Pierre Curie, also a French Physicist and Nobel Prize winner.  Marie and Pierre Curie found radium in a sample of uraninite in 1898. After the discovery, radium was used to cure many ailments.

With little to no regulation of radium and other treatments in the early 20th century, ambitious medical doctors and salesmen looked to make products using radium to cure many ailments. These products ranged from additives in toothpaste to “Revigator,” which was water with radium dissolved into it.  Patients would drink from the container throughout the day to cure their ailments.  By the 1940s and 50s, however, the practice of using radium as a medical treatment had been reduced to very few applications due to its high price, small quantity, and the dangers of handling radium.

The Historical Medical Library holds a variety of resources on radium, including the Frank Hartman papers.  Hartman, a radium specialist and consultant, spent most of his life inspecting, selling, consulting, or hunting down and returning radium. As a “radium hound,” Hartman had firsthand experiences of dealing with and careful handling of radium in the early 20th century.  Other resources include photographs, a scrapbook on Marie Curie, medical trade ephemera, and numerous books dealing with radium treatments and the development of radium-related cancer.

The links below will direct you to the catalog record or finding aid of the resource listed.  Remember to check our library catalog and finding aids – these are only some of the great sources we have about radium as a medical treatment!

Primary sources

docbox-croppedThe Frank Hartman papers are a rich resource in studying radium as a medical treatment.  Listed below are some of the highlights of the collection.
View the full finding aid: Frank Hartman papers
Call number: MSS 2/0340

  • Certificates and qualifications, 1893-1955: Birth certificate, military discharge papers, etc.
  • Frank Hartman radium services records, undated: Radium products, applications, and price lists
  • Radium diary, 1942-1956: Notes the importance of radium, dangers, proper handling, newspaper clippings, and radium hunting
  • Scrapbook, undated: “Do’s” and “do not’s” in handling radium
  • Lecture notes regarding the Radium Products Company, 1925-1940: Information on radioactivity
  • Notes regarding meeting with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to discuss investigation of radium sales in the 1930s,
  • Hazards of medical radiation, undated: Dangers of radiation
  • Radon ointment, 1944-1946: Later usage of radium in the form of radon ointment
  • Suplee broadcast, 1936: Transcript of interview with Hartman about radium
  • Villanova College presentations regarding radium handling, 1937-1939
  • Newspaper clippings regarding radium and issues of radioactivity, 1930-1976
  • Radium promotional materials, 1920s
  • Photographs
    • Marie Curie, International Congress of Physics, Rome, 1920
    • Marie Curie, visit to the United States, 1921: Marie Curie meeting President Harding
    • Marie Curie, announcement of death, 1934: Photos of Marie Curie days before her passing. She refused to stop doing research in her lab with the material that would eventually cause her death until she was finally admitted to a hospital.
    • Marie Curie,  general photographs, undated
    • Young Marie Curie (Skłodowska), undated
    • Marie Curie with Pierre, undated
    • Irene Curie and Frederic Joliot, 1937
    • Marie Curie’s daughter and husband. Both Nobel Prize winners and part of the prolific family of science.
    • Curie family and history of radium (album), 1960-1963
    • Röntgen, Wilhelm Conrad, 1894.  Röntgen discovered X-Rays (Röntgen Rays).
    • Radium City, Northwest Territory, 1934-1945.  Mining operations for radium took place in the early 20th century.

docbox-croppedMemoranda of Marie Curie (scrapbook), 1898-1926, Robert Abbe papers
Call number: MSS 2/0146



docbox-croppedRadium Chemical Company medical trade ephemera, ca. 1913-1925
Call number: Medical trade ephemera, R


Secondary sources

book-croppedRadiotherapy and Phototherapy, Including Radium and High-Frequency Currents
by Charles Warrenne Allen, 1904
Radiotherapy photos and information.
Call number: Qgg 15

book-croppedMalignant disease and its treatment by radium (4 volumes)
by Stanford Cade, 1948-1952
Detailed information on bodies affected by cancer, radium treatments and the techniques, accompanied with images.
Call number: Cg 367a.1

book-croppedRadium, and other radio-active substances
by William Joseph Hammer, 1903
The use of radium in florescence.
Call number: Qgg 75

book-croppedCancer of the Breast and its Treatment
by William Sampson Handley, 1922
Development of cancer and its treatment.
Call number: GGd 29a

book-croppedRadium therapy in cancer at the Memorial Hospital, New York (first report: 1915-1916)
by Henry Harrington Janeway, 1917
Call number: Cg 156


book-croppedX-rays and Radium in the Treatment of Diseases of the Skin
by George M. Mackee, 1938
Call number: Jb 118b


book-croppedPractical radium: the practical uses of radium in the treatment of obstinate forms of disease
by Heber Robarts, 1909
Radium history in medicine.
Call number: Qgg 37

book-croppedRadium in Cancer and Other Diseases
by Frank Edward Simpson, [1926]
Call number: Qgg 182


by Louis Wickham, 1910
Call number: Qgg 44.2


*Content written by Patrick Elgert, Temple University Cultural Fieldwork Initiative intern