Healing Energy: Radium in America, a New Digital Exhibition at the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Dr. Robert Abbe (1851-1928)
Dr. Robert Abbe (1851-1928)

Throughout history, the Fellows of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia have been at the forefront of many advancements in the history of medicine, not least of whom was Dr. Robert Abbe, a pioneer not only in the field of plastic surgery, but also in the use of radium in medical therapy.



Jeffrey Womack, a Library volunteer and doctoral student at the University of Houston, and Tristan Dahn, Digital Projects Librarian at the Historical Medical Library, explore the discovery of radium by Pierre and Marie Curie, and tell the story of early experimentations with radium, including Dr. Abbe’s self-experimentation, and the use of radium in such “health” products as the “Radium Emanator.”

Pamphlet advertising The Saubermann Radium Emanation Activator, circa 1900.

Abbe’s long correspondence with Marie Curie culminated with her visit to the College in May 1921, during which Curie donated the piezo-electrometer currently on display in the Hutchinson alcove of the Mütter Museum.

Quartz piezo electrometer, donated to the Mütter Museum by Marie Curie in 1921.
Quartz piezo electrometer, donated to the Mütter Museum by Marie Curie in 1921.

The exhibit may be viewed at http://bit.ly/1Qpl4qA or by going to http://www.cppdigitallibrary.org/exhibits/.

Jeffrey Womack is a doctoral student at the University of Houston, completing his dissertation on the development of radium and x-ray therapies between 1895 and 1935, under the direction of Martin Melosi. His recent publications include “Nuclear Weapons, Dystopian Deserts, and Science Fiction Cinema,” in Vulcan: The International Journal of the Social History of Military Technology 1, No. 1 (2013; Bart Hacker, editor), and “Miracle in the Sky: Solar Power Satellites,” in American Energy Policy in the 1970s, (Robert Lifset, editor; Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014). He is also a contributor to the Encyclopedia of American Environmental History. Jeffrey is currently based in the Philadelphia area, where he teaches at Drexel University.

Tristan Dahn is a recent graduate of the Library and Information Studies program at McGill University. He joined the Library staff in September 2015, and is currently overseeing the digitization of 20th century state medical journals through the Library’s partnership in the Medical Heritage Library. Tristan also is leading the Library’s experiments in the digital humanities.

Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, and the Mystery of the Smudged Date

by Karie Youngdahl, Project Director, History of Vaccines

Robert Abbe (1851-1928), a New York surgeon and Fellow of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, was an avid collector of medical and archaeological objects. Here at the College’s Historical Medical Library, we hold a number of Abbe’s items, including mementos from his friendship with Marie Curie. Of particular interest to the History of Vaccines project is Abbe’s collection of Louis Pasteur memorabilia, much of it dating from the 1922 centenary celebrations of Pasteur’s birth.

The collection includes a scrapbook with photographs of Pasteur and his family, French postage stamps featuring Pasteur as a national hero, postcards of monuments dedicated to the scientist, and commemorative tags picturing key moments from his life. However, what stands out in the collection is a letter in Pasteur’s handwriting. The letter is intriguing both because it involves several of the 19th century’s most eminent scientific figures and because it presents something of a mystery.

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