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Discovering Odd Facts When Researching A Novel, by DE Johnson

One of my true pleasures in writing historical novels is finding odd facts to share. My most recent novel, Detroit Breakdown, sent me down a rabbit hole that I didn’t want to leave. My protagonist was stuck in an insane asylum called Eloise Hospital, which, at the time (1912), was experimenting with radium on tubercular patients.

In the early twentieth century, scientists discovered that most of the world’s “healing hot springs” were radioactive. Radon gas (the by-product of radium deteriorating) was leaching into the water. Some people thought the springs healed people. The springs were radioactive. Ipso facto, radiation heals! Soon experiments commenced using radiation to cure health problems. Success was found with both tuberculosis and cancer. Radiation became a sensation on par with electricity in the late nineteenth century and the telegraph fifty years earlier.

As I researched the radium treatments at Eloise, I started coming across strange curatives that used radium or uranium. The more I looked, the weirder they got. Consider the following:

The Revigator (1912 – 1930s) 

A uranium-lined water jar that would irradiate water overnight. Their advertising claimed, “The millions of tiny rays that are continuously given off by this ore penetrate the water and form this great HEALTH ELEMENT – RADIO-ACTIVITY. All the next day the family is provided with two gallons of real, healthful radioactive water… nature’s way to health.” The Revigator Company recommended a daily minimum of six large glasses. It was a smash. They opened branches across the United States and sold tens of thousands of water jars to the public. Not only were Revigators irradiating the water, they also released large amounts of other toxic elements, such was arsenic and lead, into the water.

Radithor (1918–1932) 

Radiothor, the most successful of the radioactive curatives, with approximately 400,000 bottles sold, was made of distilled water with a high concentration of two different radium isotopes. Patients were to drink a bottle after a meal. It was advertised to cure stomach cancer and mental illness, as well as restore “vigor and vitality” (a common theme of radium curatives). A playboy/industrialist named Eben Byers was Radithor’s best-known victim. Byers hurt himself falling from a train berth in 1927 and his doctor recommended Radithor to help him heal. (Not coincidentally, doctors received a 17% kickback from Radithor prescriptions – and the stuff wasn’t cheap at $30 a case.) After the first bottle, Byers felt peppier. He figured that if one bottle made him feel better, three would really work. He set out on a three-bottle-a-day regimen of Radithor. When Byers died a painful death from radiation poisoning in 1932, The Wall Street Journal ran this headline over their article: The Radium Water Worked Until His Jaw Came Off

Degnen’s Radioactive Eye Applicator (1910s)

Created by M.L. Degnen, the inventor of the Radio-Active Solar Pad, this product, which looks like a pair of wire-rim glasses with opaque lenses, was available in three strengths, and was advertised to cure headaches and difficulty in focusing, as well as nearsight, farsight, and oldsight. It was recommended that the user close his eyes when using the Applicator.

Radione Tablets (1920s)

“Strength of Iron – Energy of Radium.” Just what they sound like – Radium tablets. For energy! (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. See Vita Radium suppositories and Radiothor for indications.)

Radium Bread (1920s)

Baked by the Hippman-Blach Company in what is now the Czech Republic, this bread was made with radium-enriched water.

Tho-Radia Face Cream (1930s)

Popular in France, Tho-Radia made a full line of beauty products and perfumes containing both thorium chloride and radium. Is your skin dull, listless? Want a little shine? Try Tho-Radia! The man the company claimed invented the product line, Doctor Alfred Curie, was not a member of the famed Curie family, nor was he even likely a real person.

The Scrotal Radioendocrinator (1930s)

My second favorite product. For a mere $150, you could purchase this gold-plated device, filled with radium, which you would place over your endocrine glands (for men they specified under the scrotum) overnight, for improved endocrine health. The inventor, William Bailey, claimed to have drunk more radioactive water than any living man. He died in 1949 of bladder cancer.

My hands-down favorite…

Vita Radium Suppositories (1930s) 

You don’t need to try too hard to read between the lines of this advertising copy to see that Vita suppositories were allegedly the answer to men’s problems in the bedroom.

“Weak Discouraged Men!

Now Bubble Over with Joyous Vitality Through the Use of Glands and Radium

…properly functioning glands make themselves known in a quick, brisk step, mental alertness and the ability to live and love in the fullest sense of the word… A man must be in a bad way indeed to sit back and be satisfied without the pleasures that are his birthright! … Try them and see what good results you get!  (Vita Radium Suppositories are shipped in a plain wrapper for confidentiality.)”

These companies had the cure for what ailed you. Unfortunately, no one had a cure for the cure. It’s easy today, a hundred years later, to laugh at the idea of these curatives. But I guarantee you that people in the 1910’s laughed at the ridiculous products that were used a hundred years earlier. What scares me is that a hundred years from now people will be laughing at the harmful products you and I use today.


DE Johnson’s author website:

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Motor City Shakedown     The Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))Callander Square (Charlotte & Thomas Pitt Novels (Paperback))Blood of the Reich

Writing Historical Novels

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Learning something new is also something I enjoy about writing historical novels.

    August 2, 2013
  2. Loved this article! And so true how you ended it! Genetically modified foods come to mind as does petri dish grown hamburgers. Not sure that the replicator on Star Trek ever sounded like a good idea.

    August 6, 2013

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