The Radium Emanations

In my last post on orgone, I noted that there were a ton of weird energies bandied about as having mysterious curative powers. That wasn’t a result of some collective hallucination, but rather was informed by the actual science happening at the time. Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895, and after people had a grand time taking pictures of their bones, they started to realize that X-rays affect the body in a pretty serious way.

Science is like that sometimes. You discover something cool, you push the limits, you get a little cancer here and there. Eventually every dentist has one. If you want to learn about the success stories, there’s Wikipedia for that. This post is about a particular dead end.

The year was 1914. Radium had been discovered in 1898, so everyone knew by then that you shouldn’t eat it. But surely there was some other way it could be used! Enter Dr. Saubermann and his apparatus for impregnating water with radium emanations:

USP 1,239,227, FIG. 1

The radium was held in a chamber 4, which porous to the “emanations” but not to the radium. Water was fed into the chamber by tube 6, and flowed out holes 5, after having been exposed to the emanations but without picking up any radium itself (one hopes). The impregnated water was then dispensed by spigot 2.

Of course, there were also holes in the bottom of the chamber 4, so I’m pretty sure you were going to suck up some radium one way or the other.

This Emanation Water was supposed to be healthy… somehow. Dr. Siegmund Saubermann advertised his product in the Maryland Medical Journal, where he said, “[T]he true value of Radium Emanation treatment for a large variety of internal diseases has been definitely ascertained.” Recognizing that the radioactivity of the emanations diminishes over time, the idea of the device is to always some on tap, hot off the radium itself.

Let’s take a quick detour to understand what these “emanations” would have been. This is a chart showing the radioactive decay pathway for radium:

Here’s how the story goes. Radium decays into radon, which decays into polonium, each by alpha particle emission. Alpha rays are pretty harmless on the outside, but they can do some damage inside your body.

Radon, you likely already know, is a gas that’s heavier than air, so it accumulates in basements. You breather it in, where it decays into solid polonium. At that point, the polonium hangs out inside you until it decays by either alpha emission by the much more dangerous beta emission into the sensitive tissue of your lungs. Then Bob’s yer uncle, you’ve got cancer!

Now, if you’re chugging water with radon dissolved into it, who knows what happens. Probably nothing good! Certainly nothing on the chart above is something you want in your body. But it also isn’t going to kill you right away.

It isn’t super clear to me what Saubermann considered to be the “emanations.” If it’s the alpha particles, well, those are basically just ionized helium that will escape the water as soon as they grab a couple of nearby electrons. If it’s the breakdown products of radium, my dude, just stop.

But stop he did not. Instead he later filed his patent for a process for rendering liquids radioactive. He even published a small book about it, which you can find for sale in a modern reprint. Isn’t the modern age wonderful? Anyway, here’s the first figure of that book, because what better thing can one do with a lede than bury it?

The curative action of radium after an address on the progress of radium therapy, by Dr. Saubermann, FIG. 1

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