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11 Ways We Used Radiation in Everyday Life

Radiation as a medical cure has valid uses and definite dangers to the human body. We use radiation for diagnosis (as in x-rays) and for therapy (as in cancer treatment), but the benefits must be carefully weighed against the costs. Once upon a time, radiation in different forms was new and wondrous and had a million uses -medications, cosmetics, industrial applications, and even entertainment. It was only later that the danger became evident.

1. Radioactive Toothpaste

What could possibly make your smile brighter than radioactive toothpaste? A German firm called the Auer Company (Auergesellschaft) diverted thorium supplies from the Nazi atomic program in 1944 when it became clear that Germany would not win the war. The forward-thinking company saw the future of nuclear materials in cosmetics and developed Doramad radioactive toothpaste. Besides the usual wonderful benefits of radiation, the marketing mentioned that radiation would hinder bacteria in the mouth.

2. Shoe-fitting Fluoroscope

The radiation from x-rays was not considered particularly dangerous to humans when the machine was first invented. Despite injuries to scientists and technicians, the miracle instrument found its way into doctor's offices, military labs, and even shoe stores. From the 1930s to the 1960s, children were encouraged to have their shoe size determined "scientifically" by putting their feet into an x-ray fluoroscope at the shoe store. The shoe salesman and the customer could both see the bones in the foot (and be bombarded by leaking radiation). By 1950, these machines were recognized as dangerous, but they were only gradually banned state-by-state until 1970, when remaining states restricted the machines' use so strictly that the manufacturers stopped supplying them. They continued to be used in Europe for years afterward.

3. Tho-radia Cosmetics

Dr. Alfred Curie was no relation to either Marie or Pierre Curie, but his name sold French women on the idea of radioactive cosmetics. Curie along with Alexis Moussali developed a line of beauty products under the name Tho-radia. The line included face cream, soap, powder, and even toothpaste containing thorium and radium. Although they were expensive, Tho-radia product were a hit in Paris, and therefore popular everywhere else.

Dorothy Gray Salon Cold Cream was not marketed as containing any radioactive material, but this television ad is a bit shocking to modern audiences. The model is covered with radioactive dirt to show how well the cold cream removes it. At least we hope it did.

4. Radithor

Radithor was a cure-all patent medicine consisting of distilled water and two isotopes of radium. Advertisements called it "Perpetual Sunshine". Radithor was only one of many radioactive elixirs sold to alleviate pain and cure all manner of maladies. According to this article from 1932, a popular advocate of Radithor developed holes in his bones and skull, and his entire jaw had to be removed as it had deteriorated badly, just before he died of radiation poisoning. Image by Flickr user Somewhat Frank.

5. Radium Emanators

If you needed more radioactive water than could be supplied by patent medicines, you could make your own with any of dozens of devices produced to add radiation to water. This Radium Emanator was sold in the 1930s. It had uranium embedded in the cement core, which would leach into the water overnight.

6. Radium Clock Dials

Radium paint was special in that it tended to glow in the dark. The obvious use for this was for clock dials, so they could be seen with the lights out. Young women were hired in the 1920s to paint the numbers and hands on these clocks. The painters needed a very fine point on their brushes, so they would pull the brush fibers between their lips to keep the point. The amount of radium in each clock or watch was rather weak, but the painters in the factories absorbed so much that many died of radiation poisoning and related cancers, and others suffered from various radiation-induced disorders, particularly bone loss in the jaw. Five of the "Radium Girls" sued the company, U.S. Radium for damages, a case which led to stricter safety standards for the use of radium in industry.

7. Radon Health Mines

Although natural radon emissions have been designated as a health hazard and limits of safe exposure are set, some people still believe in the health benefits of radon. For these people, a vacation to a spa just for this purpose can be arranged. These spas were opened in the 1950s at abandoned mining sites in Montana where radon seeps out in unusual amounts. Spas include the Sunshine Health Mine in Boulder, Montana and Earth Angel Health Mine in Basin, Montana. Similar facilities are open in Europe as well. Image by Landon Nordeman/National Geographic.

8. Home Experiments

The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab was one of many children's chemistry sets that included radioactive materials, in this case four kinds of uranium. The Gilbert lab was recommended for "only boys with a great deal of education", and was priced at $50.00, an astronomical sum in those days. The high price was the reason for the disappearance of these kits rather than the danger of the materials. You could buy less expensive kits for your youngster in the sixties, such as the Atomic Energy Lab which only had one kind of uranium, but also contained radium.

9. Radiendocrinator

In the 1930s, anyone with $150 could purchase a radiendocrinator to place over your endocrine glands to expose them to therapeutic radium. The device came with paper soaked in radium, which you inserted into the case and exposed, screen-side up, to your testicles or other glands.

10. Vita Radium Suppositories

Another way to introduce radium to your vital glands was in a suppository form. Vita Radium Suppositories were guaranteed to contain radium, which sounded like a good thing at the time. Some ads contained euphemisms such as "vitality" alluding to a promised increase in sexual potency, while other ads targeting both men and women promised global benefits for anything that ailed you.

11. Uranium Glass

Beginning around 200 years ago, uranium salts were combined with silica before it was melted to create pretty yellow-green glass dishes. Most of these uranium glass dishes are valuable antiques now, and this is why you may see people carry black lights into an antique shop or flea market -they are testing for actual uranium content as opposed to later recreations. Image by Wikimedia Commons user Z Vesoulis.

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History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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