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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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(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
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Animals
The Time Carl Akeley Killed a Leopard With His Bare Hands
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.

Carl Akeley had plenty of close encounters with animals in his long career as a naturalist and taxidermist. There was the time a bull elephant had charged him on Mount Kenya, nearly crushing him; the time he was unarmed and charged by three rhinos who missed him, he said later, only because the animals had such poor vision; and the time the tumbling body of a silverback gorilla he'd just shot almost knocked him off a cliff. This dangerous tradition began on his very first trip to Africa, where, on an otherwise routine hunting trip, the naturalist became the prey.

It was 1896. Following stints at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment and the Milwaukee Public Museum, Akeley, 32, had just been appointed chief taxidermist for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and he was tasked with gathering new specimens to bolster the 3-year-old museum's fledgling collections. After more than four months of travel and numerous delays, the expedition had reached the plains of Ogaden, a region of Ethiopia, where Akeley hunted for specimens for days without success.

Then, one morning, Akeley managed to shoot a hyena shortly after he left camp. Unfortunately, “one look at his dead carcass was enough to satisfy me that he was not as desirable as I had thought, for his skin was badly diseased,” he later wrote in his autobiography, In Brightest Africa. He shot a warthog, a fine specimen, but what he really wanted was an ostrich—so he left the carcass behind, climbed a termite hill to look for the birds, then took off after a pair he saw in the tall grass.

But the ostriches eluded him at every turn, so he returned to camp and grabbed the necessary tools to cut off the head of his warthog. However, when he and a “pony boy” got to the spot where he’d left the carcass, all that remained was a bloodstain. “A crash in the bushes at one side led me in a hurry in that direction and a little later I saw my pig's head in the mouth of a hyena travelling up the slope of a ridge out of range,” Akeley wrote. “That meant that my warthog specimen was lost, and, having got no ostriches, I felt it was a pretty poor day.”

As the sun began to set, Akeley and the boy turned back to camp. “As we came near to the place where I had shot the diseased hyena in the morning, it occurred to me that perhaps there might be another hyena about the carcass, and feeling a bit ‘sore’ at the tribe for stealing my warthog, I thought I might pay off the score by getting a good specimen of a hyena for the collections,” he wrote. But that carcass was gone, too, with a drag trail in the sand leading into the bush.

Akeley heard a sound, and, irritated, “did a very foolish thing,” firing into the bush without seeing what he was shooting at. He knew, almost immediately, that he'd made a mistake: The answering snarl told him that what he’d fired at was not a hyena at all, but a leopard.

The taxidermist began thinking of all the things he knew about the big cats. A leopard, he wrote,

“... has all the qualities that gave rise to the ‘nine lives’ legend: To kill him you have got to kill him clear to the tip of his tail. Added to that, a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive. A wounded leopard will fight to a finish practically every time, no matter how many chances it has to escape. Once aroused, its determination is fixed on fight, and if a leopard ever gets hold, it claws and bites until its victim is in shreds. All this was in my mind, and I began looking about for the best way out of it, for I had no desire to try conclusions with a possibly wounded leopard when it was so late in the day that I could not see the sights of my rifle.”

Akeley beat a hasty retreat. He’d return the next morning, he figured, when he could see better; if he’d wounded the leopard, he could find it again then. But the leopard had other ideas. It pursued him, and Akeley fired again, even though he couldn’t see enough to aim. “I could see where the bullets struck as the sand spurted up beyond the leopard. The first two shots went above her, but the third scored. The leopard stopped and I thought she was killed.”

The leopard had not been killed. Instead, she charged—and Akeley’s magazine was empty. He reloaded the rifle, but as he spun to face the leopard, she leapt on him, knocking it out of his hands. The 80-pound cat landed on him. “Her intention was to sink her teeth into my throat and with this grip and her forepaws hang to me while with her hind claws she dug out my stomach, for this pleasant practice is the way of leopards,” Akeley wrote. “However, happily for me, she missed her aim.” The wounded cat had landed to one side; instead of Akeley’s throat in her mouth, she had his upper right arm, which had the fortuitous effect of keeping her hind legs off his stomach.

It was good luck, but the fight of Akeley’s life had just begun.

Using his left hand, he attempted to loosen the leopard’s hold. “I couldn't do it except little by little,” he wrote. “When I got grip enough on her throat to loosen her hold just a little she would catch my arm again an inch or two lower down. In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch.”

He felt no pain, he wrote, “only of the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking, snarling grunts of the beast.” When his arm was nearly free, Akeley fell on the leopard. His right hand was still in her mouth, but his left hand was still on her throat. His knees were on her chest and his elbows in her armpits, “spreading her front legs apart so that the frantic clawing did nothing more than tear my shirt.”

It was a scramble. The leopard tried to twist around and gain the advantage, but couldn’t get purchase on the sand. “For the first time,” Akeley wrote, “I began to think and hope I had a chance to win this curious fight.”

He called for the boy, hoping he’d bring a knife, but received no response. So he held on to the animal and “continued to shove the hand down her throat so hard she could not close her mouth and with the other I gripped her throat in a stranglehold.” He bore down with his full weight on her chest, and felt a rib crack. He did it again—another crack. “I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly, and then it became a question as to which would give up first.”

Slowly, her struggle ceased. Akeley had won. He lay there for a long time, keeping the leopard in his death grip. “After what seemed an interminable passage of time I let go and tried to stand, calling to the pony boy that it was finished.” The leopard, he later told Popular Science Monthly, had then shown signs of life; Akeley used the boy’s knife to make sure it was really, truly dead.

Akeley’s arm was shredded, and he was weak—so weak that he couldn’t carry the leopard back to camp. “And then a thought struck me that made me waste no time,” he told Popular Science. “That leopard has been eating the horrible diseased hyena I had killed. Any leopard bite is liable to give one blood poison, but this particular leopard’s mouth must have been exceptionally foul.”

He and the boy must have been quite the sight when they finally made it back to camp. His companions had heard the shots, and figured Akeley had either faced off with a lion or the natives; whatever the scenario, they figured Akeley would prevail or be defeated before they could get to him, so they kept on eating dinner. But when Akeley appeared, with “my clothes ... all ripped, my arm ... chewed into an unpleasant sight, [with] blood and dirt all over me,” he wrote in In Brightest Africa, “my appearance was quite sufficient to arrest attention.”

He demanded all the antiseptics the camp had to offer. After he'd been washed with cold water, “the antiseptic was pumped into every one of the innumerable tooth wounds until my arm was so full of the liquid that an injection in one drove it out of another,” he wrote. “During the process I nearly regretted that the leopard had not won.”

When that was done, Akeley was taken to his tent, and the dead leopard was brought in and laid out next to his cot. Her right hind leg was wounded—which, he surmised, had come from his first shot into the brush, and was what had thrown off her pounce—and she had a flesh wound in the back of her neck where his last shot had hit her, “from the shock of which she had instantly recovered.”

Not long after his close encounter with the leopard, the African expedition was cut short when its leader contracted malaria, and Akeley returned to Chicago. The whole experience, he wrote to a friend later, transported him back to a particular moment at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which he’d visited after creating taxidermy mounts for the event. “As I struggled to wrest my arm from the mouth of the leopard I recalled vividly a bronze at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, depicting the struggle between a man and bear, the man’s arm in the mouth of the bear,” he wrote. “I had stood in front of this bronze one afternoon with a doctor friend and we discussed the probable sensations of a man in this predicament, wondering whether or not the man would be sensible to the pain of the chewing and the rending of his flesh by the bear. I was thinking as the leopard tore at me that now I knew exactly what the sensations were, but that unfortunately I would not live to tell my doctor friend.”

In the moment, though, there had been no pain, “just the joy of a good fight,” Akeley wrote, “and I did live to tell my [doctor] friend all about it.”

Additional source: Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

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Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
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crime
Meghan Markle Is Related to H.H. Holmes, America’s First Serial Killer, According to New Documentary
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network

Between staging paparazzi photos and writing open letters to Prince Harry advising him to call off his wedding, Meghan Markle’s family has been keeping the media pretty busy lately. But it turns out that her bloodline's talent for grabbing headlines dates back much further than the announcement that Markle and Prince Harry were getting hitched—and for much more sinister reasons. According to Meet the Markles, a new television documentary produced for England’s Channel Four, the former Suits star has a distant relation to H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.

The claim comes from Holmes’s great-great-grandson, American lawyer Jeff Mudgett, who recently discovered that he and Markle are eighth cousins. If that connection is correct, then it would mean that Markle, too, is related to Holmes.

While finding out that you’re related—however distantly—to a man believed to have murdered 27 people isn’t something you’d probably want to share with Queen Elizabeth II when asking her to pass the Yorkshire pudding over Christmas dinner, what makes the story even more interesting is that Mudgett believes that his great-great-grandpa was also Jack the Ripper!

Mudgett came to this conclusion based on Holmes’s personal diaries, which he inherited. In 2017, American Ripper—an eight-part History Channel series—investigated Mudgett’s belief that Holmes and Jack were indeed one in the same.

When asked about his connection to Markle, and their shared connection to Holmes—and, possibly, Jack the Ripper—Mudgett replied:

“We did a study with the FBI and CIA and Scotland Yard regarding handwriting analysis. It turns out [H. H. Holmes] was Jack the Ripper. This means Meghan is related to Jack the Ripper. I don’t think the Queen knows. I am not proud he is my ancestor. Meghan won’t be either.”

Shortly thereafter he clarified his comments via his personal Facebook page:

In the 130 years since Jack the Ripper terrorized London’s Whitechapel neighborhood, hundreds of names have been put forth as possible suspects, but authorities have never been able to definitively conclude who committed the infamous murders. So if Alice's Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll could have done it, why not the distant relative of the royal family's newest member?

[h/t: ID CrimeFeed]

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