The discovery of radium in 1898 by Pierre and Marie Curie was actually discovered by the public in 1903 after the attribution of their Nobel Prize in Physics (received together with Henri Becquerel). Interest in the radioactive element gradually grew, reaching its peak during the interwar period. Industrialists used it as an advertising claim, praising the virtues of the radium which they incorporated into their products. They relied on some scientific articles that tended to demonstrate the health benefits of using low dose of radioactivity, a phenomenon called “hormesis”. “Radium fountains”, just like Tho-radia products, are symbolic of the years 1930-1940 and show the extent of public enthusiasm for this extraordinary element.
From 1904 in France, Pierre Curie and Albert Laborde, his collaborator in the laboratory of the rue Cuvier, were interested in thermal waters. Indeed, their therapeutic properties, some of which have been known since ancient times, continued to intrigue. The radioactivity rate of many of them turns out to be higher than normal. From there to deducting that their therapeutic qualities came from radioactivity, there was only a step which thermal spas and companies of spring water did not hesitate to cross: the radioactivity became a selling point for convince their customers and attract new spa guests.
Radioactive sparkling natural mineral water bottle of the St. Martial source (Entre 1900 et 1920) by Source : Musée CurieMusée Curie
The benefits, real or supposed, attributed to thermal waters caused some industrialists in the interwar period to develop devices capable of reproducing these radioactive properties in tap water. Radium emanatory, also called “Radium fountain” or “Radium coffeepot”, allowed water to circulate through a radium salt capsule which released radon. The water was then “radioactivated”. This is the same principle as for the thermal waters that absorb radon in contact with subterranean rocks before re-emerging on the surface. A “radium fountain” allowed people to find or to extend at home the therapeutic action of a spa. The radioactive dose was however much higher than in thermal water, and therefore more dangerous. The Radiation measurement service of the Radium Institute of Paris which managed Marie Curie delivered certificates for the amount of radioactivity, giving industrialists the support of a renowned scientific institution.
Drawing of a radon extractor by ERCO, Note of the brand (Vers 1930) by Source : Musée CurieMusée Curie
The stamp of the Radium Institute, Note of the brand ERCO (Vers 1930) by Source : Musée CurieMusée Curie
"Radium fountain" by OFFRA, circa 1930 (coll. Musée Curie) (Vers 1930) by Source : Musée CurieMusée Curie
Label of the Radon extractor n°2414 (Vers 1930) by Source : Musée CurieMusée Curie
Certificate of control n°649 for a OFFRA Radon extractor (Vers 1930) by Source : Musée CurieMusée Curie
A cure at home
The “radioactive” water coming from these “radium fountains” ccould be used in various ways, detailed in the instruction notes of these devices. It was possible to drink it ; it was recommended to follow a 21-day course of treatment separated by one week intervals, repeatable 2 to 3 times. It was also recommended to take baths with “radioactive” water 2 to 3 times a week, repeated 2 weeks later. These recommendations persisted for more than a decade during the years 1930-1940. It was not until the end of WWII that “radium fountains” were no longer produced. The image of radioactivity was gradually tarnished. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to find some of these devices in basements, attics or flea markets. Like any object containing radioactive material, they must be handled with care. It is important not to open them and to contact the Agence nationale pour la gestion des déchets radioactifs (ANDRA) that takes care of this dangerous material.
Conception : Musée Curie
Photographies des objets : Alexandre Lescure, Institut Curie et Sacha Lenormand