Skip to main content

Radium and Radioactivity in the Basement

Airplane View of Ursinus College
This image provides an aerial view of the college's campus where the construction of the new science building (later to be named Pfahler Hall) can be seen as just the foundations on the leftmost side of the image
College Catalog from the school year of 1933-1934

A physics course description for 1933-1934 that will be altered in future school years

College Catalog from the school year of 1934-1935

A physics course description from 1934-1935 with an altered ending from the description given the previous year (1933-1934)

College Catalog from the school year of 1935-1936

A physics course description from 1935-1936 with an altered name from the description given the previous year (1934-1935)

College catalog from the school year 1936-1937

A physics course description for 1936-1937 with an altered name and description from those given the previous year (1935-1936)

The time delay in the transformation of these rooms into labs was in no way due to negative attitudes toward radium and radioactivity; in fact, from radium’s discovery it was an incredibly popular topic in the public imagination and was discussed in the early twentieth century by journals, advertisements, novels, newspapers, and even church sermons [1]. The concept of radium challenged everyone’s perceptions about science and the reality of our world – Henry Adams, a historian during the era, was so affronted by it that he stated it “‘denied […] the truths of … Science.’” [2] By 1903, the physics of radioactivity was beginning to be understood somewhat more clearly (allowing for a closer look at the ‘nature of things’) and the discovery of radium provided scientists with the strongest example of radioactivity ever studied up until that point [3]. A distinction between radium (a radioactive substance) and radioactivity (which is a property of several substances, not just radium, that indicates a fundamental change within matter) was soon made in order to keep ideas clear and distinct for both scientists and the public; however, with radium’s ability to glow in the dark and power to supposedly produce life, it was incredibly difficult to keep such definitions from being mixed up in literature written by excitable authors [4] [5].

This surge of interest in radium and radioactivity put public lectures about the subject in high demand, and, because American's knowledge was rooted in their enthusiasm for mystery rather than their understanding of experimentation, the element of radium had its ‘cultural narrative’ brought out of the journals and labs and into the houses of everyday citizens [6]. Scientists were able to seize upon the widespread fascination to explain their hopes and dreams for what radium could accomplish, knowing quite well that the need for public support was essential in order to gain monetary funding to continue their experiments, and since there was no clear report in those early days about what radium couldn’t do, the sensational claims only provided a larger and more eager audience [7] [8]. Sentiments about radioactivity wouldn’t begin to largely shift in the public’s eyes until the 1940s, as is shown in the Following the Cultural Perception Clues section, but before we discuss that, let’s take a look at 1930s Ursinus, when the labs were in full use.

The connection between Ursinus and the radium/radioactivity craze did not come to significant light until after the construction of Pfahler was completed when, at some unknown point, the former constant and low temperature rooms were refitted to become radioactivity labs. Renovations happen fairly often, usually occurring when a new faculty member is appointed so as to tailor the building toward their area of specialty, and, because of this commonplace practice, it is not unusual for board materials specifically referencing the alterations to become lost, preventing their preservation in the archives [9]. We do know that the conversion occurred and the college curriculum provides some clues as to which classes used these labs and for what purpose.

While chemistry and biology students were probably not in any way barred from entering the labs, the curriculum for physics students directly mentions studies involving radioactivity and x-rays in the 1933-1934 catalogue, which includes a course listed as “7-8. Modern Physics: Photo-electric phenomena, radio-activity, x-rays, and the discharge of electricity through gases are studied. The theory of atomic structure will be discussed”; however, the very next school year (1934-1935), the description of this course is changed to say “7-8. Modern Physics: Photo-electric phenomena, radio-activity, x-rays, and the discharge of electricity through gases are studied with a view to understanding contemporary advances in fundamental science” (difference indicated by underline) [10]. Such a small change did not seem to have too great an effect on the content of the course as a whole (since atomic structure could be included in contemporary advances), but in the following school year (1935-1936), yet again the course is changed; this time, it’s the name that has been altered: “7-8. Atomic Physics: Photo-electric phenomena, radio-activity, x-rays, and the discharge of electricity through gases are studied with a view to understanding contemporary advances in fundamental science” (difference indicated by underline) [11]. After three school years of adjusting the descriptors, the course disappears altogether in the 1936-1937 year and is not mentioned throughout the rest of the 1936-1940 catalogue. Instead, a chemical physics class is listed as being course number 7-8 [12]. Just like a ghost, the radioactivity course vanishes without explanations for either the revisions made on the class details or the reason(s) for its removal from the overall physics curriculum. Similarly, there isn’t any specific mention of when or why the labs were sealed off from the rest of Pfahler Hall (though it is likely that the need for storage space outweighed the need for radioactivity labs, which would explain the appearance the lab interiors we saw during our visit - for more details, check out the Busting the Radioactivity Ghost page). It’s little wonder, then, why these particular labs became surrounded by the ambiguous story we know today.

[1] Louis Campos, “The Birth of Living Radium,” Representations, vol. 97, no. 1 (2007): 13.

[2] Ibid. 1.

[3] Ibid. 4, 2.

[4] Ibid. 9-10.

[5] Spencer R. Weart, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (Cambridge, MA: Harvard College, 1988), 5.

[6] Campos, “The Birth of Living Radium,”: 11-12.

[7] Ibid. 14.

[8] Weart, Nuclear Fear, 10-11.

[9] James Shuttlesworth (Ursinus College Director of Network Systems and Infrastructure), in discussion with L. Jarvis, November 27, 2017.

[10] The Ursinus College Catalogue (1930-1935): 61.

[11] Ursinus College Catalogue (1936-1940): 63.

[12] Ibid. 54-55.