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Rare collection and its curator hold insights into health physics history

Paul Frame, Ph.D., a health physicist and trainer at ORAU, started the collection in the 1980s when he discovered x-ray tubes and other items in a cabinet. Over time, the collection has grown to include hundreds of items, many of them donated or purchased by either the Health Physics Society or the non-profit ORAU Foundation.

Health Physicist Paul Frame’s first day on the job at ORAU’s Professional Training Programs (PTP) was unlike most. Instead of diving into his new position teaching health physics, Frame spent his first hours exploring the building, opening cabinet doors and pulling out drawers that hadn’t been used in many years. He was on the search for long-forgotten artifacts of the health physics world, and the bright purple 1920s x-ray tubes he found that day would be the beginning of a more than 36-year scavenger hunt for rare artifacts related to the scientific and commercial history of radioactivity and radiation.

After Frame’s initial find, he was allowed to purchase a display case and showcase the x-ray tubes along with a few other items. While ORAU’s director of PTP at the time told him “don’t get any ideas” about growing the collection, things took on a life of their own. Shortly after the first display went up, a student in one of Frame’s health physics courses donated a Revigator, which is a water jar lined with radioactive materials that was claimed in the 1920s to cure all manner of ailments. An additional display case was needed, the collection continued to grow and Frame became the curator of the collection now known as the ORAU Health Physics Historical Instrumentation Collection.

“It’s important to note that the majority of the pieces in this collection have been donated,” explained Frame. “Professionals in the health physics industry get excited about these pieces and quite often will send donations to keep items preserved. One important thing to also note is that we have gone to considerable effort to uncover the history and stories behind the objects in the ORAU collection.”

Frame still manages the rare and wide-ranging assortment of artifacts related to the scientific and commercial history of radioactivity and radiation. Among the items showcased in the collection are posters from the movies The Atomic Kid, starring Mickey Rooney, and The Gamma People, starring Paul Douglas and Eva Bartok. Also included are examples of glassware and Fiesta ware, which had detectable amounts of uranium oxide in its red glazes, and a piece of roof tile from a home in Hiroshima, Japan, which was blistered by the heat of the atomic bomb dropped over the city in 1945. There is also a copy of the first edition of Le Radium, a scientific journal founded by Marie Curie, famed Polish physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity.

“The breadth of our collection is amazing, covering everything from instrumentation to popular culture,” said Frame.

Rare collection and its curator hold insights into health physics history

The A. C. Gilbert Company’s U-238 Atomic Energy Lab might not have been the first, but it was the most elaborate, “atomic” educational set ever produced for children. Today, it is so highly prized by collectors that a complete set can easily go for more than 100 times the original price ($50).

Possibly one of the most interesting pieces in the collection is a life-like woman’s head, named Bonnie Boleyn, who was used to test the accuracy of hospitals’ radiation-detecting instruments. During the 1960s, Bonnie’s faux thyroid was filled with a certain amount of mock iodine, which happened to be patented by ORAU Medical Division Chairman Dr. Marshall Brucer, and sent to hospitals across the country and world. Doctors and nurses would use radiation scanners to try to image as accurately as possible the amount of mock iodine in Bonnie’s thyroid. If they could image the thyroid correctly, they knew their instruments were in working order.

One very valuable item, currently featured in an exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., is a U238 Atomic Energy Lab. The lab was a chemistry set for kids produced by the Gilbert Company in the early 1950s and contained uranium ore, which was relatively harmless to handle. The set originally retailed for $50, which Frame said was a hefty price to pay for what essentially was a toy. Today, Frame estimates the set would sell online for $7,000 to $9,000.

While the ORAU Health Physics Historical Instrumentation Collection is fun, it also has practical value. The collection can be viewed online, which has helped people in the health physics and nuclear industries identify items they have, and those people have made a point of letting Frame know how helpful the collection was to them.

Pop culture in the atomic age

Pop culture in the atomic age

The dawn of the atomic age in the 1940s and 50s influenced all aspects of life in the United States, including pop culture. Movies like “The Gamma People” and “The Atomic Monster” spoke to the fears stoked by the use of radiation, while toy ray guns and Geiger counters were signals of radiation’s common place in society.

A number of these pop culture items are part of the Health Physics Historical Instrumentation Museum. Join Paul Frame, Ph.D., a health physicist and trainer at ORAU, as he shares a sampling of these items and their backgrounds. This is the first in a series of videos about the Health Physics Historical Collection.

Contact us

To find out more about ORAU's Health Physics Historical Instrumentation collection, or if you are interested in making a donation, please contact Dr. Paul Frame or by phone at 865.576.3388.