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Health Physicist Paul Frame’s first day on the job with ORAU’s Professional Training Programs (PTP) was not unlike most. Before diving into his new position teaching health physics, Frame spent some time exploring the building, the equipment and other resources. While opening cabinet doors and pulling out drawers that hadn’t been used in many years, he stumbled across long-forgotten artifacts of the health physics world. 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 pieces related to the scientific and commercial history of radioactivity and radiation.

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

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 fervent curator of what is 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.”

Atomic Finds: Rare collection and curator preserve radiation 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.

Frame still manages the rare and wide-ranging assortment of items. Among those 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 Fiestaware®, 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.

Possibly one of the most interesting pieces in the collection is a lifelike woman’s head, named Bonnie, 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 former ORAU Medical Division Chairman Dr. Marshall Brucer and sent to hospitals across the country and around the world. Doctors and nurses would use radiation scanners to try to image the amount of mock iodine in Bonnie’s thyroid to test their instruments.

Atomic Finds: Rare collection and curator preserve radiation 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).

One very valuable item, being 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 it 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. One of the pieces in the set is a gas cloud chamber, which is extremely fragile. Another valuable toy is the Atomic Disintegrator gun, manufactured by Hubley in 1954.

While ORAU Health Physics Historical Instrumentation Collection is fun, it also has practical value. The collection can be viewed online at www.orau.org/ptp/museumdirectory.htm.

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. A number of these pop culture items are part of the Health Physics Historical Instrumentation Museum. Join ORAU's Dr. Paul Frame, as he shares a sampling of these items and their backgrounds.

An origin story

Dr. Paul Frame jointed ORAU’s Professional Training Programs (PTP) training team in 1984. During his first walk around the facilities to familiarize himself with the place, he opened a cabinet door behind which were several 1920s-era X-ray tubes. He got some money allocated for a display case, and the rest is health physics history.

Radiation tubes

Some of the real treasures of the ORAU Health Physics Historical Instrumentation Collection are the radiation and X-ray tubes, some of which are over 100 years old. In this video, Dr. Paul Frame shares his wealth of knowledge about some of the tubes he has collected over the last 36 years.

Radiation tubes - Part 2

The collection includes a number of radiation tubes, along with mechanisms to measure the radiation output of the tubes.

Radiation warning signs

During World War II a variety of different warning signs for radiation hazards. The trefoil hazard sign used today was developed by health physicist at Berkeley National Lab and Oak Ridge National Lab.

Radiation survey instruments

The first generation of radiation survey instruments were developed during World War II. A number of 40s and 50s era instruments are on display in the collection.

Chernobyl light cover

A light cover from a nuclear power plant control room may be a small thing, but this one has a storied history.

Shoe-fitting fluoroscope

People over age 65 are likely to remember this item from shopping for shoes with their mothers. Kids, parents and shoe salesmen could see the bones of their feet. 

Le radium and ORINS

A first-edition of Le Radium, a radiation journal published by Marie Curie, is part of the collection, as is Bonnie Boleyn, a device used to standardize the calibration of imaging systems around the world.

Brachytherapy

Several instruments used to deliver therapeutic radiation therapy are included in the collection.

Early nuclear artifacts

Artifacts from the early days of nuclear science include a bar of graphite from Chicago Pile 1, a piece of rebar from Hirosha used to estimate the dose of neutrons to survivors, and a nuclear bomb effects calculator.

Glenn seaborg and Marie Curie

Precious items in the collection include a security badge worn by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Glenn Seaborg when he visited Oak Ridge in 1944, and a first edition book written by Marie Curie signed by a number of famous scientists.

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.