Radium Ampoule, Wider

Radium Ampoule, Wider

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This ampoule was removed from a display of objects (see 1993.0262.13) donated to the New York Academy of Medicine by Dr. Robert Abbe [b. April 13, 1851; d. March 7, 1928], a surgeon and early proponent of radium therapy. The ampoule’s contents are described on the display as: "Ashes, with a small remnant of radium recovered from a fireplace after burning surgical dressings...This radium (measuring 1 milligram) is the remnant of the historic 150 milligrams RADIUM-BARIUM-CHLORIDE" SENT by Mme. CURIE TO Dr. ABBE IN 1903. ONE-SEVENTH OF WHAT SHE USED IN CALORIMETRIC TESTS."
This description is curious for several reasons. There were a number of methods used to administer radium to a patient in the early 20th century, but almost all of these methods had the radium encapsulated in some kind of container that could be reused. Radium was both expensive and difficult to acquire. It is therefore unusual that the radium in this display was applied to surgical dressings and then burned. The reason for this is unknown.
The display specifically draws attention to the quantity of radium Abbe obtained in 1903 and states that 150 milligrams of the radium compound was one-seventh of what was used in Marie Curie's calorimetric tests. This appears to be an error. In 1903, Pierre Curie (not Marie) and Albert Laborde measured the heat produced by a quantity of radium, but they did not use 1 gram of radium in these experiments. They used 1 gram of barium chloride that included about one sixth of its weight of radium chloride, and a different sample of 0.08 g of pure radium chloride. However, the results were stated in terms of the heat that would be given off by 1 gram of pure radium. This might explain Abbe's statement.
In 1903, Dr. Abbe started experimenting with radium on seeds, animals, himself, and patients, becoming one of the first American physicians to do so. He found success in treating some abnormal growths and cancers, publishing his findings and becoming an authority in the field of radiotherapy. Abbe was a surgeon at St. Luke's Hospital in New York. Near the end of his life, Abbe suffered from the effects of aplastic anemia, likely caused by years of radium exposure, requiring regular blood transfusions.
Abbe, R., “Radium and Radio-Activity," Yale Medical Journal 10 (1904) p. 436-447.
Gibson, C., "Robert Abbe 1851-1928," Annals of Surgery 88 (1928) p. 794-797
Stark, R., "Robert Abbe: Pioneer in Plastic Surgery," Bull. N. Y. Acad. Med. 31 (1955) p. 927-950.
Curie, P. and Laborde, A., "Sur la chaleur dégagée spontanément par les sels de radium,” Comptes Rendus l’Académie des Sciences 136 (1903) p. 673-675.
“Radium Applicators,” Radium Chemical Company, Pittsburgh PA (1923) https://www.cppdigitallibrary.org/viewer/show/4355
Eimer & Amend correspondence to Robert Abbe, "Earliest Sale of Radium in America," scrapbook from the Robert Abbe Papers held at the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, https://www.cppdigitallibrary.org/items/show/4344
Currently not on view
Object Name
Pharmaceutical, Vial of
ampoule, radium therapy
Other Terms
Pharmaceutical, Vial of; Pharmaceutical; Powder
associated place
France: Île-de-France, Paris
Physical Description
radium (overall material)
light brown (overall color)
glass (overall material)
estimated from images: 1 5/8 in x 7/16 in; 4.0894 cm x 1.1176 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of New York Academy of Medicine, through Steven A. Pelovitz, Vice President for Management and Fiscal Affairs
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Pharmacy
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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