Sunday, May 1, 2011

Early Use of Radium in the U.S. - George Barker's 1903 Columbia Lecture

Chemist and physicist George Frederick Barker (1835-1910) was instrumental in introducing radium to the US, and gave an important lecture entitled  “Radio-Activity in Chemistry” at Columbia University on March 19, 1903 [Columbia School of Mines Quarterly, 24, 267-302 (1903)]. For more information on Barker's life, see Edgar Fahs Smith National Academy of Sciences memoir (NAS Biographical Memoirs, 62).  You can download a copy by going to the NAS Biographical Memoirs webpage and searching the online collection for Barker. Figures 1 and 2 display the front and back on an old cabinet photo of Barker that is in my collection.  Click on each photo to enlarge; click again to enlarge further.

Figure 1.  G. F. Barker.  Copyright © Mark I. Grossman
Figure 2.  Back of Barker Photo. Copyright © Mark I. Grossman

In his talk, Barker showed three vials of radium salts, as well as a radiograph of a mouse, all of which he obtained from W. J. Hammer (1859-1934), author of the 1903 book, Radium and other radioactive substances.  Two radiographs of a mouse (one on a plate and the other caught in a trap) are shown in Hammer’s book (pages 38-39), but only one was used by Barker in his Columbia lecture (p. 290). Hammer worked for Thomas Edison, was an early experimenter with radium having obtained samples from Pierre and Marie Curie in 1902, and developed the infamous radium paint used on watch dials.  

Figure 3 displays a letter in my collection that was written by Barker to Hammer on March 15, 1903 in preparation for his Columbia lecture just a few days away, and is on University of PA Morgan Laboratory of Physics letterhead.  It reads in part:

“Dr. Chandler has asked me to repeat my talk before the Chem. Soc. of Columbia Univ. on Thursday evening (the 19th)… I would like to borrow for that evening your polonium metal & the three most active radium tubes.  Also, can you spare me the slide of the mouse (without the trap)?

Barker to Hammer, 3/15/1903. Copyright © Mark I. Grossman

Never mind the radiation concerns.  Seems like Barker did not want to disturb his audience with pictures of any dead mice caught in traps!

I am particularly fond of this letter because it not only mentions the radiographs that can be viewed in Hammer's book and Barker's lecture, it references Columbia chemist Charles Frederick Chandler (1836-1925) and the behind-the-scenes preparation for Barker's talk.