How Two Pittsburgh Brothers Launched The First Nuclear Industry
A few years after Polish scientist Marie Curie discovered radium, two Pittsburgh brothers sought to build upon her work by launching a commercial enterprise that began in Colorado with mining radioactive ore and culminated in free health clinics to market the new element.
A century later, a new historical marker at the University of Pittsburgh commemorates those brothers, Joseph and James J. Flannery, and the business they founded. The Standard Chemical Company essentially started the world’s first nuclear industry and led to early breakthroughs in cancer research while spawning a host of different -- and often problematic -- uses for the radioactive element it produced.
A ceremony at the school on Monday dedicated the new marker outside Allen Hall, near the site of the Flannerys’ Standard Chemical Company lab.
“They may not be as well known as the Carnegies, the Westinghouses and the Fricks, but we are proud of their accomplishments, which had lasting relevance, from steel alloys that are still being used today to the development of atomic energy,” said Sally Flannery Hardon, whose great-grandfather was James J. Flannery.
The marker was approved by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission and stands alongside a plaque honoring Curie, who visited the Standard Chemical Company in 1921.
From Discovery To Production
Curie and her husband Pierre were working with a mineral called pitchblend in 1898 when they realized the radiation it emitted came from more than just uranium.
They discovered it contained two new elements -- polonium, named for Curie’s home country, and radium, after the Latin word for “ray.” The Curies continued to research those radioactive elements.
Meanwhile, one of the Flannery brothers’ sisters received a cancer diagnosis in 1909, said Joel Lubenau, who worked a long career in radiation control. As a history buff, he submitted the nomination for the marker.
“Joseph Flannery learned that radium might be helpful, but there were only three physicians in the U.S. practicing using radium, and none were in Pittsburgh,” he said.
At the time, the world’s only radium supply -- which was small -- came from Europe.
It helped the Flannerys had experience mining and processing a different element, vanadium. One of the brothers’ other businesses, the American Vanadium Company, supplied the material to create vanadium alloy steel used in the Ford Motor Company’s Model T car.
The vanadium came from an ore in Peru, but the brothers had also acquired mines in southwestern Colorado that produced carnotite. They proceeded to extract and ship the canary-yellow mineral to southwestern Pennsylvania, where their new chemical company began commercially producing the radium from the ore in 1913.
A gram of radium retailed for $120,000. Producing just one gram was highly labor-intensive, requiring 500 tons of ore, 500 tons of chemicals, 1,000 tons of coal and 10,000 tons of water.
“Most of the radium initially was shipped to Europe because there was almost no market in the U.S.,” Lubenau said. “To be financially successful, the company would have to create one.”
The company launched research efforts into the medical benefits of radium and started a radium clinic to treat patients. They also published their findings in a journal, which they distributed to doctors.
The Flannerys found markets beyond medicine, too. The military needed luminous paint during World War I, and the company supplied the radium that made it glow. Radium was used in other products too -- from chocolate to toothpaste -- before the harmful effects of radiation exposure were better understood.
Miracle Or Menace?
While radium did serve legitimate medical purposes, a lot of early uses were quackery, said David Allard, director of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Radiation Protection.
Take what happened to Eben Byers, a Pittsburgh industrialist who injured a shoulder and was prescribed a substance called Radithor. He drank the liquid, which contained a microcurie of radium.
“He drank several of these vials every day until the early 1930s when his skull and his jaw started falling apart,” Allard said. “Radium behaves like calcium -- it goes to your bones -- and he died a tragic death.”
The Food and Drug Administration eventually moved in and shut down businesses purporting false health claims, he said.
Many early pioneers in the radiation field also died from prolonged exposure, Curie likely included. They often did not wear proper protective gear while handling radioactive materials.
That’s not to say radium is always harmful.
“If you think about it, the use of these radium sources back in the 1910s and 1920s really led to the medical uses of radiation we have today,” Allard said.
Radium is still used to treat prostate cancer.
The Flannerys stopped producing the element when a better-quality radium ore was discovered in the Belgian Congo, and the business dissolved in 1933.
Lubenau has written extensively on the history of radiation. In one of his works, he describes a major undertaking to clean up the company’s facilities.
The Standard Chemical Company lab in Oakland, now known as the Parkvale Building, underwent a decontamination that cost millions.
A different chemical company acquired the brothers’ Canonsburg mill, where the carnotite arrived by train from Colorado. The new company produced uranium until it closed a few decades later. A fence isolates the site where contaminated material, both from the property and locations nearby, is buried.
Signs warn passersby of the radioactive material, and Lubenau writes that state and federal officials inspect the site periodically.