Radiation Evangelists

Technology, Therapy, and Uncertainty at the Turn of the Century

Womack provides a portrait of a technology that inspired optimism and enthusiasm, while killing some of its primary proponents. His engaging study effectively conveys the processes whereby medical innovations are often applied before they are understood. It is a story not so much of failure—radiation therapies have been effectively used for more than a century—but of the tangled path to success.

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Radiation Evangelists explores X-ray and radium therapy in the United States and Great Britain during a crucial period of its development, from 1896 to 1925. It focuses on the pioneering work of early advocates in the field, the “radiation evangelists” who, motivated by their faith in a new technology, trust in new energy sources, and hope for future breakthroughs, turned a blind eye to the dangers of radiation exposure. Although ionizing radiation effectively treated diseases like skin infections and cancers, radiation therapists—who did not need a medical education to develop or administer procedures or sell tonics containing radium—operated in a space of uncertainty about exactly how radiation worked or would affect human bodies. And yet radium, once a specialized medical treatment, would eventually become a consumer health product associated with the antibacterial properties of sunlight.

This book raises important questions about medical experimentation and the so-called Golden Rule of medical ethics, issues of safety and professional identity, and the temptation of a powerful therapeutic tool that also posed significant risks in its formative years. In this cautionary tale of technological medical progress, Jeffrey Womack reveals how practitioners and their patients accepted uncertainty as a condition of their therapy in an attempt to alleviate human suffering

288 Pages, 6 x 9 in.

March, 2020

isbn : 9780822946090

about the author

Jeffrey Womack

Jeffrey Womack earned his PhD in history from the University of Houston in 2016. He regularly collaborates with the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s Historical Medical Library and Mütter Museum. He resides and teaches in Philadelphia.

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Jeffrey Womack