Yesterday's News

Radiation baths

Sand treatments were '50s rage, but they ended up not being cure-all

By FRANK BOYETT, The Gleaner
October 23, 2005

Back in 1955 local residents were crowding into a rented building in Corydon to pack themselves in uranium-laced sand in the belief it would zap troublesome medical conditions.

Yeah, I know. It sounds a little crazy nowadays, but you've got to keep in mind that back in the mid-1950s the words "atomic" and "uranium" carried a lot more cachet than they currently do.

Also, while it might not especially please the medical community for me to point this out, there is a certain faddish element to medical treatments. You don't hear too much these days about people being bled to relieve them of nasty humors. Nor do doctors routinely administer electrical shocks as treatment, as they did a century ago. Perhaps it can be attributed to the march of progress.

But I shouldn't pick on doctors. I'm getting of an age where their faces are becoming more familiar.

Besides, the "Uranium Sand Baths" at Corydon didn't exactly have the approval of the U.S. medical establishment at the time, although they were offered under the auspices of chiropractor R.E. Hight and his business partner Walter Miller.

"Miller is quick to disavow any quick-cure claims for his paydirt," according to Francele Armstrong's column in The Gleaner on this date in 1955. "He says his wife, who has about four years of nurse training, will have nothing to do with his project."

Patrons were even asked "to sign a paper which states that they do not expect that anything will come of the treatment, or words to that effect."

The establishment was set up to accommodate 18 people at a time. "The 'seat' is filled with uranium sand. The visitor's feet and hands are placed in paper bags containing the dirt. If there is an open sore it is covered so as not to come in contact with the sand, thus avoiding possible contamination."

Now get this: The 3,000 pounds of radioactive sand had been shipped in from Texas. And Hight and Miller didn't even own it. They had leased it from a similar operation near Comanche, Texas, run by Jesse Reese, who was an old friend of Miller's.

The Comanche area had experienced a boom of uranium baths at the time. Some of the 25 establishments in that area were called the "Uranium Sand Palace," the "Uranium Ranch" or "Frank and Annie's Uranium Sitting House."

"The entire Texas area surrounding the uranium bath center has been in a state of agitation ranging from fanatical belief to equally fanatical disbelief over the 'cures' claimed by folk who have subjected themselves to the sand-packing treatment in the Comanche area," Armstrong wrote.

Some of the same division was present locally. One "out of state newspaper," probably one of the Evansville papers, published an article claiming that the supposedly healing sands of Corydon weren't at all radioactive. That prompted Hight and Miller to hire Withers Clay, a geological engineer from Evansville, to come down and test the sands with a Geiger counter. Sure enough, Clay's report showed, the sands contained a small but detectable amount of radioactivity.

But apparently business dropped off once that doubt was raised, according to Harlan Freeburger, who said the business lasted only a few months.

"He said it was good for arthritis and everything else," Freeburger said recently. "We were foolish enough to take him up on it. He advertised it would cure a lot of problems. I don't guess he cured any."

According to a paper written in 1999 by Barbra Erickson of the University of Nevada at Reno, the phenomenon of using uranium as a medical cure has a long history of use in Europe and Japan, but had its American beginnings in 1951 at an old gold mine near Boulder, Mont.

"The wife of one of the mining engineers went down into the mine to visit her husband, so the legend goes, and discovered that her bursitis was dramatically improved," Erickson wrote. "From this first healing experience word spread quickly and by 1952 thousands of people suffering from arthritis and other illnesses were arriving at the Free Enterprise Mine asking for treatment."

Maybe there is something to the claims; the Free Enterprise Mine still offers treatments to this day.

100 years ago

A banquet was hosted by the YMCA to begin raising money for constructing a $35,000 building at Third and Main streets, according to a 1905 article in The Gleaner. That building would house the organization until the current quarters on Klutey Park Plaza were constructed in 1973.

75 years ago

Work was expected to begin shortly on the bridge over the Green River at Spottsville, The Gleaner reported in 1930. That bridge collapsed while under construction July 8, 1931, but was completed at the end of 1931.

25 years ago

The Breckinridge Job Corps Center was renamed in honor of former governor and U.S. senator Earle C. Clements for his 84th birthday, The Gleaner reported on this date in 1980. Clements was a Union County native.


Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2006 HCH&GS