For the first time since the accident in 1976, workers at Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington are planning to clean out the room where chemicals exploded in Harold McCluskey’s face, showering him with radiation 500 times the occupational limit and embedding radioactive americium in his skull, turning him into the Atomic Man.
McCluskey, improbably, survived the incident. (He later said, “Of nine doctors, four thought I had a 50-50 chance and the rest just shook their heads.”) The massive dose of radiation left him with health problems, and decades later, his body still set off Geiger counters.
But the most painful legacy of the explosion was probably the isolation, both physical and social, as other humans shied away from his radioactive body.
When the accident happened on August 30, 1976, McCluskey had just returned to his job as a technician after a five-month strike had shut down the Plutonium Finishing Plant at Hanford.
The material he was working with had become unstable after the long hiatus and so right after he added nitric acid as instructed, it exploded, blowing out the glove box that was supposed to contain it.
His body—now covered in blood and shards of metal and glass—was taken to the decontamination center where he stayed in an isolation of concrete and steel.
Nobody was allowed near him out of fear for the radiation he still emitted.
“Blinded, his hearing damaged by the explosion, McCluskey spent the next three weeks at the unit cut off from personal contact,” described a later profile in People. “Monitored, like an alien, by nurses wearing respirators and protective clothing, he could neither see nor clearly understand the attendants who approached.”
The nurses scrubbed and shaved him every day—the bath towels and bathwater now part of Hanford’s radioactive waste.
He endured 600 shots of zinc DTPA, a drug that binds to radioactive metals.
A selection of images from High Frequency Electric Currents in Medicine and Dentistry (1910) by champion of electro-therapeutics Samuel Howard Monell, a physician who the American X-Ray Journal cite, rather wonderfully, as having “done more for static electricity than any other living man”.
Although the use of electricity to treat physical ailments could be seen to stretch back to the when the ancient Greeks first used live electric fish to numb the body in pain, it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries – through the work of Luigi Galvani and Guillaume Duchenne – that the idea really took hold.
Monell claims that his high frequency currents of electricity could treat a variety of ailments, including acne, lesions, insomnia, abnormal blood pressure, depression, and hysteria.
Although not explicitly delved into in this volume, the treatment of this latter condition in women was frequently achieved at this time through the use of an early form of the vibrator (to save the physician from the manual effort), through bringing the patient to “hysterical paroxysm” (in other words, an orgasm).
These days electrotherapy has been widely accepted in the field of physical rehabilitation, and also made the news recently in its use to keep soldiers awake (the treatment of fatigue also being one of Monell’s applications).
An explosive new report by Reuters may upturn the narrative surrounding the potential cancer risks of talcum powder.
According to the report, Johnson & Johnson—the makers of the most popular consumer talc product, Baby Powder—knew for decades that its products at times contained carcinogenic asbestos, but did everything possible to keep its findings shrouded from the public and even health officials.
The report’s allegations are sourced from hundreds of internal company documents, according to Reuters, which the news agency has also made available to the public.
Many of the documents were obtained during the course of legal battles waged against Johnson & Johnson over the years by customers alleging its products had caused their cancers; others were obtained by various journalists and news organizations.
Collectively, the documents seem to paint a damning picture of the company’s actions—and inaction—surrounding its products.
Talc is a soft white clay pulled up from the earth in mines. In these mines, asbestos—a broad term for six kinds of minerals that can be found in long, thin fibers—is regularly found alongside deposits of talc.
But for decades, the company assured the public and regulators that its products were free of asbestos, even as some internal and independent tests found otherwise, according to the report.
During the summer of 1858 there was a steady accumulation of sewage locked in the tidal reach of the river.
At the same time it was a very hot summer and took place during a debate on the future of London’s sewers. “During the discussion and disputes that were taking place on the main drainage system the state of the Thames was becoming daily much worse, and was exciting great alarm and indignation.
The subject was repeatedly noticed in Parliament, and strong language was used in both Houses.”
One MP said that it was a notorious fact that it became impossible to stay in the committee rooms and the library were “utterly unable to remain there in consequence of the stench which arose from the river.”
Another commented that “by a perverse ingenuity one of the noblest of rivers had been changed into a cesspool”. Lawrence Palk described the Thames as “one vast sewer, which would surely spread disease and death around.”
The House of Lords also debated what became known as the “Great Stink”. Earl Charles Grey said it was impossible that “such a stench should not be exceedingly dangerous”.
Charles Yorke, 5th Earl of Hardwicke, claimed that the “made the main sewer for the whole of London, and had been converted into a most abominable ditch… the gaseous matter flowed along the river, and at high water the state of the atmosphere was worse than at any other time of the tide.
Parliament reacted by giving permission for Italian Engineer Joseph Bazelgette (above) to build a new sewer network for London. This involved a series of “intercepting” sewers running west to east to receive the discharge of the existing arterial north-south sewers, thus intercepting the sewage before its discharge into the Thames.
After much research the main outfalls points were sited at Barking and Crossness). In 1865-66 there was another cholera epidemic which resulted in the deaths of 20,000 people.
The government responded by setting up another enquiry into public health. As a result of this report, further reforms were introduced. In 1871 a new government department was formed to look after public health.
The following year, a law was passed that divided the country into Sanitary Authorities. Each authority had to appoint a sanitary inspector and a medical officer of health who had the responsibility of improving the region’s public health.
These measures were confirmed in the 1875 Public Health Act.
Camp Fever (Typhus) was very common in war zones. Napoleon lost more French soldiers to typhus than to the Russians in his ill fated campaign in Russia. Here we see vaccinations being administered to French soldiers in 1913.
The past was a dangerous time to be alive. If you were lucky enough to survive infancy and adolescence, you were very likely to die of any number of frightful diseases well before you reached what we regard as old age.
Readers of old novels or historical death records are confronted with many unfamiliar names for these illnesses. I’m sure I am not the only person to read pre-1900 novels and think, what is brain fever?
What’s the bloody flux? What on earth is pink disease?
For the benefit of those readers, history students and any one else who is interested, I’ve compiled a brief glossary of medical terms which were once commonly used but are now rare or obsolete.
Mathis Grunewald (1512)
Ague:Any intermittent fever characterised by periods of chills, fevers and sweats
Apoplexy: Now refers to bleeding within internal organs, but historically meant a death which began with sudden loss of consciousness; covered what we now call heart attacks, strokes and aneurysms
Bilious fever: A fever accompanied by nausea, vomiting and diaerrhea
Bloody flux: Dysentery
Brain fever: Difficult to make a diagnosis in hindsight, but possibly meningitis or encephalitis. Very popular as a plot device with 19th century novelists, who portrayed it as a reaction to a severe emotional shock.
Camp fever:Typhus; so-called because it was common in military camps with notoriously poor hygiene
Consumption:Pulmonary tuberculosis. Another popular illness in Victorian novels.
Corruption:General term for infection
Distemper:A disease, especially an infectious one
Dropsy: Edema – abnormal swelling of the body, often caused by kidney or heart disease