5 Things You Should Know About Radiation, Because They Are Interesting

Where the first nuke was buried in Chicagoland; the first radiation poisoning, or at least the first lawsuit about radiation poisoning; police forensics, circa 1898; the early history of the stop snitchin’ code; and more

You probably know that the first nuclear reactor was built at the University of Chicago (here’s a video). But did you know where it’s buried? Hint: Site A and Plot M.


It seems–and may I highly emphasize seems–that the first incidence of accidental, artificial radiation poisoning occurred in Chicago. I found the reference here, which says that it was a medical radiography overexposure circa 1896. That sent me to the Tribune archive, where I found a reference to a lawsuit filed in 1897 by Frank V. Balling, “a lumber merchant living at Blue Island,” for $25,000 against “Dr. Otto L. Schmidt, Fred M. Schmidt, and William [sic] C. Fuchs:”

More than a year ago Balling fell and sprained his ankle. It was thought that one of the small bones of the foot had been misplaced by the fall and the use of the X-ray was recommended. Three exposures, it is claimed, were made. The following day, it is claimed, the leg became discolored, and finally it was necessary to amputate it.

X-rays were discovered by Wilhelm Roentgen in 1895, and were in medical use by 1896, so it seems plausible, at least, that Balling could have been the first victim, or at least the first non-professional victim. (There are a few instances of doctors and technicians who were overexposed in 1896, including one who was treated for “parboiling.”) In 1899, Balling was awarded $10,000:

It was the first case ever started for alleged damages resulting from the application of the X ray, and the trial attracted great attention.

The plaintiff’s witnesses asserted that the exposures made by the defendants were too long lasting, as the evidence showed, from forty to forty-five minutes apiece [Ed. note: !!!]. It was also said that the X ray machine had been placed too near the leg of which the “shadowgraphs” were taken. The defendants claimed the injury was not the result of the exposure.

Meanwhile, W.C. Fuchs was busy working as a forensic expert:

The mysterious X ray of a Crookes tube, the newest wizard’s lamp in the hands of science, has shed the first light upon the mystery surrounding the shooting affray that caused the death of “Kid” Murphy.

By means of X ray photographs taken late on Tuesday night and yesterday it has been shown that the bullet lodged beside the backbone of “Dicky” Dean and the bullet imbedded in the middle of Martin Donahue’s brain are of noticeably unequal size, the former being the smaller of the two. They apparently are 32 and 38 caliber, respectively.

What to conclude from this fact the police have not yet determined, but they admit the evidence of the X ray plates, added to the mute testimony of the weapons confiscated by them after the shooting, may tend to solve the mystery as to who did the shooting, though all the living witnesses persist in maintaining dogged silence with which they have met all questions concerning the fatal fight. [Ed. note: Here I am inclined to point out that “stop snitchin’” is not a new phenomenon.*]

Of the numerous revolvers taken at the time the inmates of William Donahue’s saloon, 117 North Clark Street, were arrested, the police say they know the ownership of three. Of these one is a thirty-two caliber weapon, taken from “Kid” Murphy, and bearing his name. Besides this, there are two thirty-eight-caliber revolvers, one of which the police say was in Martin Donahue’s pocket when he left the front door of his brother’s saloon, and which had been recently discharged. The other they believe belongs to William Donahue, and, though some of its chambers are empty, they are not certain it was discharged during the night when the shooting occurred.

Martin Donahue survived, though not without side effects:

Estimated by the same means the caliber of the slug which now lies at the center of Martin Donahue’s brain is at least as large as a 38. The presence of the latter projectile, however, is still causing its owner considerable trouble. At times he is stupid or foolish, and there have been considerable lapses of reason. As a whole, though, he is getting along famously. He is in his right mind most of the time, is dressed daily, and lounges about amusing himself.

Dudes were hard back then. Here’s a picture of the X-ray photo, which accompanied the 1898 Daily Tribune article:

Wolfram Fuchs, as he was otherwise known, came from a prominent German family, was trained as an electrical engineer, and came to Chicago to work on the Cicero and Proviso rail line. He was one of only two X-ray technicians in America in 1896, and consulted at the bedside of the dying President McKinley after his assassination. He died in his home at 5438 Ingleside in 1907, of carcinoma resulting from overexposing himself to X-rays in 1905.


Out of the more than 550 Chicago police killed in the line of duty, one died of cancer caused by radiation exposure. There’s a little bit on the incident at the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation; the only other reference I’ve found comes from two 1990 Michael Sneed columns, which say that the accident occurred in 1980 at Argonne.


Indiana has one nuclear plant, Marble Hill, which was partially built but never finished. It’s mostly been demolished, but not before Abandoned U.S.A. got some amazing pictures.


 The construction of nuclear reactors on the University of Chicago campus didn’t end with Fermi; there was that time a couple students built one for Scav Hunt. Although not everyone was impressed:

Look it wasn’t a working breeder reactor. It took Thorium to Uranium and then to plutonium. It took Justin and Fred(the guys who built it) about 2 days to build it. However they started with 4 grams of thorium(alpha source) and got about 8000 atoms of uranium(neutron source) after a day and about 100 atoms of plutonium. Plus it took more energy to sustain the reaction then it producded. All in all, it wasn’t a viable way of producing large quantities of uranium or plutonium since you have to separate a very messy mixture.


*Nor, it would seem, is our reaction:

In the event of his recovery, the police are convinced the unwritten code of honor of the class to which the men belong will effectually seal the lips of every witness and prevent any one of them from “squealing” on the other.

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