Chronology: Herman Schlundt and radiation research at MU's Pickard Hall

Monday, July 15, 2013 | 5:55 p.m. CDT; updated 6:57 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 15, 2013

This chronology accompanies an article about the work of Herman Schlundt and the history of radiation in MU's Pickard Hall.

1869: Herman Schlundt is born in Two Rivers, Wis. 

1899-1901: Schlundt studies in the laboratory of Wilhelm Ostwald at the University of Leipzig. Ostwald is often listed with Swedish physicist-turned-chemist Svante Arrhenius and Dutch chemist Jacobus Henricus van 't Hoff Jr. as a father of physical chemistry.

1902: Schlundt is hired to teach chemistry at MU.

1903: Marie Curie, Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel are awarded a Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of radioactivity.

1905: Albert Einstein publishes his paper on special relativity and his famous equation, E = mc2.

1906-1908: Schlundt tests Yellowstone National Park's hot springs for radiation at the request of the U.S. Geological Survey. 

1910: Schlundt becomes chemistry department chair, a position he holds until his death in 1937. 

1910s - early 1920s: Papers warning of the dangers of working with radium begin to appear in scientific journals, including the French Journal of Radiology, Nuclear Medicine and Electrology and the Journal of the American Medical Association.  

1913: Schlundt gets an introduction to radium refining at the U.S. Bureau of Mines station in Denver. He befriends Samuel Colville Lind, a chemist for the bureau. Lind was another alumnus of Ostwald's lab who would become Schlundt's lifelong colleague. 

1914-1922: Schlundt returns to MU and takes the radium refining work back with him. He publishes his results in a university research bulletin in 1923. 

1917: The U.S. Bureau of Mines, probably through Lind, introduces Schlundt to Harlan S. Miner with the Welsbach Co.

1918: Schlundt begins refining industrial waste for the Welsbach Co., harvesting radium-228 and thorium-228. Schlundt, his fellow professors and their graduate students refine waste for the company for the next 12 years. 

1921: Schlundt travels to England for a year of study at the Cavendish Laboratory. The refining continues under the direction of another chemistry professor.  

1922: Schlundt returns to Columbia and continues refining Welsbach Co.'s waste in his laboratory until around 1930. Welsbach pays Schlundt as a consultant for at least part of that time. 

1922: The price of radium goes from $115 to $120 a milligram to $70 a milligram after a new source of ore is discovered in the Belgian Congo. American ore mining stops. Schlundt focuses his refining process on Welsbach's industrial waste. 

1922-1930: Graduate students working under Schlundt's direction churn out 3,600 milligrams of radium-228. Most of it returns to Welsbach Co. 

1927: Former workers at U.S. Radium Corp.'s watch dial plant in Orange, N.J., sue the company after experiencing radium poisoning. The workers were painting watch dials with radium-infused glow-in-the-dark paint. Many of them would lick the tips of their tiny brushes into fine points, ingesting toxic levels of radium.

1928: Muckraking newspaper coverage feeds the 'Radium Girls' scandal. Radium Corp. settles with the dial plant workers, paying them $10,000 and $600 a year for the rest of their short lives. The Surgeon General places Schlundt on a committee to investigate the hazards of working with radium.

ca. 1930: Schlundt makes high-profile donations of thorium-228 to several major laboratories in the U.S. and Europe. One of them is Marie Curie's in France. Curie writes to Schlundt through Miner thanking him. 

ca. 1931: Schlundt travels to New York to test two women who had worked at the Radium Corp. factory in the late 1910s. He drinks water spiked with a known quantity of radium to see when it stops showing up in his urine.

1933: Schlundt's health begins to decline. He suffers bouts of sleeping sickness. Severe encephalitis keeps him in the hospital for a year.

1937: Schlundt dies of uremic poisoning, a result of kidney failure.

1976: The Museum of Art History and Archaeology opens in the renovated Pickard Hall. 

Late 1970s: University officials become aware of lingering radiation in the building. At a hearing in 2011, former director of MU's Office of Environmental Health and Safety Peter Ashbrook told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that after discovering the radiation, MU staff removed contamination in areas within reach and place shields over patches of radioactivity. Some contamination remains behind walls and beneath floors. They place exposure-measuring dosimeters in the building, which return low readings.

Late 1970s - early 2000s: The university continues to monitor radiation in the building and attempts to restrict access to certain areas in its basement and attics. Ashbrook told the commission in 2011 that over the years, his office "took additional steps to reduce exposures even more to low as reasonably achievable."

2007: New regulations take effect that require the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to regulate sites with naturally occurring radioactive materials. They requires these sites to be taken off the commission's list of sites to monitor. The official term is "decommissioning."

2009: MU notifies the commission that the new regulations apply to Pickard Hall. The commission asks MU to submit a two-year cleanup plan.

2011: The university asks the commission for an indefinite extension on the clean-up timeline. The commission denies the request.

May 2013: MU announces Pickard's closure. Pickard must be empty by the end of December so a new round of testing can be conducted.

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Michael Williams July 16, 2013 | 7:32 a.m.

"He suffers bouts of sleeping sickness. Severe encephalitis keeps him in the hospital for a year."

To me, "sleeping sickness" is a disease caused by a trypanosome from the bite of a tsetse fly. The disease also causes encephalitis. Did Schlundt ever go to a place this disease was endemic?

From the article, it is unclear if the author is linking Schlundt's sleeping sickness to his work, or if Schlundt had an unfortunate encounter with a nasty vector. Schlundt died at 68, 4 years later; not a bad longevity for those days. I don't know, however, if kidney failure is one side effect of radium/thorium exposure.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 16, 2013 | 10:15 a.m.

Brendan Gibbons:

My daughter has read your pieces and has an ADMINISTRATIVE question: Who was supposed to be in charge of things at the campus during the years when this experimentation was taking place?

Add THAT to your time line. (More than one administrator may have been involved.)

Seems to us this person was given an inordinate amount of "free reign," with little oversight from the university.

In its 143-year-old history, I don't believe any department chair at the campus now known as MS&T has had that lack of project oversight.

If this story needs to be told, tell it all.

(Report Comment)
Brendan Gibbons July 16, 2013 | 11:10 a.m.


Thanks for your thoughtful questions.

Here's a list of former university presidents.

I have searched all the available primary documents on Schlundt and have found nothing that will directly answer your question. The best I can offer is this:

"This kind of arrangement seems to have been against the chemistry department's rules at the time. A set of university policies the department recommended to the university's executive boards in 1916 forbade faculty from using university laboratories, equipment or materials for commercial activities without the consent of the dean or department chair.

It could have helped that Schlundt was chair of the chemistry department from 1910 until his death in 1937, according to a history of the chemistry department by former MU chemistry professor Dorothy Nightingale."

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 16, 2013 | 1:54 p.m.

@ Brendan Gibbons:

Thank you. I have no further questions.

I do have one further comment, concerning this lingering mess:

Res ipsa loquitur. [The thing speaks for itself.]

(Report Comment)

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