A Nuclear Jockstrap

February 3, 2017

Note: Click on any image for a larger version and a caption.

William J. A. Bailey (1884-1949) was a quack-cure huckster.  After dropping out of Harvard without a degree, he briefly engaged in mail fraud, served a prison term, and then entered the lucrative and minimally-regulated patent medicine trade with a fraudulent European doctorate.  His chosen specialty was “male enhancement.” (As anyone with an email account will attest, this dubious market has survived the intervening century and all attempts at regulation.)  Bailey’s first boner pills contained strychnine.  He entered business at a time when popular enthusiasm for radioactivity was ascendant, and he is mostly remembered today for his lethal radioactive quack cures, including Radithor and the Radiendocrinator (above).  Most hucksters did not actually include radioactive ingredients in their products; they lied.  On this matter, though, Bailey was deadly honest.  Evidence suggests he used his own products, believed in them, and in all possibility, died from them (bladder cancer).

The Radiendocrinator is a credit-card-sized radium source of spectacular activity (originally 100 microcuries of Ra-226 and 150 microcuries of Ra-228) intended to be stuffed into a man’s jockstrap and worn “under the scrotum” for extended duration. Production spanned 1922-1929, and with prices set in the thousands of dollars (1929 basis), only the Jay Gatsby set could afford these gilded nut-roasters. Users were instructed to orient the wire-mesh window towards the skin to ensure maximum beta dose to shallow tissues.  In measurements on my Radiendocrinator (and it must be noted that the Ra-228 is long gone now and only Ra-226 remains), the beta-gamma reading on a Fluke 451B ion chamber was 390 mR/h at 1/8 inch, and the gamma-only reading was 52 mR/h.  It is not straightforward to extract a beta dose rate from such measurements, but assuming a correction factor of ~0.1 Gy/R (dependent on beta energy, source geometry, and ion chamber geometry), a total scrotal skin and gonadal dose rate of 30-40 mGy/h is probably not unreasonable.  Far from causing a boost to male potency, wearing a Radiendocrinator according to the manufacturer’s instructions would have likely led to temporary sterility and, of course, elevated risk of cancer.  In other words, it was a male contraceptive of sorts.  As an unsealed radium source, the wearer’s clothing, nutsack, schlong, bedsheets, sexual partners, and probably anything in the vicinity would have been rendered contaminated by Pb-210, Po-210 and other radon daughters.  Lord, what a mess.

Modern owners of these radioactive collectibles should be cautious about proper storage, as they are among the hotter of the classic quack radium cures.  Most important is a hermetic container (e.g., a small dive box) to control radon daughters emitted from the source itself.  The blue velvet-lined Radiendocrinator case is likely to be roaring with radon daughter activity as well, and should be kept separately in a bag or other sealed container.  Shielding from the penetrating gamma radiation is strongly advised.  2-4 cm of lead is reasonably effective.  The source and its case should only be handled with gloves and the source itself should NEVER be opened except in a radiochemical glovebox facility, as there is a grave risk of airborne radium alpha activity being liberated.


The question of dosimetry from a Radiendocrinator continues to interest me because of how high the doses could potentially be from this particular device in its suggested mode of long-term use pressed against the skin.  To provide more insight into the doses, I downloaded VARSKIN 4, a deterministic radiation transport tool developed for the US NRC often used to model beta doses to skin, and I modeled the geometry and source activity of a Radiendocrinator at the peak of its beta-emitting powers (which occurs when it is 3.5 years old).  The model makes numerous assumptions, and some may not be very good:

  • Source area is the Radiendocrinator’s front “window,” 6.23 cm long and 3.63 cm wide (measured).
  • The source itself is 7 sheets of absorbent paper uniformly loaded with radium sulfate, 0.33 mm thick each, with a density of 0.55 g/cc.  The paper’s density and thickness are a total guess.  The number of source sheets is borrowed from Paul Frame’s online description of the innards of his device.  Note: NEVER TAKE ONE OF THESE APART (unless, like Paul Frame, you have the facilities to handle a loose alpha source of this intensity).  Initial activity of 100 μCi Ra-226 and 150 μCi Ra-228 were inferred from Kolb’s and Frame’s description in Living with Radiation: The First Hundred Years.
  • At the time of peak beta intensity–when the source is 3.5 years old–it will contain the following important beta-gamma activities:
    • Pb-214, 100 μCi
    • Bi-214, 100 μCi
    • Ac-228, 98.4 μCi
    • Pb-212, 84.2 μCi
    • Bi-212, 84.2 μCi
    • Tl-208, 30.3 μCi
  • Pb-210 and Bi-210 are omitted as they will not have had much opportunity to grow in at 3.5 years.  Alpha emitters are omitted.
  • There are two overlain sheets of 16-mesh woven metal screen composed of 0.009-inch wire that are interposed between the source material and the human target.  VARSKIN does not model such geometries. I calculate a transparency of 53%, and assume the metal blocks 100% of intercepted beta particles and 0% of intercepted photons.
  • There is a plastic sheet, probably nitrocellulose, over the front of the device that I model in VARSKIN as 0.5 mm thick with a density of 1.3 g/cc.  This is a total guess.
  • I assume a 1-mm gap between the source and skin.
  • VARSKIN’s default skin dose averaging area is 10 sq. cm., in recognition of the US NRC’s current rule for computing shallow dose equivalent in 10 CFR 20.1201(c).  I did not alter this in the calculation.

Results: In vintage condition (3.5 years old), the Radiendocrinator’s predicted shallow dose rate due to beta particles is 88 mGy/h, and with the gamma contribution added in is up to 91 mGy/h.  Deep dose rate (from gamma contributions only) is 2.0 mGy/h.  In the Radiendocrinator’s present condition, assuming the contributions of ingrown Bi-210 and the total decay of the Ra-228 chain, the beta-gamma shallow dose rate is 57 mGy/h, and the deep dose rate is 0.9 mGy/h.  So…what does this mean, practically, for the wearer?

  • 2 Gy is the threshold for skin erythema: waves of redness and itching sensation over several months, culminating in skin death and replacement as in a sunburn.  The Radiendocrinator wearer potentially earns an itchy, inflamed scrotum with a few nights of wearing the device.
  • 15 Gy marks the onset of painful burning with moist desquamation following browning of the skin, i.e. a “nuclear tan”, with the possibility of long-lasting ulceration.  This is a hardcore radiation burn.  If you wore the Radiendocrinator all the time, every day, for a week, this might be your reward.  As there are no records of gruesome and agonizing injuries associated with the device, I assume there were no users hardcore enough to “ride the radium” full-time.
  • Temporary sterility can happen with doses of 150 mGy or greater to the testes.  With a deep dose rate of 2 mGy/h, it would take a guy three whole days on the nuclear pad to achieve temporary sterility.  Libido would not be impacted.
  • Stochastic effects: using ICRP weighting factors, I calculate an effective dose rate of about 1.2 mSv/h from the skin (shallow) and deep (general tissue) dose rates given above.  The excess risk of fatal cancer is on the order of 5%/Sv.  Though the dose rate is on the higher side, your real problem with this source is the skin damage you would endure.


  1. Where and how did you get this rather active item, it is almost 4 MBq of Ra-226. I think you might be in the US so you use Ci, I am in Europe so I use Bq.

    • Hi Mark, I purchased this at an antiquities auction in upstate New York, and a couple friends helped with its retrieval, safe storage, and transportation across the country. Several Radiendocrinators have been sold on eBay in the past decade, but have been confiscated by regulatory agencies (and presumably destroyed) after jealous losing bidders threw a tantrum. So the way to get these kinds of things now is at old-fashioned estate sales and live auctions.

  2. Well, if that don’t beat all. Fascinating!

  3. […] The Radiendocrinator, sold by quack radium cure promoter William J. A. Bailey, was an exceedingly dangerous and expensive radium source. – Read full story at Hacker News […]

  4. I have a couple questions that are going to be pretty easy to answer for a person of your education and abilities:

    -The VARSKIN program which you used and displayed in screen caps is a running binary with GUI; the site you provided links to the current version of VARSKIN (v5.x.x) and from searching the NRC site I can only find an option to download the source code, not a compiled application. Also, while not a huge issue, wanting the source code requires registration and signing an NDA. What I am asking is am I missing an option to download a compiled edition of the program without the source code. I understand the need to protect the source code–but a compiled executable would be easy to provide without releasing source code and requiring registration. And did you obtain it as an organization or as just an amateur user for personal use?

    -What if one lives in an agreement state that allows a person to possess an unlimited quantity of radium based items as long as the items were manufactured for commerce and marketed during the early days of radium-medicine quackery; would the risk of opening such a device be simply the up to the owner and possessor? I understand the risk and warning and it is clearly warranted, but for states like Texas or Maryland which allow you to possess any level of activity so long as it is an antiquity, is this not a “do as I say, not as I might do” warning? I don’t mean that as provoking, just where does one draw the line, i.e., assembling a millicurie AmBe neutron source vs. disassembly of a Radiendocrinator for the same purpose for instance? I know you know what you are doing, but how do others who are enthusiastic about this field learn to draw the line? Is there a way to understand the NRC regulations more easily for the lay person when confronted with acquiring items that are so intensely active / contain what I always thought were absolutely verboten like Pu based items even though the hazard is infinitesimal and not worth anyone’s time to regulate such a small source from a Soviet-era smoke detector?

    The write-up was very informative and your hard work is much appreciated in elucidating the make-up and manufacture of this well-known yet rare collectible.

    Thanks for any insights you might be able to shed some light on.

    • Hi Rory, the VARSKIN website has been changing a lot in the last couple months because administrative control for it is apparently being passed from Oregon State to the NRC (or something). Anyway, I only have the previous version of VARSKIN (v. 4) and that is what you see running in the screenshots. I obtained this from Oregon State’s old VARSKIN website as a pre-compiled executable. I wasn’t even aware the source was offered! I would like VARSKIN v. 5 myself, either source or binary, and I sent an email asking for it to the new software admin at the NRC a couple weeks ago. I should follow up. By law, VARSKIN is available for free! However, the NRC would love to collect a fee for providing “support” to users, and that is apparently easy to do when people can’t find a download to the code or a responsive admin to give them a download link. Let me know if you have any luck getting v. 5, and keep in mind that this is a transition period for VARSKIN’s development team.

      Regulation of radium as “byproduct material”, with very limited exceptions, is fairly recent and the NRC and states alike struggle with interpretation and implementation of their regulations all the time. Also, the fact remains that large quantities of radium antiquities remain privately owned with no licensing, and disposal costs are astronomical. Regulators do not seem to consider these items high-priority for these practical reasons. Therefore, I believe it is up to owners to (1) become educated about what they own and understand the hazards, and (2) be responsible curators and avoid drawing regulatory scrutiny for doing things with radium that are plainly dangerous. I live my own life subject to this admonition; it’s not a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do situation for me. Different regulations apply to some other items you mentioned. For example, there are no rules explicitly preventing the placement of sealed, general-licensed alpha sources against beryllium to constitute an Be(a,n) neutron source.

      Good luck with VARSKIN!

  5. Carl,

    First, thank you for replying to my questions so quickly! I don’t check my private gmail address as often as my work email, so I didn’t notice you got back to me less than 4 hours later which is much faster than I thought it might take. Also, thanks for understanding the gist of both questions. I realize the second one might have sounded rude after I posted it, but you kindly answered it anyway.

    I did manage to get the source code, but haven’t compiled it yet. The availability of the source is a benefit, but when I posed the question, I was less interested in making beneficial mods and more interested In just using the software. I freely admit that I don’t understand a lot of the reasons behind an NDA for this software, but I am still earning my undergrad in health physics and am only a sophomore, so I know I have a long way to go until I am sufficiently competent in the field of contemporary physics, HE/particle physics, and the related principles at work. Same goes for my literacy with respect to health and ionizing radiation. I’m frankly glad you have taken time to not answer me specifically, but also to do the amount of work you do when not at work to not just catalogue and ‘curate’ your collection, but also be willing to share your experiments and grind out the results they yield with equal attention to details.

    Your answer to the second question was quite simply more useful information than I have been able to obtain from either the government or by way of the professional organizations like the HPS. I was trying to explain the frustration that various regulations seem to cause me. While not an expert like a full-blown nuclear engineer such as yourself with a huge cache of professional and personal experience, I am glad you seem to agree the regulations are not exactly straight forward, have notable exceptions and concessions to allow them to jive with agreement states own regulations and if I may take the liberty of saying they can present at times a nightmare of cross-referencing, do not read like humans think (just take own vs. possess: I never thought about it, but you can own something you don’t possess and vice versa). I wouldn’t dare to compare my limited formal education of the rules and regs that will play a part in my career as a CHP with the breadth of your knowledge and experiences, but am glad to know I wasn’t alone in my view that the legalese surrounding this field of science can be daunting.

    I hope I can feel free to ask more questions when I might hit a wall in my understanding as you cut through the crap, but do so eloquently and without disparaging or just ignoring the bureaucratic aspects, but putting them in the appropriate context. If you permit the occasional question, I would be most appreciative and certainly not expect replies as fast as the aforementioned. If it is a sensitive question about something I am unsure of, I would ask it in a private manner and let you decide if the topic is one you would consider lending explanation or opinion on or whether to pass it on to—ugh—the NRC public relations folks.

    So glad I came across your blog and if that was all I was ever privy to, it would be well worth it as it both supplements my higher education journey with a ton of practical knowledge, as well as proves to be very entertaining for those of us who find intellectual discourse about such topics to be both intrinsically valuable, but a suitable source of pleasant distraction.


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