Standard Chemical Company—The First US Nuclear Industry

Joel O. Lubenau, David J. Allard, and Michael A. Sheetz

On 12 November 2018, the Western Pennsylvania Chapter of the Health Physics Society sponsored a special meeting to dedicate a new historical marker at the University of Pittsburgh. The marker honors James J. and Joseph M. Flannery, brothers who founded the Standard Chemical Company (SCC), the first American company to produce radium. The marker, approved by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, was placed outside the university's Allen Hall. Nearby is another plaque from 1967 commemorating the visit of Marie Curie in 1921 to western Pennsylvania to receive an honorary degree from the university. At that time, she toured the company's laboratory on Forbes Avenue and its ore-processing facility in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.

The Flannery brothers established SCC after learning a sister, stricken with cancer, might be helped by radium therapy, but no radium was available in Pittsburgh (Lubenau 2005). Earlier, the brothers established the American Vanadium Company, which produced the metal to create vanadium steel alloy used by Henry Ford to make the Model T automobile (Lubenau 2011–2012). The vanadium company was very successful, and it provided the brothers the business model to produce and market radium.

Production of one gram of radium, which cost $120,000, required 4.5 x 105 kg of carnotite uranium ore, 4.5 x 105 kg of chemicals (e.g., acids), 9 x 105 kg of coal, and 9 x 106 kg tons of water. The company launched a medical-therapy research program, established a radium clinic to treat patients, and published a journal that was distributed to the medical community. Beginning in World War I, radium use extended to nonmedical purposes, especially in luminous paint for military purposes. By 1921, when Marie Curie visited, the company had produced over half of the world's radium.

The brothers were very close and, sadly, both died in 1920. James Gray, SCC's legal counsel, became president of the company and accompanied Marie Curie when she visited the company's labs in 1921. Remarkably, Gray was an early cancer survivor thanks to radium therapy in 1913 that utilized the company's own product.

The SCC's production of radium ended soon afterwards when richer pitchblende ore was discovered in the Belgian Congo, and the company was dissolved in 1933. Although the life of the company was relatively brief, its production of radium is considered the first nuclear industry. The company established radium therapy as a mainstream part of medicine. Radium therapy, in turn, paved the way to today's use of other radioactive materials in radiation oncology and (eventually) nuclear medicine.

The dedication ceremony was moderated by Michael Sheetz, CHP, director of the university radiation safety office, and featured presentations by David Allard, CHP, director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Radiation Protection, about the history of radium in Pennsylvania; Joel Lubenau, emeritus CHP, about the Flannery brothers and their radium and vanadium enterprises; and Andrew Masich, about the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. The ceremony was covered by Pittsburgh's National Public Radio.

Many of the Flannery descendants were present for the meeting. Sara (Sally) Flannery Hardon, great-granddaughter of James Flannery, spoke on behalf of the family members present. She noted of the Flannery brothers, "They may not be as well-known as the Carnegies, the Westinghouses, and the Fricks, but we are proud of their accomplishments, which had lasting relevance, from steel alloys that are still used today to the development of atomic energy." Sally also told the story of a mountain lion cub being sent to the SCC's offices on Forbes Avenue from associates in Colorado. The cub was named "Coug" and was tame, but had to be given to a local zoo after an incident when Coug "lunged at my aunt!"

References

Lubenau JO. Radium City, U.S.A. Pennsylvania Heritage XXXI(4):16–25; Fall 2005.

Lubenau JO. Vanadium: stained glass, helpful metal. Western Pennsylvania History 94(4):46–59; Winter 2011/12.

 

Left to right: Michael Sheetz, David Allard, Sara (Sally) Flannery, Andrew Masich, and Joel Lubenau. Photo courtesy of Aimee Obidzinski, University of Pittsburgh