Autograph letter signed ‘E Rutherford’ to Charles Herman Viol, 8 January 1921. Three pages on two sheets.



Important letter from Rutherford to Charles Herman Viol requesting information about the production of radium, in preparation for a series of lectures he was to deliver at The Royal Institution. “From 1921, when he succeeded [J. J.] Thomson, until his death, Rutherford was professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution in London, a post that entailed several lectures each year” (DSB). Rutherford (1871-1937) had moved in 1919 from Manchester to Cambridge, where he was director of the Cavendish Laboratory. There he continued his research on radioactivity, mainly in collaboration with James Chadwick, work which depended on a steady supply of radioactive materials. Since 1913 Viol had been director of research at the US Standard Chemical Company, the first successful large-scale producer of radium, and editor of its in-house journal Radium. He was thus in an excellent position to respond to Rutherford’s request. Rutherford letters with significant scientific content are rare on the market.

The letter reads, in full:

Dear Dr Viol

I am giving a course of lectures on Radioactivity at the Royal Institution beginning late in February. I shall be obliged if you can give me any general information with regard to the following: 1. Average Ur plus Th content of the carnotite used for separation of Ra. 2. A rough idea of methods of commercial separation with rough figures of amount of ore, acid, etc. to yield one gram Ra. Probably you have published something along these lines. Possibly you could give me some idea of the annual output of Ra for the world & an estimate of the amount so far separated.

If it is not too much trouble, I should be glad of rough figures of this kind to introduce in one of my lectures. Also I should be glad of any general information re commercial separation that you may have on hand & do not regard as confidential.

I am always interested to receive your publication Radium which I read with interest.

Yours sincerely,

E Rutherford


“Viol had been trained as a physicist and had studied under eminent physicists such as Albert Michelson and Robert Millikan at the University of Chicago. His advisor was the chemist Herbert McCoy, known for his study of radioelements. In 1914 Viol had just completed his dissertation on the chemical properties and relative activities of the radio-products of thorium. To a young, promising scientist, the Standard Chemical Company offered the chance to enter a rapidly developing industry and become its pioneer. Viol was among those who improved the method for recovering radium from carnotite ore and foresaw several possible uses for radium salts ...

Radium was a monthly publication devoted to “the chemistry, physics, and therapeutics of radium and radioactive substances”. It was published by the Radium Publishing Company, yet another of the Standard Chemical Company’s subsidiaries. The idea of printing a house journal was mainly based on its French counterpart Le Radium (1904).” The Standard Chemical Company’s commercial interests in radium were principally its medical applications. Viol intended Radium “to legitimize the Standard Chemical Company within the community of American physicians and use it as a marketing tool for the company’s products. His co-editor was William Cameron, a medical doctor who was the rst in the United States to report treatment in a patient with breast cancer using massive doses of the material” (Maria Rentetzi, ‘The U.S. Radium Industry: Industrial In-house Research and the Commercialization of Science,’ Minerva 46 (2008), pp. 437-62).

The Standard Chemical Company reached the apogee of its fame in May 1921, when Marie Curie, the discoverer of radium, visited the United States. One week after her arrival, President Harding presented her with a gift of one gram of the rare element, prepared by Company. It was at her personal request that a visit to the Standard Chemical Company’s facilities was included in her busy schedule.

Three pages on two sheets, 177 x 111 mm, address (Newnham Cottage, Queen’s Road, Cambridge) embossed in upper right corner (a few light soil marks, neat horizontal fold).

Item #3663

Price: $5,850.00