Liquid Sunshine and The Sunshine Dinner

In early 1904 one particular society event captured public attention all around the world helping to propel radium’s status as an emerging medical panacea as well as establishing many of the motifs that became synonymous with the element.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Club had decided to theme their 1904 annual dinner around Radium and, as the guest of honour, they invited Dr William Morton[1]. Morton, who was a Professor of Electro-Therapeutics and Diseases at the New York Post-Graduate Medical School and Hospital, had a month earlier given a lecture to the club on his new discovery “liquid sunshine” a combination radium/x-ray internal therapy that had already led to claims of several successes in treating and curing cancer.

Despite choosing such a serious topic, one that was receiving significant press coverage on a daily basis, the dinner was designed to have “fun with science” [2]  with L.D Gardiner, the Chair of the Entertainment Committee expressing his hope that no one present would “take the exhibition too seriously.” [3]

And, by all accounts, the entertainment committee certainly took this to heart presenting a series of entertainments that astounded those present and fascinated those who read about it after the event.

As with anything that has the potential to be sensationalised it is quite difficult to separate out the facts from the fictions about what actually happened on the night. All accounts agree that the room was darkened and that luminous paint was used to great effect with dancing skeletons [4], balloons floating around the room [5], glow in the dark decorations including the MIT Banner [6], a motionless skeleton in the corner of the room (said to be the founder of MIT) [7], and, most bizarrely, two glow in the dark pasteboard chickens shown fighting over an egg [8].

There was also an exhibition of a radium-powered perpetual motion machine invented by Professor Pegram who was also present [9].

But all of this was merely background to the main event of the night where those present actually got to drink Morton’s already famous “Liquid Sunshine.”

The recipe for Liquid Sunshine was published by the San Francisco Chronicle but what is really interesting is the imbibing process devised by Gardiner for the night.

San Francisco Chronicle 7 February 1904

New York Herald, 6 February 1904

San Francisco Chronicle 7 February 1904

When the guests sat down for dinner they found a miniature stein containing a capsule of quinine (or another chemical) and a crystal glass of pure, sparkling, water beside their plates. After the plates had been cleared the toastmaster issued instructions to drop the capsule into the water giving it time to dissolve during the after dinner speeches. This chemical allowed the water to be fluorescent when the radium was added and would ensure the drink glowed either blue or yellow in the darkened room. Again, at a signal from the toastmaster, the diners each dropped a tiny tube of radium into their already glowing glass thus rendering it radioactive. A toast was raised [10], the “liquid sunshine” drunk, and the group moved onto singing several rousing songs – time being kept by a glistening baton tipped with radium [11].

[Note: in some accounts the water was charged with radium before the event which sounds more likely given the cost of radium salts at the time and the fact there were 150 guests at this dinner].

New York Herald 6 February 1904

The showmanship and, quite frankly bizarre, activities of this group of scientists, medical men and professionals was like catnip to the press and the next day, and for months afterwards, illustrations, reports, and commentaries of the night featured in international, national and local newspapers.

Many of these accounts focused on the extravagance of this exclusive event playing on Radium’s reputation as being the most expensive substance on earth – out of the reach to most people but treated almost as a plaything by the rich. And we can assume that these cocktails did, unlike most other radium drinks and even most medicines, contain a very weak amount of radium salts.

But this event also helped to propel Morton and his “Liquid Sunshine” into the conscious of millions of people around the world who were beginning to believe that radium held the secret to curing disease. I am going to focus on Liquid Sunshine and Morton in a future blog.


References and Further Reading
[1] The Scotsman 18 October 1904[2] Butler Weekly Times 12 May 1904[3] New York Times 6 February 1904[4] New York Times 6 February 1904[5] New York Times 6 February 1904[6] Butler Weekly Times 12 May 1904[7] Butler Weekly Times 12 May 1904[8] New York Times 6 February 1904[9] Daily Mirror 8 February 1904[10] Indianapolis News 2 February 1904[11] Daily Mirror 8 February 1904

Pin It on Pinterest