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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Boris Pregel

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Interview with Dr. Boris Pregel
By Dr. Spencer Weart
At New York, NY
January 6, 1975

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Boris Pregel; January 6, 1975

ABSTRACT: Pregel provides a brief history of the development and use of radium in the 1920ís and 1930ís, focusing on the organization and distribution of radium by the Union Miniere Co., under the direction of Sengier and Lechien; the medical and scientific uses of radium; and the relationship between the Union Miniere and scientific research laboratories such as the Radium Institute, Paris.

Transcript

Pregel:

I will do this in my way, and you will then correct it, and then we will see later what itís all about.

Weart:

Sure. I can ask some questions as you go along.

Pregel:

Yes. Itís best not to interrupt me very much, because I will lose the sweep of events. Now, I will begin with the fact that you explain to me that you are interested in the historical development of radium, and the relationship between the producing companies and the scientific world, and also about what is going on now, and what happened to the radium industry, generally speaking, with scientific research in this field.

Weart:

Yes. Iím particularly interested about what happened in the twenties and thirties, when radium was most important to physicists.

Pregel:

The whole thing has to begin at the beginning. The beginning was very simple. As you know, the discoveries were made by the Curies, at the end of the last century. And at that time, very few people really, except themselves or some people around them, did something or were interested or were knowledgeable to do something. And from this point on, when this became more or less known, there were some small industrial productions of radium, most of them laboratory type, and not really industrial type, There were in France, sponsored by Rothschild, something which was extracted from the Madagascar ores, Then there was something in England, not of very great importance. Most of it was in Czechoslovakia of course, the Czechoslovakian Mines which continued to be open later too, and also in the United States, which later stopped production as soon as the Belgians came in. But the real development, of uses of radium as well as the production of radium, of if you want vice versa, came only when the Union Miniere stepped in. The reasons were, first of all because they found in the Congo very rich pitchbende mines and second, because they had all the money which was necessary to really organize the production of radium (next to the production of copper and cobalt, which were the main products of the company). Now, as radium is produced from uranium, they had to accumulate a very large amount of uranium, which at that time couldnít be sold, because there was no use for uranium except as a coloring agent.

Weart:

By the way was the uranium ore from the Congo mines that much richer than ore from the other mines? Was it really very far ahead of the others?

Pregel:

In the other mines, sometimes small parts were rich, but the regular high percentage uranium content was in the Congo. And then the expenses of extraction were very low, because you know the people were not paid the same rates as they are paid in the United States for example now. Anyhow, the full development began with the Union Miniere. The Union Miniere considered radium as an additional element, it was not the main element. But still they spent a lot of money and invited the best known chemists and engineers they could have, and built their refinery. I give you this booklet, in which you will find addresses and some education and these things. I must say that they were very comprehensive in dealing with this material. They were the monopolists at that time. The other one didnít take into consideration whatsoever. And they had an industrial and commercial interest in selling radium for the highest possible price. But I must say very frankly that this never was to the detriment of the research or real implications of that, as they understood very well that the development of their business depended largely on research and on therapeutic use of radium. At that time therapy was the main use, except for small applications, which were not of importance. So the relationship between the companies and the leading scientific institutions, or even personalities, were excellent. And never, I donít remember any case, and I was with them for many years, when they really refused to some valuable researcher the possibility either to acquire or to borrow the necessary things. In one or another way, they really did not let him be without. I must say that, they were the only distributors in the whole world, and distributed everywhere, including Russia (Something, not very much, as they had their own production; that was found later on.) Now, I was the general agent for --

Weart:

For France?

Pregel:

In the United States, they had independent agents, but the only other agents were for Canada, and me. We helped the creation of centers, medical centers throughout the world -- hunting cancer centers -- in which there was sometimes very large amounts of radium, either which were acquired by the government or were loaned to them on certain conditions, or were just there. I should say, waiting they should buy it someday. In France, that was a practice which for a certain time was used. Now, today, this is a dying business. The use of radium was simply as good or better than the other radioactive materials because itís practically stable. In 1600 years it should lose half of its radioactivity. For example; cobalt has a seven year or eight year half life, so you have to make calculations, continuous calculations of its radioactivity. But the radium by itself as it was used is scaring these people who use it, specifically a few people who work for the government. Theyíre looking at the prevention of possible accidents. They put always such conditions on the using of radium that the private doctor couldnít even dream of such constructions in his place.

Weart:

This is after the war years?

Pregel:

Yes, and Iím speaking just in general. And then also conditions even for the hospitals really prevent the use of this material, although itís still, in my opinion, the best of the radioactive substances that can be used for therapeutic purposes, and in some, things it is not even replaceable, such as for women, for the skin, and I donít know, for many others. The interest of the radium from the point of view of scientists -- its only interest for the moment being, it was a stepping stone to many other things. It was a stepping stone, because it let the people see the isotopes of the different metals, less dangerous -- etc. etc. The use of radium in the beginning of the atomic era, when it was used for preparing triggers[1], is also past. But at that time, this played a certain role. As I say, today from an historical point of view, itís less interesting. In that era, the medical people were very interested in it, and there was at that time the thought that this is the only possibility they had to combat the cancer, except X-rays, which at that time were not so developed. They didnít believe in chemical possibilities, etc. Today, itís dying -- or letís say itís slowing down. Recently there were certain things developed which may calm those who are against the use of radium by private doctors. There are new innovations which were brought by the research of Union Miniere, of which I prefer now not to speak, because there are some details which are lacking. As soon as I have it, I will certainly be very happy to give it to you. Now, the relationship, as I told, was very good. The people who were in charge in the Union Miniere at the time it was a monopoly were two men. One was the highest, E. Sengier, and the next one to him, the director of the department of radium and uranium, was Gustav Lechien. A brief description of these two people is the following. M. Lechien was an attractive looking man, an excellent administrator. He was coming from, Louvain, as well as E. Sengier, which you know is a Catholic University. M. Lechien came from a very strongly religious family, where his brother was a General of the Jesuits, and his sister was a Superior in the convent. This was not the case of Sengier at all. They had this background, and Lechien was a tremendously gifted administrator.

Weart:

Excuse me, did he have engineering or scientific training? Did Lechien have engineering or scientific training?

Pregel:

They were both engineers. They were both engineers. But Sengier was an administrator. His career generally speaking was not in engineering. His career was banking, business, administrating mines, things like that, which had nothing to do with the production of radium or other materials. He was familiar with basic things in mining, specifically what had to do with copper and cobalt, but he wasnít very interested, although he understood the importance, of research in anything, and specifically in radium. He was rather generous in giving the possibility to use large amounts of money, helping to make research to organized centers, laboratories and things like that. He was a very pleasant man, a very strong administrator, and kept the whole organization very well in his hands. M. Lechien was an engineer, was much more interested in the technical part, and also the commercial and industrial, but he understood much better the technical part of it. Since the money which was to be assigned to his department for any purpose whatsoever had to be approved by Sengier or sometimes even the board of directors, he had to work out all the reports, in order to show the necessity.

These reports are of a very good industrial engineering character, he went into all the details of manufacturing, the possibilities of selling, the state of the research, etc. etc., which gave them a good understanding of what was going on. There were health organizations, anti-cancer centers throughout the whole world, and specifically in the European countries, which were not in very good financial positions to acquire large quantities by themselves. Because the amounts which were necessary even for a small center were too much for the budget of an ordinary country, and there were no knowledgeable people, neither in the parliaments nor in the government, to understand the value of that. And this was done by Union Miniere by themselves, mostly, through agents, myself or people who were subordinate to me, or companies which were organized throughout the world in order to promote the use of radium. Which we believed at that time to be, maybe not a panacea, but anyhow something which was extremely important for trying to treat cancer. They were not wrong -- there are up to now certain cancers that are very well treated by radium, specifically cancers of the vagina in women, menís troubles with the penis also, the nose, lips, skin, things like that. This therapy probably will stay forever, unless some other method appears. But cancer research now is turning to chemistry, to some isotopes, which they think maybe will be more valuable for at least certain cancers, although the first one which was used, was dangerous as radium or maybe even more. But this is something which you can find in all the medical books, and I donít need to expand on this. Now, I will repeat that most of our relationships with the scientific researchers and the therapeutic users were conducted through the agents with Lechien who understood this thing. Although he was not a very easy-going man, he still understood it, understood the necessity of research, understood the necessity of helping, if not purely from a humanitarian point of view, at least from the commercial and industrial point of view, because the use of radium was depending on what was found as a result of use of this material.

Weart:

Did they not only give or loan radium, did they also subsidize some research directly?

Pregel:

No, they didnít need to subsidize. Money for research was available. Yes, sometimes they also subsidized in certain ways. But mostly what was important to do was put the material to use. In fact, the Institute of the Curies had tremendous quantities of radium all along, without any payment, without any interest.

Weart:

You just gave it to them on loan?

Pregel:

Just on loan for research.

Weart:

I see. By the way, did Union Miniere produce other radioactive materials also, polonium or whatever?

Pregel:

No, in fact they didnít. Anyhow, at the time when I was connected with them they didnít do anything of this kind. I doubt they do something even now, because what interests them is the products which are coming from their mines, either their own, or now the ones they are exploiting for the account of the actual government there. There is no other thing which is radioactive, just radium. Maybe thorium, some thorium but they didnít work very much with thorium. Their main element was radium. I must also explain that the monopoly of radium which they had went on for many years, till the Canadians came in with their own material which they found in the Eldorado mines in the north of Canada, The Canadians were very eager to sell this product. So they had their refinery, Port Hope, and they began to sell, to compete with the Belgians. They did it because they didnít have the necessary distribution channels, they have had practically nobody, they had no knowledge of how to do it, and they had to fight only by offering prices which were lower. In this competition, they went very far all of them, in bringing the prices at once to a very low point. As to the Czechoslovakians, their production was very small, and they beat too much against the Belgians. But at one time, it became annoying, and then some kind of an arrangement was elaborated between the three producers of radium and uranium, and this means between the Canadians and the Belgians, and then prices were established which were lower than before, but more or less in the same terms for everyone.

Weart:

Did the three still have independent distribution networks?

Pregel:

Yes. They each had their own distribution, although in certain cases they divided among themselves certain orders that were too much for one or for another. Mostly it would be too much for those who didnít have enough. The Belgians always had enough radium on hand. This is practically all which may interest historians, unless there are details they want to know, personalities of people engaged in this thing. Now, there were in the research radium, mostly at that time, a lot of people interested in, and a lot of people explained their ideas on the subject. But the real research was in England. There was a lot in France, of course. In England and some in Germany, and in Sweden. Sweden was the first place where what we call a radium bomb, which is just something which had six grams of radium in it, was used. And this is about the whole of the story, maybe. As to the characteristics of the research people, I think the best information should be given by those who worked with them daily, because sometimes there were certain people who were very fine and nice, speaking to you about general things, and completely hermetic when you began to speak about something which would interest everybody from the scientific point of view. Other ones were very harsh, but you could extract from them much more information than the other gave, because they believed in the necessity to give information to everybody. It also depends on the characteristics of the people.

The French character is one thing, the British character is another, the German character, at least at that time, was different, and the character of the people in the north was completely different. So we cannot establish and say, here is the general line or here is the average line of how the people behaved. It depends on the character of the people, some of them very good researchers with a very poor character, and some of them with a very good character and very poor research results. But anyhow, a lot of the most important work was done in France, because of the establishment of the Institute and because a lot of people were working there, later shown to be international scientists. Also in England they did a lot of very interesting mostly therapeutic research, also in Sweden, and Germany, also mostly people interested in the application of radium. You can mention Italy, also there was something done in Belgium. And this is practically all. In Russia, because we donít have real information about what was going on at that time day by day, it was only later we found out how much radium they had, and how they produced it, from where came the ores which they produced. This we learned only after the Second World War. This is about all -- except, very precise questions which you can put that I can tell you, just by myself.

Weart:

OK. I was curious about the relationship with the Radium Institute. Was this a closer relationship than with the other laboratories?

Pregel:

Yes, because they were the most important, and this was where the relationship came into being. Thatís why later also, when Joliot-Curie and Halban and Kowarski wanted to discuss the question of application of atomic energy, they were received very well. Although the Belgians were very conservative people, very conservative people, coming up from a very conservative university and also living in a certain milieu. But still they saw the value of those people and really discussed with them, and gave them whatever they asked.

Weart:

Did the scientists at the Curie Institute do any favors for the Union Miniere? In terms of measuring, things like that?

Pregel:

No. No. It was also agreed that if they find something, whatever they find, they make this public. In other words, itís not a secret. They didnít take any patents. The only time, I think, that they took a patent was with this atomic energy. It was the idea of Joliot-Curie to take a patent in the reaction, which was, by the way, if I understand, not quite in agreement with these two others, but they didnít object. Anyway, otherwise whatever was found in this thing was in the public domain. The Union Miniere didnít need to have it otherwise. By the way, there were practically no very important things done anyhow, I mean, in the research part itself. They only found therapeutic things at that time, which were of course always in the public domain, anything which was done was published.

Weart:

What about things like radiation standards, radiation measurements?

Pregel:

Oh, this was developed -- first of all, was developed in the Institute and also developed in the Union Miniere.

Weart:

They had their own engineers and so forth.

Pregel:

Oh yes. Itís a very simple thing, by the way.

Weart:

I see. What about other French scientists? For example, did Union Miniere have relations with Jean Perrin or Auger?

Pregel:

Yes, but only accidental, because the most relationship was with the Institute, with the Curie Institute.

Weart:

The others did not use much radium?

Pregel:

No, they could use anything which was there in the Institute, because Perrin was in contact with them, and so it was not necessary. The Institute had to do mostly with medical specialists, and different parts of science, because they wanted to establish the use of radium for certain applications. These were different people. But this is mostly medical people, not real physicists.

Weart:

I see. What about the Brothers de Broglie? Did they have any dealings with radium?

Pregel:

Not to my knowledge. They had probably to do with it, together with the others. You see, there was a certain centralization. The centralization was at the Institute Curie. This was the centralization. From there on, everybody could have something from them or work with them. It was also a kind of a monopoly. Kind of a scientific monopoly. They did the whole thing.

Weart:

I see. What about the British, for example, the Cavendish Laboratory, Rutherford, people like that? Was there a similar relationship?

Pregel:

We had a good relationship with them. But they didnít need it much. The point is, it was only for medical purposes. And there was a special organization, government organization, also a welfare organization, which took care of it.

Weart:

I see. How did the contacts take place between the scientists and the people, was it directly between letís say Madame Curie and Lechien, between Joliot and Lechien?

Pregel:

Normally it was done through the agents which were established in different countries. We had a company in England, London, of course I was in France, we had a company in Switzerland, a company in Berlin, etcetera, and worked through our agents. Sometimes we invited the scientists to Brussels to discuss these things, or we sent somebody down to discuss the necessities of the moment, and try to solve their problems. I must say, we were very attentive to their problems, and tried to do our best. In fact, if it wouldnít be for the Union Miniere there wouldnít be at all the centers and the possibilities, even as theyíre existing today.

Weart:

OK, well I think youíve given me a very concise picture of what I was curious about.

[1]for atomic bombs