Who was Maude Dickinson and what was her "New Activity" all about?

Mrs Maude Dickinson

WES Centenary Trail Project Officer, Helen Close, explores the history behind the "High Priestess of Hygiene" and former WES member, Mrs Maude Dickinson. 

Proclaimed as “A High Priestess of Hygiene” in the Brighton Season 1914-15[1], Maude Dickinson, is listed in the Woman’s Engineer Journal as a member of WES and a “woman scientist”[2].  Further investigation as to who she was reveals a publication called “A New Activity?” by Frank A Hotblack, 1920, which tells of Mrs Dickinson’s discovery of radioactive particles and subsequent experiments using them.

The Foreword by Alfred W. Oke declares

 “It appears to me from what I have seen of the results of Mrs Dickinson’s experiments in connection with radioactive bodies, that her researches [sic] can best be described as ‘Radio-Activity in the Service of man’” [3]

The publication talks of the discovery of radium by Pierre and Marie Curie, and then recounts the experiments of Mrs Dickinson using her newly discovered “organic radium”.  The text is written by the author almost as a biographical journal of Maude’s experiments as opposed to a scientific paper and includes photographic evidence of her experiments.  It also details scientists who have carried out observations and retesting of her work and proclaim her findings as accurate.  The crystals have similar characteristics to radium, but it seems, were not recognised as such.

A newspaper article in the Liverpool Echo of July 11, 1922, entitled “The Magic Crystals, Astonishing Claim by Woman Scientist, The Wonderful Scarab” repeats the information given in the publication and gives details of her discovery.[4]

The crystals or “scarab” appear to have been discovered forming on the paper cover of antiseptic creams that Mrs Dickinson was mixing. Further analysis showed that they held radioactive properties that were then used for all manner of uses.  From cleaning corrosion and limescale in Brighton’s Water Company’s pipes, to effervescent drinking water, to curing eczema, strengthening concrete and negating the use of yeast in bread and preserving the life of it indefinitely, these crystals were the answer.  They could also be used for bleaching paper and cleaning newly sheared wool.

Somewhat concerning (by today’s standards) is the use of this radioactive product in bread.  Letters at the end of Hotblack’s publication, show that 56 loaves of yeastless bread, were sent to Prisoners of War in Germany in 1915, “This bread keeps so very fresh that the men are able to enjoy it even after three weeks journey” and a loaf was even sent to the Queen (Mary) and a letter of thanks was received by Maude.

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Figure 2. Flour samples. From Brighton and Hove and South Sussex Graphic, 11 Nov 1915 with kind permission of ‘Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove’

“These crystals radiate beautiful colours with glorious purple and gold tints predominately…they permeate and purify everything they come into contact with…” [5] With all the wonderful proclamations about these crystals one wonders why Mrs Dickinson’s discoveries have been lost to scientific history.  “Mrs Dickinson holds that this vegetable radium is radium in its purest form, and its action is ever to purify.”[6]

According to “A New Activity?”, Maude Dickinson of Brighton, was married to Mr T. G. Dickinson and ran a business called Dongor Hygienic Co Ltd of Brighton. By 1911, Mr Dickinson was dead and Maude was free to conduct her experiments. [7] [8]

Dickinson ran The Dongor Hygienic Company, (as opposed to the Dongor crystals as they became known) which made a vast array of hygiene products and there are various adverts in periodicals for a wide range of goods including antiseptic hygiene spray for use in hospitals, cinemas and theatres, tooth powder, and metal cleaning products.  The company was awarded a Diploma and Silver Medal at the 17th International Congress of Medicine in 1913 and was reputed to be supplying products to over 500 organisations including the Red Cross Society. [9]

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Figure 3 Advertisement from the Brighton Herald, 11-04-1914 p4, by kind permission of ‘Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove’

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Figure 4. Advertisement from The Kinamotgraph and Lantern weekly May 29th, 1913, by kind permission of ‘Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove’

The Brighton Graphic of 1914-15 announces Mrs Dickinson as the “High Priestess of Hygiene” and that:

“The practise of “Dongor” hygiene has for some considerable time been the vogue in society circles, where it has been discovered that the winter colds, chills and influenza may be triumphantly grappled with by adopting “The Dongor Habit” as prescribed by Mrs Dickinson”[10]

The fascination with the 20th century discovery of radium and the use of radioactivity has been explored recently by Lucy Jane Santos in her publication Half Lives. The Unlikely History of Radiation.[11]Find out more here in Santos's interview with the IET.

Archive records for Maude’s personal life are harder to find and research reveals a past less 'clean' or acceptable in society at the time…

Mrs Maude Dickinson was born Mary Lock in about 1868-9, daughter of Peter Lock, Gentleman of Fareham. There is no evidence of Mary’s birth or education. In 1885, she married John Oldridge Dicker, a solicitor and Freemason, of Camden Square, London.[12] [13] The approximation of her birth date comes from the 1901 census details and other records, however, her marriage certificate in 1885 which states she is 23 (when she would have been 16-17 years old if the census is believed to be accurate).

In 1890, Mary filed for divorce from Dicker on the grounds of adultery and desertion by him. However, the decree nisi is rescinded and the divorce files show an interesting counter-petition against Mary stating that she was cohabiting as wife to a Mr Thomas Gordon Dickinson (as well as many hotel stays). There is also an interesting entry

 “That the from the month of September 1889 to about the month of February 1890, the said petitioner accompanied the said Thomas Gordon Dickinson on a cruise in the Mediterranean and elsewhere on board the yacht “Maude” and during all that time passed as the wife of and had habitually committed adultery with the said Thomas Gordon Dickinson.”

It is from this time that Mary appears to become known as Maude, (sometimes Maud, but for the purposes of this article will be referred to as Maude).

The 1901 Census shows Mary, now known as Maude Dickinson living with Thomas Dickinson in Patcham, Sussex, along with a ‘niece’ by the name of Kathleen Marion Dixon aged 19. Records show that Kathleen Marion was born in Kansas, US, on 25th September 1889 (which would suggest her age on the 1901 census was incorrect) and later uses the surname Dixon-Dickenson [sic] on her own marriage in 1909[14] and Thomas acknowledges Kathleen as his daughter.[15]  This leads to the speculation that Kathleen may have been the illegitimate daughter of Thomas and Maude/Mary, born whilst Thomas and Maude/Mary were on their trip overseas on the yacht “Maude”. How Kathleen came to be born in the US, (if indeed she was), how long she stayed there after she was born and when she travelled to England (or how Thomas fathered a child there) is not known.  There are no records of Thomas, Maude or Kathleen travelling to or from the US around this time.

Thomas Gordon Dickinson died in 1908 at Hotel de Paris in France. Maude “wife of John Oldridge Dicker” was named as his executor.[16] There is no evidence of a marriage between Thomas and Maude ever having taken place, and one would have to assume that Maude/Mary was unable to obtain the decree absolute for her divorce from Dicker.

In Mary Dicker/Maude Dickenson’s [sic] codicil to her will  (dated 1925) she revokes the executorship from one Syndey Crosbie to  Charles Frederick Wheen Dimond and

“my dear friend Hastings White [Alfred George] of The Royal Society…and I bequeath to the said Hastings White, irrespective of his acceptance or rejection of such offices all tubes and contents, and crystals and scientific photographs in connection with my researches…together with the gold box with the ruby clasp containing such tubes and also my collection of scarabs should the British Museum be unwilling to accept the bequest thereof.” 

What happened to her collection is currently unknown.

Alfred George Hastings White was librarian for the Royal Society[17] and a portrait of him can be found below courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery[18]

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Alfred George Hastings White

by Sydney Victor White, 1885
NPG x132811

Mary Dicker/Maude Dickenson [sic] died in 1933 in Brighton. Further research may yet reveal more about her “organic radium” and her discoveries, and indeed where perhaps some of her collection may have ended up.

 

[1] Brighton Season 19-14-15, p40 by kind permission of  ‘Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove’

[2] Woman’s Engineer Journal, Vol 2, June 1925, p35 (p45 electronic version)

[3] Hotblack, Frank A, “A New Activity?” A Treatise on Mrs Dickinson’s Discovery of a “New Radio-Activity”,  Jarrolds Publishers, London,1920, Foreword

[4] Liverpool Echo, 11 July 1922,

[5] The Brighton Season, Mrs Dickinson of Brighton.

[6] Brighton and Hove Sussex Graphic, 11 Nov 1915, p6

[7] A New Activity? p48

[8] Dongor was apparently an inversion of to her husband’s middle name Gordon and in memory of him, p49, fn

[9] A New Activity? p50

[10] The Brighton Season Magazine p40

[11] Santos, Lucy Jane, Half Lives. The Unlikely History of Radiation, Icon Books, 2020

[12] Again, the marriage data is not immediately accessible on Ancestry and the certificate can be found in a divorce petition, 1890, Dicker 3949. https://www.ancestry.co.uk/imageviewer/collections/2465/images/40243_612057_6467-00015?backlabel=ReturnSearchResults&queryId=45ea0eb2adbbd72069a579798b001e69&pId=11156

[15] Marriage register 1909, Q1  Kathleen Marion Dixon-Dickenson https://www.ancestry.co.uk/imageviewer/collections/8913/images/ONS_M19094AZ-0069?pId=8062805

[16] Probate document of Thomas Gordon Dickinson, 1908, Maude is named as “wife of John Oldrige Dicker”.

[18] https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw193042/Alfred-George-Hastings-White?LinkID=mp121427&role=sit&rNo=0