To people in Muscatine, Iowa, in 1916 Dr. D. Powell Johnson was a hometown boy they were proud to claim. He had grown up there, and his mom still lived in Muscatine. A graduate of the University of Iowa in the class of 1888, Johnson had made a name for himself in the medical world in the United States and Europe. He had been living in Vienna, Austria, for over a decade.
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But to Austrian officials Dr. Johnson was a suspicious foreigner and a criminal, suspected of smuggling radium out of the country. The government held a monopoly on the production of radium and closely guarded its precious commodity. Austrian law forbade the exportation of the element.
Dr. Johnson was returning to the United States to practice medicine, and he wanted the radium for research and use in his practice. In a New York Times interview he said he thought he had done nothing wrong when he purchased $15,000 worth of radium.
Johnson believed he was being targeted because he was an American. “The suspicion against foreigners is especially intense against Americans, because they have a reputation with the police of being ingenious and resourceful in circumventing civil and military regulations,” he said.
Johnson had consulted a lawyer before purchasing the radium. He said the law against exportation applied to “pharmaceutical preparations,” and that radium didn’t fit into that category. But Johnson wasn’t convinced. He went to the American embassy and asked Ambassador Frederic Penfield to send the radium to the United States for him, and the ambassador agreed.
Meantime Johnson, who stayed in Austria for a few weeks, began to feel uneasy. He suspected the secret police were out to get him. “I became actually unwelcome in stores where I had been a valued customer. The people fear the police… The secret police act regularly on anonymous information, and a personal enemy can cause arrest and other grave complications for his victim…” Johnson said.
When Johnson started his journey back to America, he was stopped at the border and
ended up in solitary confinement in an Austrian prison. Fortunately, he was allowed to send a telegram to the American embassy.
Ambassador Penfield used his influence to free Johnson. He admitted that he had sent the radium to America. The ambassador visited the Austrian foreign minister and pressured him to release the doctor. “If you are going to hold this man for smuggling the radium you will have to come down and arrest the American Ambassador and the whole personnel of the embassy as accessories,” Penfield said, according to the New York Times.
After six weeks in the Austrian prison, the charges against Johnson were dropped; and he returned to the United States in August 1916. The Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican reported the doctor would be returning to Muscatine and would be “making scientific use of the precious radium.”
“Ambassador’s Ruse Freed An American,” New York Times, Aug. 20, 1916.
“Iowa Man Out of Vienna Prison,” Evening Times-Republican (Marshalltown), Aug. 26, 1916.
No title. Iowa City Press-Citizen, Oct. 9, 1914, page 1.