Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium by Lucy Jane Santos takes the reader through a cultural history of radium. As she points out, radioactivity is everywhere – in the Earth’s crust, in our homes and even in us. It is ubiquitous and that troubles us; but this was not the case in the late 1800’s.
In 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen, Professor of Physics in Wurzburg, Bavaria, accidentally discovered X-rays. (X for ‘unknown’ rays) Before long he found that they could pass through human tissue and allow the bones and tissues beneath to be seen.
Roentgen’s discovery became known worldwide and X-rays began to be used without restraint and without thought as to their possible harmful effects.
In 1898, when Marie and Pierre Curie isolated radium from uranium ore, it was considered a most desirable commodity. Marie Curie called it ‘my beautiful radium’ and it was commercialised in a multitude of ways from medical treatments to beauty products.
‘…uranium changes into thorium, which in turn becomes radium. After radium comes radon: the only link in the chain that is a gas.’
In 1904, radioactive rays were thought to have caused the death of 39 year old Clarence Dally, an experimenter with radium and X-rays and assistant to Thomas Edison. He was the first person to die from overexposure to radiation in the USA.
We are aware now that radium is a dangerous substance, but back then it was thought to be much less dangerous than X-rays.
In the early 20th Century owning radium was a mark of prestige, so much so that a 70th or Platinum Wedding Anniversary, as we know it today, was commonly called a ‘Radium Anniversary.’
Radium was rare and popular and touted as a cure for everything from acne to rheumatism. It was sent through the mail, put into public exhibitions and museums, and was heavily advertised as part of ‘taking the waters’ at spa towns such as Bath in England and throughout Europe.
Unscrupulous entrepreneurs started up companies that sold sham products supposedly containing radium and did a booming trade.
In the 1920’s the beauty industry sprang up and cosmetics were embraced in a new way. The ‘rhetoric of modernity and novelty’ was applied in advertising and radium, being a naturally occurring substance, was claimed to be health-giving with the ability to preserve or restore beauty.
‘What is considered beautiful varies according to gender, ethnicity and class – but beauty has always been a prized attribute. The 20th century, however, saw a massive change in how beauty was understood and achieved. Beauty based on moral temperament was out, and beauty based on the effort put in was, definitely, in.’
I’ve read a few books that covered aspects of Radium, the most recent being The Poisoner’s Handbook, which Santos mentions in her Bibliography. These books were predominantly about specific people – pioneers in science and medicine or the unfortunates who suffered from exposure to radiation (e.g. The Radium Girls). Santos makes mention of them all in addition to her focus on radium in beauty products.
This broad focus makes for a book that tends to be a little cluttered – a few too many names: companies, products, scientists, quacks and spa towns that sang the praises of radium.
However, what does come through it all is the author’s obvious passion and knowledge of the topic. There are copious notes and a comprehensive bibliography. Santos has obviously done her research thoroughly.
I found parts of the book fascinating, other parts I thought were too detailed for the layperson who doesn’t have a scientific background. I would recommend Half Lives for those who have some knowledge of the science behind the topic or for someone studying upper high school science as it does go into some depth.
I would also recommend it as a cautionary tale. Scientific discoveries are not made in a vacuum; they may lead to unintended consequences and ethical dilemmas. Pierre Curie saw the potential danger that radium could pose if it fell into the wrong hands. He was hopeful that it would be used for good and not evil but he died before the full potential and perils of radium could be known.
Published by Pegasus Books, 2021.
Linking to Non Fiction Challenge @ Book’d Out: Published in 2021