‘Radium obsessed society’: Lucy Jane Santos on Pierre and Marie Curie
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Radium has only been with us for just over a century, but its impact on our lives has ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Author of ‘Half Lives’ Lucy Jane Santos finds herself in her element.
“It’s the commercial and entertainment side of radium that sets it aside from anything else,” says Lucy Jane Santos. She’s describing how the early 20th-century public and medical establishment both embraced a newly discovered and highly dangerous radioactive element in the hope that it would replace surgery, while literally lighting up theatrical costumes, watch dials and cocktails.
“If you look at penicillin then here was this breakthrough that was going to change everything – and it did – but never caught on commercially. But radium,” says the author of ‘Half Lives’, “obsessed society.” People were “really excited” to the point where there was a craze that started in 1903 and and which started to fade only with the dawn of the First World War. The sub-title of Santos’ book is ‘the unlikely history of radium’, and if you like unlikely histories that expose science and society at their most sublime and ridiculous, you’re in for a treat.
“‘Half Lives’ is very much about the human story of radium,” says Santos. “It’s about the people who discovered it, made or used radium products. It’s their stories, rather than just a book about a chemical element. And I’m specifically interested in the use of radium in everyday life.”
For those of you thinking that there must be some mistake and that a highly radioactive and potentially lethally dangerous element could find no applications in ‘everyday life’, prepare to enter Santos’ world, one in which people once drank radioactive cocktails that glowed in the dark and mixed radium into chicken feed in the belief that this might produce eggs that could boil themselves. It’s a world of quack remedies, radioactive beauty creams and glow-in-the-dark wristwatches.
One of the reasons Santos is so interested in the story of radium is that “with hindsight it seems so shocking”. But there’s also an unquenchable thirst to discover what lays behind society’s seemingly reckless adoption of a hazardous substance as a fashion accessory.
“You read all these lists of crazy things our ancestors used to do, and it has never been enough for me to simply assume that they did these things because they were stupid,” says Santos, before explaining that her curiosity also extends to discovering a psychological explanation for why “people thought putting radium in toothpaste was a good idea. I couldn’t believe that the people who made medicines based on radium were just quacks and those who used them were ignorant. I wanted an answer.”
Reading through ‘Half Lives’ and encountering all the strange things people did with radium is a highly surreal experience. They put it in their hats, made it a prize in treasure hunts, gave presents of it to royalty. “You get people doing extraordinary things with it. On the one hand you’ve got people putting it in face powders, while on the other you have serious scientists” – such as Nobel laureate Sir William Ramsay, discoverer of noble gases – “effectively saying you should drink as much of this stuff as possible and bathe in it too. Ramsay was part of the Radium Development Syndicate that was going to invest £25m in the city of Bath, with the intention of recreating it as the ‘radium town’, where you could go into every building and have radium water or radium treatment. These are really serious scientists whose names carried a lot of clout, encouraging people to use these products.”
At the same time, says Santos, there was the counterbalance of opposite scientific opinion that stated radium was “quite dangerous. And so, you have this push and pull. Is it good for you or bad for you? I think this fascinated people: they didn’t really know, but they felt it was going to be helpful.”
Although radium was discovered at the end of the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 20th century that the new element caught both the public’s and the medical establishment’s imagination. In fact, when Marie and Pierre Curie announced to the world that they had discovered a new element the silence was deafening. The indifference to the discovery seems to be typified in the coverage of the Guardian newspaper, which thought so little of the event that its sub-editors didn’t even fact-check the spelling of the scientists’ names. But Santos says that her research has uncovered by around 1903 “something like 600 medical uses for the element. There were all these syndromes and diseases that it was going to cure. Where did this faith in radium come from?”
At the time there wasn’t much else around to help you if you were sick, says Santos. “Of course, you could have surgery. But it was very intrusive and risky, and there were times when your stay at a hospital could in fact present more danger to you than the actual disease you were suffering from. But radium promised an alternative to surgery. You no longer needed your body cut open. Doctors could just place a tube of radium chloride on your skin to cure your cancer. You can see the appeal of that.” Santos notes a parallel between this scenario and the modern fashion for replacing cosmetic surgery for skin wrinkle reduction with treatment by Botox. “It’s an invisible thing that you have injected into you, rather than having surgery.”
From the reader’s point of view, one of the key fascinations of ‘Half Lives’ is that you’re never quite sure which direction Santos’ story is going to take. It vacillates entertainingly between a serious analysis of frontline scientific research and an almost voyeuristically gleeful celebration of the silliness that went with the radium craze. It is this balance of information and entertainment that makes ‘Half Lives’ a classic of the popular science genre.
Santos’ self-confessed obsession with the subject stems from when she found “a little box of the stuff. A French brand of make-up that was launched in Paris in 1933. It quite clearly says on the label ‘made with radium bromide to the formula of Dr Alfred Curie’ – not related to Pierre and Marie Curie – and that sparked my interest. So I started digging and discovered this wonderful history that I really wasn’t expecting.”
What this wonderful history tells us about the 20th century is that “our relationship with science is more nuanced than we think. More than anything,” says Santos, “it shows the hope the public places in science.”
‘Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium’ by Lucy Jane Santos is from Icon Books, £16.99
‘Quack’ remedies had already been in existence for many hundreds of years, but the market grew significantly from the 18th century onwards. Like any industry there were peaks and troughs, as well as crazes as different substances gained in popularity. Opium was a popular ingredient in the 1830s, with products such as ‘McMunn’s Elixir of Opium’ selling in large quantities. ‘Allen’s Cocaine Tablets’ for hay fever were a hit in the 1890s and arsenic products like ‘Fowler’s Solution’ remained popular into the 20th century. As radium became well known for its believed curative properties with the rise of Curie therapy and mild radium therapy, it was inevitable that the makers of such remedies would spot an opportunity.
These styles of medicines were pre-packaged and widely available to the public without a doctor’s prescription. Their ingredients were a closely guarded secret and therefore not disclosed on the label (hence their also being known as ‘secret remedies’), and they were usually called by a brand name. Generally, the terms ‘quack’, ‘patent’, ‘secret’ and so on, meant the same thing.
The ‘patent’ term is misleading, as rarely anything about the actual composition of the medicine was patented. Instead, the term referred to a distinctive bottle shape or images on the label. The makers of these remedies usually had very little medical training or were unorthodox medical practitioners operating outside the regular medical profession.
Quack remedies almost always promised the world, sometimes with little evidence to back them up. Significantly, there was very little protection for the public, while the market in the US alone was huge: $80m per year by 1906.
Edited extract from ‘Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium’ by Lucy Jane Santos, reproduced with permission.
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