Lucy Jane Santos’ ‘Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium’

Lucy Jane Santos

Figure 1. Cover of Half Lives: The Unlikely
History of Radium, published by Icon Books

In the late 19th century that Wilhelm Röntgen discovered a previously unknown form of powerful radiation that was invisible to the human eye. This type of ray, which no one (including Röntgen) fully understood at the time, was so mysterious that he simply named it ‘X’. In 1896, working from Röntgen’s findings, Henri Becquerel identified the phenomenon of radioactivity – both as a concept and as a force – and Marie Skłodowska Curie would later give it a name. In 1898, with her husband Pierre, Marie Skłodowska Curie identified two new materials, which they named polonium and radium, whose changeable properties challenged traditional scientific models of what an element should be.

The discovery of radium prompted a flurry of experiments to scope the limits of its potential applications, and by the early 1900s the curious and still mostly unfathomable properties of radium would find expression in a wide range of products and services that were aimed at the general consumer, such as the Pistany Mud Compress and Caria Radium Soap. Radium was also part of popular culture in other ways: a present for a queen (in the form of a spinthariscope – a desirable scientific instrument akin to a kaleidoscope), and glow in the dark costumes.

In Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium, Lucy Jane Santos traces this fascinating, curious, sometimes macabre story of radium’s ascendance, its role as a cure-all in everyday 20th century life and eventual downfall as people came to understand the dark side of this toxic love affair. In this interview with History, Lucy, reflects on the process of writing the book, the history of commercial radium products, and the light the radium industry can shed on popular anxieties today.

History: What are the major themes covered by Half Lives and why are they important?

Half Lives tells the history of radioactivity through the eyes of the people who made, bought and sold radium products in the 20th century. While stories of the scientists and medical professionals who pushed the boundaries of scientific knowledge through their experiments with radium are well known, the entrepreneurs and consumers in radium’s history are usually associated with accusations of fraudulent practices and naivety, the products they made (and sold in their hundreds of thousands) mentioned only in passing: Half Lives illuminates their stories and places them in their historical contexts, in order to rectify this imbalance. Half Lives is also about our relationship to radioactivity in the 21st century and, in particular, to nuclear power: how did we get from the enthusiastic use of radium just over a century ago, to the popular revulsion felt at the prospect of nuclear industry today?

Figure 2. Photograph of a pot of Tho Radia powder,
c. 1933

History: How did the idea for a book on the commercial history of radium develop?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that in the 1930s there was a range of toiletries called Tho Radia, which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of Tho Radia face powder in a big batch of products at an auction house several years ago. It got me thinking: what did it promise? Why would you buy this? I was hooked, but frustrated to find that, aside from a couple of exceptions, such as the website Cosmetics and Skin, there were very few avenues through which to find out more about such products, apart from perhaps a quotation from an advert on a ’10 foolish things our grandparents put on their face’ clickbait article, and some comment about the silliness of all those involved. I was sure that the story was far more engaging than simply one of the foolishness of the past. I needed to explore and share these elusive stories – so I decided to write the book myself!

History: Can you describe your research process for the book?

I had no idea when I started what secret and surprising histories these products would reveal. I say secret histories because they really did take some uncovering – there is a fairly unsurprising reluctance, especially amongst the companies that still exist, to talk about our radioactive past. To get at these histories I scoured antique shops, car boot sales and flea markets. There have also been plenty of archive trips. I visited local archives in Bath and Buxton to view the minute books of council meetings, which contained fascinating detailed expenditure reports on the maintenance of their radium baths. Trips to the National Archives led me to government files on the use of radium paint in the First World War, and subsequent plans for its disposal. The British Library and the Wellcome have also been a brilliant resource, both for secondary sources on the history of radium, and original medical handbooks.

I have travelled around Britain, New York and Paris to speak to historians of theatre, music, fashion, cosmetics and medicine.  During the research process, I have found myself drinking radium water up the top of a mountain in Austria, had a very embarrassing mix up about the etiquette of nude bathing at a radon bath in the Czech Republic, and have met all sorts of fascinating people along the way.

History: How did you make the decisions of which topics, stories, sources to keep or drop? Were these decisions self-evident or very difficult?

There are really three massive stories in radium history: Marie Curie’s discovery of radium, the case of the Radium Girls, and the tragic death of Eben McBurney Byers. All these stories have been told in depth before and I found it hard to work out how much of them to retell. In the end I decided it was the framing of the stories that would bring out what hadn’t yet been told, especially in the two latter cases, which formed part of wider history of the products themselves. The experience of the Radium Girls, who produced glow-in-the-dark watches for military use, was an important part of the history of the First World War. The significance of Eben Byers’ case was not just due to the cause of his death (the consumption of huge quantities of Radithor radium water), but the response to his death by other companies who sold similar products, as they sought to maintain or alter their sales models in the face of overwhelming evidence that radium products could be lethal.

I had hoped to include a lot more user experiences of radium, but whilst I could find a little bit about the beliefs and the dreams of people such as Ellis Miller (director of Radior radium toiletries) and William J Bailey (manufacturer of the aforementioned Radithor radium water) it was quite difficult to hear from the people who used the products, as few oral testimonies were recorded while they were alive and there is a scarcity of textual sources. This was disappointing, but not altogether surprising given my findings that the use of radium was so mundane, so every day, that it was nothing really to remark upon even in diaries and letters. There were also some products that I really wanted to talk about, but I couldn’t find anything other than advertisements which related to them, as there were so few remaining traces of their financial records or correspondences with Companies House (the UK registrar of companies).

Figure 3. Frederick Godfrey Renair Radioactive Hair

History: Was there anything particularly surprising that you learnt, in the course of researching and writing about radium products?

I am still constantly surprised about the historical scope of the commercial uses of radium. The sheer number of products that were available is mind blowing: from the deadly (Radithor radioactive water) to the bizarre (the O-Radium Hat-Pad, which subjected the hair to ‘beneficent rays’) to the simply fraudulent (Radol, which claimed to be a radium-impregnated cancer cure).  And, almost ten years into researching this topic, I am still finding new products regularly – most recently the ‘Ray Sol’ Radioactive shampoo which I am now desperate to find out more about.

Perhaps the most surprising part is how widely they were available. You could pop into Boots the Chemist in the early 1920s and buy Sparklets Radon Bulbs, which promised to turn ordinary water into carbonated radioactive water. It was sold as a health drink, though a splash of it could also be used to dilute your whisky too. Boots also stocked the Radior range of toiletries (guaranteed to ‘contain Actual Radium’) which included shampoos, eyelash growers and face creams and Dols Flannel, which was a wool, somehow treated with radioactivity, intended to be worn continuously underneath clothes. It was said to cure rheumatism, amongst other things. Elsewhere on the typical British high street, you could also find the Nu Ray Radium Light at Currys electrical stores. The Nu Ray was a lamp containing some radioactive material, which was said to give off ‘indoor sunshine’ and intended to restore lost energy.

History: Having spent so much time researching the history of radium, what are your feelings about it as a commercial industry, and how did this influence the direction in which you took the book?

The research was a real roller-coaster of emotions. On the one hand, it is a fascinating ‘buckle up Twitter’ history full of odd sounding products – the ‘O-Radium Hat-Pad’ and ‘Frederick Godfrey’s Renair Radioactive Hair Tonic’ for example – but then you also have some real tragedies.

I found one of the hardest moments was reading the records of the surgeon Sir Stanford Cade, who in 1957 examined 34 cases of people with radiation-induced skin cancers. There were three cases which were reported on in full, with graphic photographs, of women who, thirty years earlier, had visited beauty salons for X-ray hair removal on their faces. X-ray was to be a hugely popular form of treatment, and while the numbers of people seeking treatment weren’t routinely kept, countless others are likely to have suffered from similar after-effects as a result. One chain of salons – the Tricho Institute – had 75 branches in the US by 1925, and boasted of similar numbers in other countries. Reading Cade’s records bought the scope of these after-effects home, and shows the human toll of this type of largely unregulated experimentation, in the name of conventional beauty.

The radium craze is part of a longer story of desperation and hope. These are powerful motivators when we are scared and underneath the amazing products are people worried about ageing and dying. Recent headlines and proclamations that suggest that COVID-19 could be stopped in its tracks by disinfectant for instance made me think of the story of Dr William J Morton, a respected doctor from New York who in 1904 devised ‘Liquid Sunshine’ – a treatment for cancer that involved the patient drinking quinine, and then being bombarded with radium rays. Morton believed that the quinine would enter the blood stream and the radioactive rays would make it fluoresce, as quinine glows in the dark under UV light, lighting up the body from inside, and destroying germs and disease. When Trump publicly speculated that somehow bringing sunlight inside the body was a potential means to treat COVID-19, it wasn’t a million miles away from the idea that radium as ‘Liquid Sunshine’, was a powerful all conquering bactericide, highlighting the longstanding relationship between patent medicines and popular anxieties.

One of the things I was really keen to do was to avoid either vindicating, or demonising people in the past who made radioactive products (or indeed those that used them). In light of the tragedies that unfolded from the commercial use of radium, it can be tempting to think of these people as quacks and fools, but their stories are far more nuanced than that narrative allows.

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Lucy writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Figure 1. Front cover of Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium. Image provided with permission of the publisher, Icon Books Ltd.

Figure 2. A pot of Tho Radia, circa 1933, from the collection of Lucy Jane Santos.

Figure 3. Frederick Godfrey Renair Radioactive Hair Tonic advertisement, from the collection of Lucy Jane Santos

Figure 4. Black and white photograph of Lucy Jane Santos.

All images were kindly provided by the author, should not be reproduced without permission.

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One Comment on “Lucy Jane Santos’ ‘Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium’

  1. Pingback: The ECR Editorial Internship – History Journal

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