On 26 December 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie working in a converted shed, formerly a medical dissecting room, in the Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris, announced their discovery of the radioactive element Radium. In the process Marie Curie coined the word radioactivity. The origin of the name Radium comes from the Latin word radius meaning ray. At the World Physics Congress in Paris in 1900, one of the results presented by the Curies was that their new substance glowed; materials containing radium emitted light as well as radioactive rays.
Between 1898 and 1902, the Curies published a total of 32 scientific papers, including one that announced that diseased, tumor-forming cells were destroyed faster than healthy cells when exposed to radium. The Curies published details of the processes they used to isolate radium, without patenting any of them, believing scientists should devote their lives to research for the benefit of humanity. In any case, they had no reason to expect that radium would be a big money-maker. But in the meantime a new industry began developing based on radium.
Due to its therapeutic power, radium came to be seen as a source of life. After scientists successfully killed cancer cells with radium in early experiments in Europe, the demand for the element soared. In 1904 in New York, L D Gardner patented his radium ‘health’ water, Liquid Sunshine, and a glow-in-the-dark radium ink. Factories producing radium cures and novelty products began to appear all over the city. Quack doctors aggressively sold radium cures for almost every ailment with enormous success. By 1906, the so-called radium craze was sweeping through France, Britain, America, Germany and Italy. In the same year, a Los Angeles ‘doctor’ who sold radium and milk cures was sued for not using enough radium in his product. The radium craze even spread to the New York stage, where radium plays and dances featuring performers in glow-in-the-dark costumes were shown in theatres throughout the city. However, many critics suspected that the glowing costumes were not made of radium because of its prohibitively high cost, but of phosphorous
But while the controlled use of radiation was curing some cancers, its uncontrolled use by healthy people was another matter entirely. The trouble was that even pioneers such as the Curies knew nothing of the hazards. Early radiographers tested their X-ray machines on their hands each morning.
In 1917, the London-based Radior company began marketing a line of cosmetics containing radium, including a night cream, rouge, compact powder, vanishing cream, claiming ‘An ever-flowing Fountain of Youth and Beauty has at last been found in the Energy Rays of Radium’. And in 1918, Italy jumped into the ‘radioactive waters’ market already thriving in France and America with bottled water from Lurisia marketed with the bold slogan ‘The most radioactive water in the world.’
Hundreds of radioactive products were marketed during the radium craze amongst them boot polish (Radium), cigarettes (ABC Radium), chocolate bars in Germany, condoms (Radium Nutex, Radione), soap in Italy (Radia), sodas (Atomic soda ‘guaranteed to supply infinite energy’), toothpaste (Tho-Radia), a water dispenser (The Revigator, lined with uranium ore), wool in France (Oradium for knitting baby clothes, Iradia for skiing clothes).
In addition to its popularity as a cure-all, radium was a huge commercial success for its luminescent properties. Companies patented glow-in-the-dark paints for use on household products and toys. In the USA, the Radium Company patented a radium paint called Undark, which was used to produce luminous watch and clock dials. Like similar dial-painting factories elsewhere the work was done by young women, who mixed their own paints from radium powder. To achieve a fine brush point for painting the small numbers, the factory workers wetted the brush tip between their lips.
But by 1922, many of the women who had worked as dial painters began to develop troubling health problems. When they went to see doctors about painful mouth sores and tooth decay, the doctors were shocked to find that the bones in their faces and jaws had disintegrated. Many women then developed cancer. Doctors suspected that the sudden onset of this terrible disease in healthy young women was caused by the exposure to radium paint. However, the Radium Company insisted the paint was safe and tried to smear the women by suggesting their illnesses were instead caused by syphilis. The scandal forced the closure of the factory, and the women became known in the press as the ‘radium girls.’ Five young women sued the company in 1927 and although the case was settled out of court a year later, the shocking images of the dying girls being wheeled into a courtroom to testify made a lasting impression.
Another notorious but high-profile victim of the radium craze was Eben McBurney Byers, a wealthy American socialite, athlete, and industrialist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He injured his arm when he fell from a sleeper berth on a train in 1927, and to combat persistent pain, his doctor suggested that he take Radithor, a patent medicine containing dissolved radium salts in water made by a William J A Bailey. Bailey however was a drop out from Harvard University who falsely claimed he was a doctor of medicine. Byers drank nearly 1,400 bottles over three years. By 1930, when Byers stopped taking the remedy, he had accumulated significant amounts of radium in his bones resulting in the loss of most of his jaw. He died from radium-induced cancer in March 1932, and was buried in a lead-lined coffin in his home town. But the case hit the headlines, with the New York Times saying his death was due to ‘radiation poisoning’ and that a criminal enquiry had begun. In 1990 the Wall Street Journal printed a lengthy if a little gruesome article about this ‘bizarre tale of medicine’. Byers death brought an end to the Radium era in the USA and prompted the development of regulatory controls for all radio-pharmaceuticals.
Despite all these tragedies, even as late as 1933 in Paris, the company Tho-Radia were selling a beauty cream containing radioactive thorium and radium, hence the name. The cream contained 0.25 millionth of a gram of radium bromide for each 100 grams of cream and it claimed to eliminate wrinkles from the face. The advertising showed a face lit from below which makes it look like it is ‘glowing’. What could be more healthy than a glowing complexion?
By the mid-1930s, the radium craze subsided, as the scientists and inventors who had pioneered the use of radium slowly died of cancer. Their radioactive bodies were buried in lead-lined graves. Radium, the marvel of the future, had become a menace.
Marie Curie died in 1934 of aplastic anemia brought on by exposure to radiation, both in the laboratory and her First World War service in the mobile x-ray units that she had created. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the only woman to win in two fields. And in 1995 she became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris. Her life was full of successes, challenges and tragedies, and there is a good account of her life on the website of the American Institute of Physics here.
But the radium craze still haunts Paris. An article in Reuters in 2012, reported on the legacy of the companies, now long gone, that manufactured radioactive products at the height of the craze . Small doses of radium remain in the cracks of floors and backyards of buildings. Although officials say that they do not pose serious health risks, some 130 sites in France may be at risk, and 40 of them are set for decontamination, half of which are in Paris.