On 26 December 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie announced to the
world the existence a new element: ‘radium’. Outside the
scientific world, the response was muted at first – the Guardian
even misspelled the scientists’ names in a 1902 article on the
In the early 20th century, that all changed. As its applications
became known, the radium craze took off. It became a
desirable item – a present for a queen, a prize in a treasure
hunt, a glow-in-the-dark dance costume, a boon to the
housewife, and an ingredient in a startling host of consumer
products –a cure-all in everyday 20th-century life.
In Half Lives, Lucy Jane Santos tells this extraordinary story.
Radium formed the basis for films and novels. To be
described as being ‘like radium’ was a compliment to
someone’s enthusiasm and drive. We meet entrepreneurs
promoting cures for baldness and plugging beauty products
from face creams to hair removal products. We learn of
remedies ranging from the bizarre (such as the O-Radium
Hat-Pad to promote hair health) to the simply fraudulent
(Radol, which claimed to be a radium impregnated cancer cure). We uncover the glow-in-the-dark watch (the must-have for an officer the trenches of World War I). Radium was everywhere.
Finally, as the longer-term effects of radium became better known, the book tells of the downfall and discredit of the radium industry through the eyes of the people who bought, sold and eventually came to fear it.
Half Lives is the story of an element – but also the story of us as a society. How did we get from the enthusiastic usage of radium beauty treatments to the revulsion we feel at that prospect today? Why does Boots the Chemist no longer stock radium water siphons or belts filled with radium mud? With wit and empathy, Santos tells the story of the entrepreneurs and consumers in radium’s history who have until now been considered quacks, or fools, or both.
Praise for Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium
'Half Lives shines a light on the shocking history of the world's toxic love affair with a deadly substance, radium. Unnerving, fascinating, informative and truly frightening.'
Hallie Rubenhold, author of The Five
’In Half Lives, Lucy Santos transports us back to a time when consumers wondered whether mixing radium into chicken feed might result in eggs that could hard-boil themselves; when diners cheerfully drank radioactive cocktails that glowed in the dark; and when people used toothpaste containing lethal thorium oxide in the pursuit of healthy gums. Santos unpicks fact from fiction and exhibits a masterful grasp of a complex area of science history that is so often mistold. Half Lives is a delightfully disturbing book that reminds us all of the age-old Latin maxim, 'caveat emptor.'
Dr Lindsey Fitzharris, bestselling author of The Butchering Art
Publisher: Icon Books
RRP: £16.99 (Hardback)
Release: 2nd July 2020
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