29 December 2014
History of an Era When Radium Was the Latest "Chic"
Exhibition at the historical museum of pharmacy in Basel "The Two Faces of Radioactivity"... "There was a time when radioactivity was not associated with disease and death but rather with energy and life"... "Becoming an argument for marketing, radium was everywhere"... "smiling babies, delighted to be wearing jumpers impregnated with radium... radio-luminescent watches painted with radium"... These words remind us of the craze of "smart" technology, which also emits radiation: wearable smart watches, "smart" pyjamas for babies, Google Glass... Is history repeating itself?
History of an Era When Radium Was the Latest « Chic »
by Lucie Monnat, 24heures, 24 December 2014 (translated from French by the Editor of this blog)
An exhibition tells the story of « the two faces of radioactivity ». One hundred years ago, the virtues of uranium were undisputed.
Radioactivity or radium calls to mind images of the nuclear mushroom cloud of Nagasaki or the malformed children of Chernobyl. There was a time when radioactivity was not associated with sickness or death, but rather with energy and life. The historical museum of pharmacy in Basel retraces its history, from the discovery of uranium in 1789 until the Second World War.
The history of radioactivity started off well. The discovery of x-rays in 1845 generated the enthusiasm of the public. “The photographs of the human skeleton, taken directly through the skin, fascinated people”, says the author of the exhibition, Christiane Valerius-Mahler. In 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium, a highly radioactive element. The celebrity, Marie Curie, the first woman to receive two Nobel Prizes, became a model.
The « radium craze »
We enter the era of the « radium craze ». In Europe and the United States, the element was the latest fashion. In 1904, the Radium Dance was performed on the stages of Broadway and at the Folies-Bergères, a production punctuated with special phosphorescent effects. “Radioactivity was then perceived as a vital force of nature,” explains Christiane Valerius-Mahler. “It was associated with energy and health.” Becoming an argument for marketing, radium was everywhere: toothpaste, Cologne, creams, powder, lipstick, cigarettes, clothing and even biscuits for breakfast! “Certain products were sold until the 1960’s”, adds Christiane Valerius-Mahler.
On the walls of the exhibition, retro ads. One shows a baby smiling, delighted to be wearing a jumper impregnated with radium. The ad for the radioactive toothpaste Doramad promises “a radiant smile”.
Thanks to these products, customers were assured of beauty, youth, and above all, health. Great medical virtues were attributed to this new fountain of youth, fighting arthritis, rheumatism, menstrual pain, asthma… High society enjoyed stays at luxury hotels in Germany and Austria, specialized in radioactive cures. Pensioners imbibed it through water and lozenges, took baths or showers, everything flavored with radium.
Researchers nourished great hopes of curing cancer. Horrifying experiments were carried out, such as a mask from nose to mouth, filled with radium in order to get rid of tumors. “In some cases, the tumors disappeared, then came back in more virulent form,” says Christiane Valerius-Mahler.
We ignore whether radium set off these tumors or slowed the disease. Today we don’t know the exact impact of overexposure to natural radioactivity. “We must distinguish radioactivity coming from nature from that produced by a nuclear reactor,” explains Christiane Valerius-Mahler. “The doses are not comparable. No scientific study has succeeded in establishing with certainty a link between cause and effect for these diseases.”
Evidently, the equation is different for those who manipulate the raw material. Marie Curie, apart from her seven miscarriages, was sick all her life. She herself suspected that radium was the cause of her ills and her husband had warned of the potential danger of the element. But these worries remained unknown to the public for a long time.
The first scandals broke out in the United States, just after the First World War. From 1917 to 1926, the United States Radium Corporation produced for the army, under mandate of the Department of Defense, radio-luminescent watches with radium paint.
Several years later, the workers, married and outside the factory, fell seriously ill. Between 1920 and 1930, around 15 of them died. The trial which followed was long and vicious. Proof in order to condemn the employers was difficult to collect. The company closed its doors in 1926 and the radium girls were compensated in 1928. Very mediatized, this trial presented for the first time to the world the dangers of radioactivity. The first studies on the impact of radium on health were published.
Little by little, diseases were discovered in other watch factories. In the 1960’s, the exploitation of radium in watchmaking was banned in many countries. Switzerland followed in 1963. The nuclear bombs dropped during the Second World War and the accidents of nuclear plants led to demolishing the reputation of radioactivity. From miracle product, radium passed to agent of death. Radioactivity is however still used in medicine: it remains an excellent diagnostic tool and fosters the hopes of medical research.
“The Two Faces of Radioactivity”, at the historical museum of pharmacy in Basel. Prolonged until 28 February (24heures).
Original article in French: