JF Ptak Science Books Post 1139
“Radium was what was bad and worse
a shiney and shining curse,
till we stuck uranium in there,
to make me have my 'splodin’ hair...”--Lyrics to the nonexistent song “Satan’s Tooth in Me”, (1946), by Blending “Loose Tooth” Bender
If this was 15 May 1915, we could all be attending the Illinois State Medical Society's annual meeting at the Masonic Temple in Springfield, Illinois.And if we went to booth 18, we could've bought some fine, newish radium-based products that would be enjoyed drinking or bathing in. And all for the cause of human progress, the radium-based nonsense promised cures for all sorts of ills: rheumatism, dandruff, dull teeth, gout, sexual problems, general malaise, and on and on.
The exceptionally important discovery by the Curies was made 17 years before this event, with the medically-unknown problems of radium waiting in the wings for another decade or so after this. In the meantime, there were many companies that took advantage of the unknown qualities of radium (as happened with the use of X-Rays for all sorts of quack applications) using it as a shining addition to dozens of products.
Many of these companies employed the real stuff, affecting thousands of people, radium-based cure-alls being ingested, injected, applied and bathed-in. For example, there were numerous companies distributing 'radium water" (such as "Radithor" by William J.A. Bailey's company), radium suppositories ("in a cocoa butter base"), toothpaste ("Doramad", distributed by Doramad Radioaktive Zohncreme during WWII, to Germans), cosmetics ("Tho-Radia"), and many different varieties of radium-enriched healing belts (to be worn or slept on). There were plenty of other products that used the "radium" name but didn't actually use the substance itself, further selling the idea of its usefulness on the individual level. There was radium beer, nail clippers, starch, cigars, polish, headache tablets, razor blades, butter and of course, condoms.
Perhaps the most famous case of misguided application of radium was in the case of the radium dial painting women, more than 1200 employed by four companies1 during the 'teens and 'twenties (and some later) to apply radium-laced paint to make watch face/dials luminous in the dark. It wasn't necessarily the radium in the paint that got to so many of these women and killed them--it was the fact that they would generally put their paint brushes on the tips of their tongues to get a better painting point with the camel hairs. Ingesting the radium paint like that was
[Image: Oak Ridge Associated Universities, radium dial painters, ca. 1920.]
the killer. The manufacturers said, basically, that they "tried" to discourage this behavior, but there was nothing that they could do about it, and so the brush-to-mouth to cancer/necrosis continued until people started dying. It was then that the whole connection between radium and cancer was discovered. Of course some of this continued into the 'forties and 'fifties, with "safeguards" in place, but, well, something else just needed to be done.
I guess that the point of telling this story is that we can shake our heads at this sort of behavior now, but it is assured that entire populations will be shaking their quizzed-up collective noggins with what we practice now (that is deemed to be "safe" or "appropriate"), and all in just a few short decades. This is always the case. Its just hard, sometimes, to identify what these practices are while they're happening, and then have the willingness to do something about it.
1. The four main companies included Radium Dial Company (with 213 such workers), Waterbury Clock (with 404), US Radium Company (with 73), and Luminous Processes (with 608).