Half Lives by Lucy Jane Santos

Published on January 24, 2022

Half Lives Book Cover

Reviewed by Marybeth Ginsberg

Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium (2021) by Lucy Jane Santos provides an enlightening look into radium’s checkered past. Known by the symbol Ra, radium was referred to by Marie Sklodowska Curie as “my beautiful radium.” An earlier fascination and intrigue with the substance, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and predating Curie’s work, would lead to experimentation by scientists, medical professionals, and manufacturers who were eager to unlock radium’s full potential. 

First discovered in Europe in 1789, and later confirmed and identified as uranium in 1841, the subsequent production of the workable and ingestible product known as radium salts set the stage for its use. While there was some concern that radium, like other heavy metals, could be toxic, radioactivity was yet to be discovered and there was a strong interest in finding potential uses for the newly discovered element. Despite their harmful effects, radium salts would be used to a limited degree in medicine well into the 20th century.

The radioactive water therapies or spa treatments that developed and flourished in Europe, and eventually Britain, led the way for a host of treatments and products that contained trace amounts of radium. Radium was viewed as healthful, and in the late 1800s, the demand for different take-home radium products included as bottled radium water and even radium bread. Falling outside any limited patent medicine legislation in the United States, radium was a natural element that was not considered habit-forming. Thus, it could be advertised outside the umbrella of patent medicines and cast in a more favorable light. This would lead to the sale of products such as Radol that claimed to be radium-based and promised to cure cancer. However, Radol would eventually be exposed as a fraud because it did not contain any radium.

Half Lives provides a fascinating look at the cultural history of radium. Santos reveals radium’s enigmatic past by exploring the cultural phenomena associated with it. The story of the dial painters (see The radium girls: the dark story of America's shining women to learn more) that partly played out close to home in West Orange, New Jersey may be familiar to some readers. Santos includes this history as well, and it is just one example that highlights the dark side of radium.

According to Hallie Rubenhold, national bestselling author, 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.” I agree! I found this book to be informative, interesting, and, in some instances, startling!  I think it is a great choice for those who enjoy learning about the history of science and its cultural impact. From radium salves to soaps, and from Vaseline glass to glow-in-the dark costumes, Santos uncovers the history and the mystery surrounding radium.

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of twentieth-century health and beauty with a passion for the cultural history of radioactivity. She is the Executive Secretary of the British Society for the History of Science. This is her first book.

Star Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐





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