The radium mania

The radium mania and story behind it

Due to its therapeutic power, radium had been the object of a real mania up to the end of the 30s. Radioactivity therefore came to be seen as a source of life.

A French tradition was during the 1920 and 1930’s to reward on the eve of July 14th the best pupils of the French public school. During this ceremony, called the distribution of prices, our parents and grandparents received beautiful bound and illustrated books to reward their accomplishments. Here, the cover of this book illustrates an imaginary and epic race towards radium in place of the usual adventures of Jules Verne or Alexandre Dumas’s heroes.
Musée Curie
The spas used to boast about the radioactivity of their water. The pharmaceutical industry put on the market products based on radium: Tuberadine to treat bronchitis, Digeraline to make digestion easier and Vigoradine to help against tiredness.

The word "radium" became a powerful selling argument to sell creams, powders, cosmetics, soaps, toothpaste and shampoos.

In France, the company Tho-Radia sold in the pharmacy a beauty cream based onradium. Taking the name of Marie Curie, its formula was prescribed by a certain Doctor Alfred Curie who had never existed. The cream that contained 0.25 millionth of a gram of bromide of radium for 100 grams of excipient was meant to eliminate wrinkles from the face: "Science has created Tho- Radia in order to beautify women. It is for them to benefit from it. Whoever wants can stay ugly! " stated the publicity.

This young beauty from the 1930s does not need the creams and powders with a radium base, in which this advert boasts its merits. Radium is used as publicity argument and is probably absent from these products given its rarity. Radioactivity was given as many virtues in that society, as we now give it vices.

In the Paris Opera district, the laboratory of a certain doctor Monteil offered beauty products made from radioactive rubber: masks, chin pieces, neck bands, ankle bands and slimming belts. The radioactive rubber, to be worn half an hour a day, "made you loose weight fast, without affecting your health".

The beauties of the 1920s were happily protected from these ‘charlatans’ due to the exorbitant prices of the radioactive substances. The pharmaceutical preparations contained very little radium, around 100 Becquerels per gram: therefore they were virtually harmless (cf. note).

Oradium wool was recommended for babies due to extraordinary effects of organic stimulation of cells transmitted by the radium.

In this anthology, humans did not have monopoly on miracles : "Radia, radioactive bait attracted fish and crayfish like the magnet attracts iron" ; "Proviador fattened the poultry".

It is in this period that people became more aware of the dangers that radium posed. A tragic example of this was when an American manufacturer, Eben Byers died in 1931 due to poisoning. Young and sporty he wanted to cure a wound on his arm which would not heal. He was prescribed Radithor, a magic potion, supposedly meant to cure everything, from digestive problems to endocrinal diseases. Eben Byers drank from 1927 to 1931, between 1000 and 1500 bottles of Radithor a few per day. When he died, his bones, his teeth, his tissues had become radioactive: each bottle contained around a microcurie of radium-226 and 228.

NEXT: Uses of radium

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