Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium, a powerful source of radiation, in 1898 and soon after, in the early 20th century, radium therapy was used to treat everything from constipation and cancer to rheumatism and sciatica. By the 1920s it was seen as a wonder cure and used in cosmetics, water and food, but when the ‘Radium Girls’ started to die, the glow-in-the-dark miracle substance began to lose its shine.
“My beautiful radium,” Marie Curie is reported to have said about the substance that was to enjoy considerable popularity in the early 20th century. It was the Viagra of its time for men; the botox of its time for women. While there is evidence to suggest some professionals took precautions when they worked with the substance, the general public had no idea about the ugly side effects of excessive exposure to radiation such as bone decay, severe anaemia and tumours.
In her book The Radium Girls, Kate Moore tells the extraordinary story of the young women who painted radium on watch faces. They were told to lick the paintbrushes for best application. At first the girls thought it was a rather glamorous job; they were paid well and enjoyed the glow-in-the-dark effects of the radium, but soon they started to get sick, then they started to die. It took 14 years, from 1925 to 1939, to legally prove that it was the exposure to radium that caused the girls’ illnesses, and eventual death for some of the girls. By the time WWII had broken out radium’s fall from its ‘miracle cure’ pedestal was well established.
Read more about Marie Curie in the November issue of MiNDFOOD, instores Monday 2 October.