After its discovery – announced in December of 1898 – the Curie’s and other scientists began to realize that radium destroyed tissue. That led to its use in treating cancer. Once doctors had successfully destroyed malignant tumors with it, they began prescribing it for other conditions as well – high blood pressure, acne, diabetes, infected wounds, skin problems. It was the new cure-all and for a time radium could do no wrong.
People, believing it was good for health generally began fads like “Radium tea” where Paris socialites gathered to play cards, visit, and drink tea in rooms where oxygen, which had been passed through a container of radium, circulated. Manufacturers added radium to a variety of products from toothpaste and bath powder to glow-in-the-dark buttons and fishing lures.
During World War I the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation hired girls as young as 12 to paint the dials and numbers on wrist watches so they would glow in the dark. To do this they mixed dry radium powder with paint thinner and zinc sulfide. On a good day a painter completed 250-300 watches. Of course such delicate painting needed a fine-tipped brush. To keep the tip as sharp as possible, girls shaped the brush tips by passing them between their lips before dipping it in paint. They did this hundreds of times a day.
In 1921 one of the girls developed a severe toothache and swollen mouth. Her tooth was pulled but the socket wouldn’t heal. When infection set in, her dentist found her entire jawbone had deteriorated to the point he could take it out of her mouth. She died in 1922.
It wasn’t until more of the factory painters came down with the same symptoms that people suspected radium as the culprit. In May 1925 a New York times headline finally declared, “New Radium Disease Found; Has Killed 5.” By the early 1930s the five watch painters who had banded together to sue their former employers (known as the Radium Girls) had all died agonizing deaths.
This and other stories from McClafferty’s book fascinate. From our vantage point of over 100 years after radium’s discovery, we wonder how they could have been so casual with this radioactive element. Their experience brings two thoughts to mind.
1. The almost epidemic prevalence of cancer in our society raises the question, what killer products are we naively exposing ourselves to?
2. Spiritually, radium has some similarities to sin. The initial results of sin in our lives may seem harmless, even beneficial – the thrill of an illicit affair, the prestige and power of illegally gained wealthy, the popularity and fame of a sensual, no-holds-barred lifestyle. But like prolonged exposure to radium inevitably kills, so sin’s continued presence in our lives leads to eventual destruction.
History teaches some important lessons, in both the physical and spiritual realm. Let’s pay attention and learn them.
- Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity – her life in story and pictures.
- "Radium and Radioactivity" by Marie Curie (Century Magazine 1904 – pages 461-466)
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