By Chet Yarbrough
By: Lucy Jane Santos
Narrated by : Deirdre Whelen
Lucy Jane Santos (Author, Freelance writer and Historian.)
Lucy Jane Santos recounts the perilous history of radioactivity in “Half Lives”. Her history is not scintillating but offers a lesson in skepticism. Her focus is the “on again, off again” love affair with radon by scientists, doctors, charlatans, and beauty product entrepreneurs. The lesson is relevant in some ways to the Covid19 controversy of this century.
Santos recounts the discovery of radium in the late 19th century and shows how it evolved into the discovery of radiology that revolutionized surgical practice and diagnosis
A brighter part of Santos story is the discovery of X-rays (a type of radiation) and the value it gave to diagnosis and repair of internal injuries by providing interior pictures of the human body. The idea came from an accidental discovery by Wilhelm Roentgen in 1895. While testing whether electrons could pass through glass, Roentgen found a green light appeared on black paper which then projected onto a nearby fluorescent screen. These electrons are the essence of what became known as radiation.
Wilhem Roentgen (Scientist who discovered x-rays, received Nobel Prize in Physics 1901)
Marie Curie, a chemist and physicist, discovered two new periodic table’ elements, radon, and polonium in developing a theory of radioactivity. Like Roentgen’s Xray discovery of the dispersal of electrons, Curie found photons may be released from atoms to trans mutate into different elements on the periodic table. Curie received two Nobel Prizes, one in conjunction with her husband Pierre and a physicist named Henri Becquerel, and another on her own. She is the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize and only one of four people who have ever been awarded two Nobel Prizes. (The other three were men—Linus Pauling, John Bardeen, and Frederick Sanger.)
Marie Curie (Scientist, chemist, and physicist, received 2 Nobel Prizes, died at the age of 66.
Santos suggests Curie’s death from radiation poisoning is a myth. She bases that conclusion on an exhumation of Curie’s body to relocate it in France. In the exhumation, no radiation was found in her remains.
These are two positives’ Santos notes in her history of radioactivity. With the discoveries of Roentgen and Curie, radiation is used for diagnosis, surgical care, and treatment for physical injuries and cancer.
However, radioactivity discoveries are misused by many who ignore the negatives of radiation. Prominent businesspeople, some of which are outright charlatans, suggest radiation will cure numerous diseases, can be used as a luminous paint without concern for its impact on health, and should be mixed in elixirs or emoluments for skin repair and beauty treatments. The quest for money, power, and prestige seduces the public into using radiation treatments for unproven, often harmful health and beauty benefits.
Radioactivity’s early history reveals shortened lives of many who believed radon was a miracle cure. Maybe the most famous is Eben McBurney Byers, a wealthy American socialite, athlete, and industrialist who died in 1932. He was 52 years old.
Byers, at the suggestion of his doctor began drinking a non-prescription liquid called Radithor (radium infused water). The irony of his doctor’s suggestion is that a person who identified himself as a doctor was actually a college drop-out who manufactured and sold Radithor to Byers and other un-suspecting victims.
Upon autopsy, it is found that radium does not dissipate in the body but accumulates in organs and bones. Byers is said to have ingested over 1400 bottles in 3 years. His brain became abscessed with holes forming in his skull. He died on March 31, 1932.
Santos notes the dials of watches were painted to glow in the dark, particularly important during WWI when soldiers needed to coordinate their movements. It was found that the radiated dials were harmful to painters of the dials, but manufacturers denied the correlation until challenged by evidence of many who were physically disfigured or died from their work.
Radium Girls (Women hired to paint watch dials with radium)
Famous beauty product producers in England and France in the 1920s and 30s were promotors of cosmetics infused with Radon. One wonders how many of these misinformed practices are not a proximate cause of cancer increase in the world.
The cosmetic industry grew exponentially after WWI. Radon mixing in emoluments were touted for their ability to increase blood flow to the skin to brighten one’s appearance.
Santos’s story is a warning to humanity. Be skeptical of cures of that purport to be safe and beneficial, and review facts available from reputable sources. Today’s vaccination for Covid19 is a case in point. The facts are that over 650,000 Americans have died from Covid19. Those who have received the “jab” are less likely to die if they are infected by the virus. The virus is transmitted from person to person and can be mitigated by wearing a mask. Consider the source of those who promote or deny those facts. When facts are distorted by politics, we only have ourselves to blame. Humans need to be skeptical but not ignorant.