Half Lives

Half Lives

The Unlikely History of Radium

Lucy Jane Santos


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The fascinating, curious, and sometimes macabre history of radium as seen in its uses in everyday life.

Of all the radioactive elements discovered at the end of the nineteenth century, it was radium that became the focus of both public fascination and entrepreneurial zeal.

Half Lives tells the fascinating, curious, sometimes macabre story of the element through its ascendance as a desirable item – a present for a queen, a prize in a treasure hunt, a glow-in- the-dark dance costume – to its role as a supposed cure-all in everyday twentieth-century life, when medical practitioners and business people (reputable and otherwise) devised ingenious ways of commodifying the new wonder element, and enthusiastic customers welcomed their radioactive wares into their homes.

Lucy Jane Santos—herself the proud owner of a formidable collection of radium beauty treatments—delves into the stories of these products and details the gradual downfall and discredit of the radium industry through the eyes of the people who bought, sold and eventually came to fear the once-fetishized substance. 

Half Lives is a new history of radium as part of a unique examination of the interplay between science and popular culture.


Lucy Jane Santos:
Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of twentieth-century health and beauty with a particular interest—some might say obsession—in the cultural history of radioactivity. She is now the Executive Secretary of the British Society for the History of Science. In the past, she has also worked as the Director of the Crime Writers’ Association and for the Gourmet Society, where she was Editor, and at The International Wine and Food Society. This is her first book.