Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth - Trevor Norton (2010)
That Unhealthy Glow
‘What you can’t see won’t hurt you’ – one of my mother’s many truisms that were untrue
All scientists are detectives searching for clues to solve mysteries, questioning suspect information and probing the unknown. The unknown is often the unseen and mankind has long been fascinated by invisible forces.
The Renaissance physician Paracelsus was one of the first medical men to become obsessed with magnetism. He used a magnetised crystal to transfer disease from a patient to germinating seeds, and spawned generations of quack ‘magnetisers’.
It was well known that sword wounds were best healed by a magnetised blade dipped in a mixture of the casualty’s blood, two ounces of human suet and moss from the head of a hanged thief. The last ingredient could be omitted if the lolling dome had gathered no moss. For a hernia one physician prescribed a poultice of iron filings plus a powdered magnet swallowed by the patient. At the internal magnet’s closest approach to the external iron, the hernia would be drawn back into the body.
In the 1770s a professor of astronomy called Max Hell (I blame the parents) became famous for curing all ills with magnetised metal plates applied to the body. Numerous quacks followed suit, though one revealed doubts about the methodology when he warned fellow practitioners never to magnetise in front of inquisitive persons.
The most famous magnetiser of the eighteenth century was Franz Anton Mesmer who postulated a magnetic ‘fluidom’ that upset the body’s nervous system and could only be cured by magnetism. He claimed he could magnetise anyone with just a wave of his hand. What we call a hypnotic trance he labelled ‘animal magnetism’. It was his magnetic personality and showmanship that attracted ladies to his Paris salon. The clients sat around a huge tub drinking magnetised water and caressing themselves with magnetic rods. They were then linked with cords, held hands and pressed against each others’ knees to ensure that the fluence circulated.
Mesmer drifted among them dressed in a lilac robe and waving a wand like the Merlin of magnetism. Handsome youths gently massaged the ladies in their most magnetically sensitive areas until ‘their cheeks began to glow’ and ‘their imagination inflamed’. Many swooned in ‘magnetic ecstasy’.
Mesmer craved scientific recognition, but a committee of scientists including Lavoisier and Benjamin Franklin diagnosed contagious hysteria and debunked the magnetic magic. Mesmer fled in a flap of lilac.
One of his imitators used ‘magnetic somnabulism’ and strung his patients on a magnetised tree like Christmas decorations. In the United States Dr Elisha Perkins patented ‘magnetic tractors’ (magnets that draw out). When trailed over the patient’s skin they extracted pain and even corrected deformities. His ‘cures’ were so successful that he was struck off the medical register. To prove his powers Perkins rushed to save the citizens of New York during an outbreak of yellow fever, promptly caught the fever and died.
His son Ben decamped to London and sold the magnetic tractors at five guineas each. He assured customers that ‘rheumatism fled at their approach’. A sceptical doctor showed that wooden battens painted to look like metal were just as effective as the tractors. His exposé was entitled The Imagination as a Cause and Cure of Disorder, Exemplified by the Fictitious Tractors. It was, however, indisputable that magnetism cured poverty: Ben Perkins returned to Pennsylvania with £10,000 in his pocket and Mesmer left Paris with 340,000 francs.
They would have been astonished to learn that today electromagnets have enabled us to see the finest details of the body’s interior and distinguish cancerous tissues from healthy ones. We call it Magnetic Resonance Imagery (MRI). What a money-spinner. Why didn’t they think of that? Well, they would have needed magnets that could generate magnetic fields 100,000 times greater than the Earth’s. Ray Damadian, the inventor of the MRI scanner, didn’t know whether the human body could withstand these forces so the brave fellow became the first person to have a whole-body scan.
Such scanners also require an enormous amount of electricity, and it was the discovery of electricity that caused ‘medical’ magnetism to lose its appeal. By the 1730s researchers realised that they could electrify the human body, so long as it was insulated from the ground. A contemporary French etching depicts a youth suspended by ropes with his feet touching a generator of electricity – probably a rotating ball of sulphur – and sending out a spark from his fingertip to a rod held by the experimenter. The boy’s face bears a pained expression.
Louis XV was intrigued and was said to have used an enormous battery to send a current through a chain of monks holding hands to make a circuit. The effect was ‘prodigious’. The surprised friars proved to be great conductors of electricity and, despite their secluded life, they still knew how to dance.
The supposed therapeutic value of electricity was known to the ancients. The court physician to the Roman emperor Claudius recommended placing an electric torpedo fish on the head to cure a headache. This was inadvisable as it might have been mistaken for a very silly hat and could have delivered a charge of 220 volts that might have done away with the need to wear a hat ever again.
Eighteenth-century Britain became infatuated with electricity. A Member of Parliament with scientific leanings linked up twenty-seven volunteers to a torpedo ray and gave them a jolt they wouldn’t forget. The result was ‘absolutely electrical’ and the sparks were ‘vivid and repeated’. Quacks were in electric heaven. A Scottish physician promoted the virtues of his ‘electric bath’ – usually a deadly combination. Some therapies came in five colours of electrical fluids. Even the preacher John Wesley had an ‘electrical machine’.
The ‘Emperor of Quacks’, according to the comic revue at the Haymarket Theatre, was James Graham who opened his London Temple of Health in 1780. It offered an entrancing melange of magnetism, mud baths and extraordinary thrills by, in the words of the poet Southey, ‘tampering with electricity in a manner too infamous to be reported’. There was a seductively clad ‘Goddess of Youth and Health’ worthy of close inspection. She was certainly eyed by William Hamilton who promoted her to Lady Hamilton, later the apple of Nelson’s remaining eye.
The other pièce de least résistance was the Celestial Bed. It promised ‘heavenly joys’ and ‘superior ecstasy’ as well as ‘immediate conception’. The bed was wired up to give an electrical buzz to the proceedings and insulated to conserve an ‘abundance of electrical fire’. Every movement of the mattress set off a symphony of organ pipes with the tempo increasing in the final movement.
The bed alone was reputed to have cost an eye-watering £10,000. Clients would have had to wear out a prodigious number of mattresses at fifty pounds a go for it just to break even. After being the risqué venue in London, the lavish temple went bust. Graham began self-experimenting with ‘earth bathing’ therapy by burying himself up to the neck in soil. He found religion but lost his reason, starving himself to increase his life span. Having promised his patrons at the Temple that they would live to be a hundred, he didn’t make it to fifty.
Electrical quacks persisted well into the twentieth century. In the 1920s a rich American called Gaylord Wilshire manufactured I-on-aco, a potion of ‘medical magnetism’ charged from an electric-light socket. Twenty years later another American, William Reich, began dispensing an electromagnetic force called ‘Orgone Energy’ which came in a charming shade of blue. It was supposed to charge the body’s life force and increase the sex drive. The bedridden were sold an ‘energy accumulator’ that produced orgone. It bore a startling resemblance to a blanket.
By this time one electrical treatment had become mainstream. It came not with a tingle but with a jolt. Its original name was ‘Electric Shock Treatment’ but that sounded rather frightening so it was changed to ‘Electroconvulsive Therapy’, which still sounds pretty scary to me. No doubt that’s why it’s always referred to as ECT
It involves placing electrodes on the head to deliver a brief electric charge sufficient to precipitate a convulsion and render the patient unconscious. It usually causes some amnesia and is commonly used on patients with depression when all else fails.
It was not until 1980, after five decades of shocking patients’ brains, that there was a comprehensive survey of the use and effectiveness of ECT. The response of The Lancet medical journal to the survey’s findings was unequivocal: ‘Every British psychiatrist should read this report and feel ashamed.’ It revealed a litany of failings: poorly maintained machines, technicians with little or no training delivering shocks of arbitrary duration. This was particularly worrying as the degree of memory loss suffered is related to the amount of electricity passed through the brain. Despite studies indicating that using just one electrode rather than two caused less confusion and memory loss, eighty per cent of clinics always used two probes. ECT was even used as a ‘cure’ for homosexuality. Sixteen per cent of the psychiatrists interviewed admitted they would give ECT even if both the patient and relatives objected. A disconcerting sequel to this is that twenty years later a new survey of 700 patients revealed that fifty-nine per cent had been subjected to ECT without their permission.
There were 200,000 applications in Britain in 1979, the year of the first review, with each patient receiving four to eight shock treatments. Most psychiatrists agreed it was beneficial. Yet there was no understanding of why it might work.
Perhaps the training of psychiatrists should include at least one dose of ECT as behoves anyone who would subject others to what the first report described as a ‘degrading and frightening’ experience. However, if some were experimenting on their patients inadvertently, others built their reputation consciously doing so.
In the 1840s Guillaume Duchenne studied the physiology of human expressions by inducing the facial muscles to contract in ways that mirrored various emotions. His technique was to persuade a simple-minded old man to adopt a calm expression as electrodes were attached to his face.
By shocking two sets of muscles simultaneously he produced ‘a strikingly truthful picture of a face stupefied with terror … a dreadful mixture of horror and fear’, of someone awaiting ‘inevitable torture’. When, in addition, he stimulated the ‘muscle of pain’ just above the eyes, he augmented the look of terror with an expression of agony. Duchenne took photographs that confirm his claim to have recreated ‘the face of the damned’.
He called his experiments ‘living anatomy’ rather than the abuse of an old man by contorting the ‘mundane surface’ of his ‘coarse face’. He could have used his own face, but perhaps his physiognomy was too refined, whereas the old chap had ‘trivial features’. ‘It was,’ Duchenne said, ‘like working with a still irritable corpse.’ Duchenne had tried to reanimate the features of a cadaver, but found it far more distasteful than working on a living person. I doubt if a dedicated self-experimenter would have such a dismissive view of someone on whom he was experimenting.
Ninety years later Dr Ewen Cameron at McGill University was attracted by ECT’s ability to induce amnesia. His aim was to wipe the mind clean and then re-program it. The CIA also became interested in the possibility of brainwashing and provided generous funding. Cameron ‘depatterned’ fifty-three of his schizophrenic patients without their consent. The process involved doses of the psychedelic drug LSD four times a week and electric shock treatment twice a day, resulting in thirty to a hundred and fifty treatments per person. This was far in excess of anything a patient would normally get.
Some patients suffering from long-term depression were kept in an ECT-induced coma for eighty-six days while being bombarded with endlessly repeated messages. Cameron called this ‘psychic driving’. The patients’ own words were recorded and then played back. Most were negative thoughts such as:
‘I hate everything. It makes me feel so resentful. I might as well go and do something silly’ – repeated thirty times.
‘I hate, I hate’ – thirty-five times.
‘I am so lonely’ – forty-five times.
Some heard the same messages a quarter of a million times. During this aural assault they became progressively more disturbed and they shook for some time after the session had ended.
By the end of the treatment the patients’ memories were completely erased and some patients were mentally impaired. Their personalities had disappeared and they were unable to speak, or eat unaided. They were victims without pasts and with uncertain futures.
Cameron’s own future was assured. Later he admitted that it had been a ten-year trip down the wrong path. His patients’ records were destroyed. He died in 1967 replete with academic honours.
Invisible forces can be dangerous. Innumerable people have been electrocuted, often through lack of caution. Recently a man who had appeared on television demonstrating his resistance to electricity by sticking his fingers into electric sockets was electrocuted because he didn’t bother to switch off the power supply before attempting to repair a generator.
We know that the high volume of sound at raves and discos is impairing the hearing of the young, but sound waves can be much more dangerous than that. Professor Gavraud often felt nauseous at work and attributed this to low-frequency vibrations from a nearby air-conditioning plant. To study this phenomenon he built a large machine driven by compressed air to produce low-frequency ‘infrasound’.
Luckily Gavraud stood well back when his assistant turned on the air for the first time. The technician collapsed immediately and died. The intensity of the vibrations probably caused spontaneous breathing to cease, although it was alleged that the assistant’s internal organs had been gelatinised. We are all curious by nature, none more so than scientists.
In 1895 Wilhelm Röntgen, while studying cathode rays, noticed on an adjacent bench a luminous green glow emanating from a sheet of paper coated with a barium compound. He knew this couldn’t be from cathode rays which travel only a short distance in air and in any case the cathode-ray tube was covered in thick black cardboard that prevented the rays from escaping. The luminescence must therefore come from a very different invisible ray. A few simple tests showed that a thick book, two packs of cards, even a thin sheet of metal didn’t block the rays. Röntgen called this powerful new force ‘X-rays’.
By chance his hand passed between the tube and the paper and cast a shadow. It was not the shadow of a hand but the eerie spectre of the bones of his hand. This supernatural sight so unnerved Röntgen that he broke off his research. He didn’t return to the laboratory until the Christmas recess when there were no other staff around. He worked feverishly and became so preoccupied that this wife feared for his mental health. She appreciated his excitement when he showed her an X-ray photograph of a lead weight inside a sealed wooden box. Although these were far more penetrating rays than anything yet discovered, his wife volunteered to be the first person to be X-rayed. This resulted in an iconic photograph of the bones of her hand wearing a ring. Dense objects like bones and metal showed up on X-rays because they partially block the rays, but only lead stops them entirely.
By January he had published an article whose title translates as ‘A new kind of ray’. These see-through rays hit the headlines. There was so much clamour that the Pall Mall Gazette announced it was ‘sick of the Roentgen Rays’. There was public concern that they might be used to see through clothes and reveal what lay beneath. One enterprising company advertised knickers that were X-ray proof.
The Roentgen rays,
What is this craze?
I’m full of daze,
Shock and amaze,
I hear they’ll gaze
Through cloak and gown and even stays,
These naughty, naughty Roentgen rays
Within months of Röntgen’s publication X-ray machines had been designed and built and were being used to look for fractured bones and gallstones. Before long bismuth and then barium were being swallowed to make the interior of the gut visible to X-rays. The Horlicks company made the barium meals.
It was soon apparent that the rays could burn the skin, but there was much worse to come. X-rays are a form of ionising radiation that can cause fundamental damage to the body. They can kill cells or alter them irreversibly. This can lead to sterility, cancer and damage to the DNA, with dire repercussions for future progeny. The damage is dose-related – the more exposure, the greater the risk. As early as May 1897 there were sixty-nine reports of X-ray injuries, all of them to technicians working with X-ray machines. Whether they knew it or not they were conducting deadly-experiments on themselves.
Thomas Edison worked with the machines but stopped ‘when I came near to losing my eyesight’. Clarence Dally, one if his assistants, fared worse. He developed ulcerated arms and incredibly was given more X-rays to ‘heal’ the damage. His arms had to be amputated and he died a year later at the age of thirty-nine.
It was not a pleasant way to die, as exemplified by the fate of Mr Cox who maintained the army surgeon’s X-ray machine during the South African War. A friend visited Cox and described his condition: ‘A more pitiable case I have never witnessed in any human being.’ He spoke of the ‘excruciating agony he has endured for the past six years. Words cannot depict the awful condition of the man … Poor Cox, whose shattered health is beyond all doubt irrecoverable, has lost his right arm and fingers from his withered left hand and was totally incapacitated.’ He had also developed ‘rodent ulcers and a most serious cancerous condition attacking his face, chin and jaw’. It took his wife two hours to dress his ‘terribly affected face’.
The medical journals began to catalogue the radiologists and radiographers who were ‘sacrificed to science’. They included Walter Cannon who had been the first to use radio-opaque chemicals as well as pearl buttons to study the internal workings of throat and stomach. Röntgen was spared, perhaps because he kept his X-ray tubes in a metal box.
Technicians were in the firing line because they wore no protective clothing and the early X-ray tubes had little or no shielding. Patients were also at risk from being given excessive doses of irradiation. In 1912 the X-ray tube was described as ‘a remarkably fickle appliance and it was quite impossible to estimate the magnitude of the dose’. The duration of exposure was incredibly long to ensure a good image. In the first account of finding a foreign object (a bullet) inside a human, published in 1896, the exposure took more than two hours. An abnormally hirsute five-year-old girl was treated with X-rays for two hours a day over sixteen days. The hair on her back did indeed fall out only to be replaced by a huge necrotic ulcer destined to become malignant. Such treatment left tens of thousands of women scarred or cancerous. The last X-ray machine dedicated to depilation was not decommissioned until 1949.
Countless thousands of people were irradiated unnecessarily. In the early days photographic studios offered ‘bone portraits’ and even when I was a child many shoe shops had a ‘pedoscope’ that X-rayed your feet inside the shoes to show whether they were a good fit. Kids loved pressing their eyes against the glass viewing plate to see their skeletal toes.
In 1906 a man demanded that his fiancée was X-rayed before the wedding to confirm she was healthy inside – possibly because he had not been granted access to her interior during their courtship. She refused and he broke off the engagement. She sued for breach of promise and won generous compensation.
No sooner were X-rays available than they were used in court to support a compensation claim for an injury suffered by a burlesque actress, to prove a surgeon’s negligence, a murderous husband’s guilt, and to reveal that a suspicious parcel contained a terrorist’s bomb.
A detective even proposed their employment to prove infidelity in divorce cases. An electrical magazine pondered how. ‘We assume he uses X-rays to discover the skeletons which every closet is said to contain.’
A judge refused to accept X-ray photos as legal evidence since: ‘There is no proof that such a thing is possible. It is like offering the photograph of a ghost.’ In December 1896 a Denver attorney argued for three hours that they should be inadmissible. The opposing lawyer brought an X-ray machine into the courtroom and X-rayed the jurors’ hands to prove the technique’s bona fides. The trial judge ruled that: ‘Modern science has made it possible to look beneath the tissue of the human body … We believe it to be our duty in this case to be the first … in admitting in evidence a process acknowledged as a determinate science.’
The laws that interested Marie and Pierre Curie were those of physics and chemistry. In the same year that Röntgen discovered X-rays, Pierre received his doctorate for research on magnetism and married Marie Sklodowska, a Polish student who had been starving in a Parisian garret normally reserved for artists. They formed one of the greatest partnerships in the history of science.
Henri Becquerel had just discovered a new form of radiation emanating from uranium. They decided to investigate this new ray. Marie worked unpaid and the only room she could have had been abandoned by the medics as too sordid even for dissecting cadavers. A visitor described it as ‘a cross between a stable and a potato shed’.
Marie found that different compounds of uranium all emitted radiation, so clearly it had nothing to do with their chemistry: it was a property of the atom itself. She called it ‘radioactivity’.
Uranium was found in an ore called pitchblende, which had been surreptitiously killing miners for centuries. When the first tonne of pitchblende arrived at Marie’s laboratory she was so thrilled that she thrust her hands into the brown ore and let it sift between her fingers.
Marie had devised a way to measure the amount of radiation. To her surprise the pitchblende was far more radioactive than any amount of uranium it might contain could explain. So she searched for another highly radioactive constituent. It was a tougher task than she anticipated as its concentration in the ore was only five parts in a billion. Nonetheless she isolated it and named it ‘polonium’ after her native Poland. But even this didn’t account for all of the radioactivity. She was so sure there must be yet another source of radiation that she called it ‘radium’ even before she found it.
Isolating the radium involved repeatedly boiling and cooling solutions in large vats to get progressively purer crystals. Marie often ‘passed the whole day stirring a mass of ebullition with an iron rod as big as myself’ until she was ‘broken with fatigue’. Eight tonnes of pitchblende yielded only a tenth of a gram of radium.
She had discovered two new elements and became the first woman in France to receive a doctorate. Like Röntgen she did not patent any of her discoveries as it would have been ‘contrary to the scientific spirit’.
At night the luminescent tubes of radium on the shelves ‘looked like faint fairy lights’. According to Pierre the blue glow ‘was sufficient to read by if the tubes were held near to the page. And of course it was a very small quantity.’ Radium was both captivating and lethal. It gave out heat as well as light and was a million times more radioactive than uranium.
Marie suffered skin burns after carrying one of the vials in her pocket. Pierre showed that radium was the culprit by strapping some to his arm. He developed recalcitrant ulcers. Pierre also carried out tests on mice and guinea pigs, exposing them to the radon gas that radium gave off. They all died. Surely they must have now realised that if they continued to experiment with radium, even breathing the air in the laboratory would be hazardous. But the excitement of their discoveries drove them on. Marie once said, ‘Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.’
In 1903 they shared the Nobel Prize for physics but were unable to attend the ceremony in Stockholm because of Marie’s anaemia. It might have been the first symptom of radiation exposure. She also suffered a miscarriage.
When Pierre was heating a tube of radium to a high temperature it exploded, scattering its dangerous contents everywhere. He subsequently developed problems with his eyes and such crippling pains in his legs that he was unable to work. In 1906 he fell under a dray and one of its wheels crushed his head. He died instantly.
Marie was distraught, but eventually found solace in her research: ‘I could not live without my laboratory.’ She was invited to take Pierre’s place as Professor of Radio-physics at the Sorbonne. It was unprecedented for a woman to hold an academic chair so for the first couple of years her title was Chargée de cours before she was elevated to ‘professor’. In 1911 she became a Nobel laureate again, this time for chemistry, and became the first person to win two Nobel Prizes in different disciplines. Even this didn’t get her elected to the French Academy – she was, after all, a woman.
During the First World War Marie was instrumental in providing mobile X-ray units for the troops. She even drove one herself and trained the operators. By 1918 there was an X-ray unit in every field hospital and it was estimated they had treated a million wounded soldiers.
In the 1920s Marie’s health deteriorated. She developed painful radiation burns on her hands and had several operations to save her sight. Eventually she succumbed to severe anaemia resulting from radiation damage to her bone marrow where blood cells are manufactured. Her lasting memorial is the ‘curie’, the primary unit of radioactivity. She would have been delighted that radiotherapy using radium became a major weapon in the fight against cancer, but perhaps dismayed had she known that polonium would be used to detonate the atom bomb and to assassinate a Russian dissident in London in 2006.
In 1995 it was decreed that the Curies should be disinterred and reburied under the grand dome of the Pantheon in Paris. Both President Mitterrand of France and Poland’s Lech Walesa attended the ceremony. An enterprising scientist took the opportunity to scan the bodies with a Geiger counter. Both were radioactive, Pierre astonishingly so. His tragic traffic accident had spared him from a terrible, lingering death.
Marie’s daughter Irene followed in her mother’s footsteps. She became a scientist, shared a Nobel Prize with her husband and died of leukaemia, probably caused by working with radiation.
Over a period of six years George Stover, an American radiologist, deliberately tested the effects of radium on his own body. As a consequence he later needed several amputations and over a hundred skin grafts. Shortly before his premature death he said, ‘A few dead or crippled scientists do not weigh much against a useful fact.’
Such horror stories had little impact on the general public compared with the news that radium was being used to cure cancer. It became known as the ‘ray of life’. It became the magic ingredient in dozens of products: chocolate, toothpaste, radium salves ‘to make the skin tingle’, radioactive clothes to keep you warm, hearing aids with the little-known element ‘hearium’, Ra-Ba-Sa bath salts and hair restorers, even though radiation makes your hair fall out. There were radioactive lotions, douches and suppositories eager for insertion. No cranny of the body was safe. Raditone tonic tablets with ‘gland extracts’ ‘increased sexual vigour’ and there was a radioactive contraceptive gel just in case they did.
Most of the products were probably harmless. Since radium was far more valuable than gold, they probably didn’t contain any. However, radium gives off radioactive radon gas for a thousand years and even a few specks produce a significant amount. Sparklets promoted carbon dioxide bulbs spiked with radon for making soda water in their siphons. There were various ‘emanator’ jugs and jars that sold like hot cakes of uranium. Water left to stand overnight became charged with radon. ‘All next day the family is provided with two gallons of healthful radioactive water … Nature’s way to health.’
William Bailey, a serial fraudster peddling ‘high-priced hokum’, hit the jackpot in the 1920s with radium-rich Radithor water, selling 100,000 bottles a year. It was ‘the fullest achievement in internal radioactive treatment’. He had never said a truer word.
One his best customers was a rich socialite and sportsman called Eben Byers. He was heading for fifty and in need of reinvigoration. Radithor was the answer. He was so pleased with it that he sent crates of the stuff to his friends. Then he began to have constant headaches, his teeth fell out and his bones became brittle.
When we think of radioactivity we imagine gamma rays that pass through the body like a bullet damaging every internal organ, and from which our only defence is a lead wall. But there are also beta rays that penetrate only a few centimetres into the body, and alpha rays, which are relatively slow (a mere 15 million metres per second) and are blocked by a sheet of paper or our skin. But alpha radiation is lethal if ingested. Radium has a proclivity for bones where it accumulates and the alpha rays bombard the surrounding bone to a honeycomb. They never run out of ammunition – the victim runs out of bone.
A lawyer intent on prosecuting Bailey came to interview Byers and described his predicament: ‘A more gruesome experience would be hard to imagine. Byers’ condition beggars description … he could hardly speak … his whole upper jaw and most of his lower jaw have been removed. All the remaining bone tissue of his body was slowly disintegrating, and holes were actually forming in his skull.’ Byers died in agony.
Bailey was successfully prosecuted, but only for making fraudulent claims. He was soon back in business selling Health Springs, ‘rich in vital rays’, and Bioray paperweights, ‘far richer in the invisible gamma rays than the sun’. There was no law to prevent him selling what he called ‘perpetual sunshine’. He died of bladder cancer brought on by an excess of it.
Radium’s most marketable property was its luminescence. Undark manufactured paint kits with which you could illuminate your door’s bell push, or a gunsight, fish bait, even ‘a woman’s felt slippers’. The company’s founders envisaged future homes being illuminated by radium-painted ceilings, but the demand was for important things that needed to glow in the dark such as dolls’ eyes, rouge and cocktails.
With the coming of the First World War there were innumerable dials that had to be read in dim light. It was estimated that ninety-five per cent of radium production in the United States was devoted to the production of luminous paint, at the expense of medical usage. Some doctors even sold some of their allocation. By 1917 every American serviceman had a watch with a luminous dial.
The paint was radium mixed with tiny crystals and sweet-tasting gum arabic. Painting the numerals and hands on watches was fine work. The brushes had only three or four bristles. To ‘point’ the bristles or to remove excess paint the artists wiped the brush between their lips. Painting 250 dials a day meant they swallowed a lot of radioactive material. One factory employed 800 female dial painters over a seven-year period. By the 1920s there were 120 such factories in the United States.
A dentist was the first to notice that several of the factory girls had jaw problems, and in 1925 the resident physicist at one factory died and an autopsy revealed severe necrosis of his lungs and liver. His bones were so radioactive that when left in the dark on a sensitive plate they photographed themselves. Shortly afterwards one of the dial painters was admitted to hospital. Even her breath was radioactive. She died of severe anaemia because her bone marrow had been destroyed. Not a single woman who had worked at the factory for a year or more had a healthy blood count. Some were terrified to find they were luminous in the dark.
The management dismissed suggestions of‘so-called radium poisoning … Nothing approaching such symptoms have ever been found.’ Yet they had just suppressed a highly critical health report and their dead employees were being buried in lead-lined caskets. The company president wrote a sanctimonious letter to the local Commissioner of Health pleading that the deaths were because it was company policy to hire those whom others would consider unemployable. ‘What was considered an act of kindness on our part has since been turned against us.’ Sick workers took the company to court and won compensation, but the women with rotting jaws and honeycombed bones continued to die for years afterwards.
The clocks and watches they painted lived on. It was estimated that during the years they spent on wrists and bedside tables they dispensed more radioactivity than all the radium-processing sites and nuclear facilities in the entire USA.
Fortunately the fad for radioactivity died a natural death, which is more than can be said for its victims. Yet even as recently as the 1980s Soviet doctors are said to have prescribed 2,500 radon baths daily, and the Radium Palace Hotel near Karlsbad still welcomes visitors to its 300 bedrooms and its naturally radioactive springs. Fortunately Buxton Spa in England no longer imports radioactive water so that it can’t boast as it once did that its waters were fifty times more radioactive than even the ‘hottest’ places abroad.
Radiation lingers. Marie Curie’s notebooks are still radioactive. In 2008 the University of Manchester in England grew suspicious about the cause of fatal cancers in staff who had recently worked in the building where Ernest Rutherford had first described alpha radiation almost a century earlier. Rooms thought to be contaminated were sealed off and all staff who had worked there over the previous twenty years were advised to have a health check.
Another person having his health monitored was Eric Voice, a nuclear chemist. In the mid-1990s he and eleven colleagues were injected with a short-lived isotope of radioactive plutonium to determine where and for how long it remained in the body. This was to inform estimates of the risks involved from an accidental exposure to larger quantities. In 2000, though now retired, Voice inhaled plutonium to test how much was absorbed by his lungs and how quickly it travelled around the body. He boasted that he was now the world’s most radioactive man. An armoured van called regularly to collect his waste, although he showed no adverse effects of his exposure.
Already in his seventies, Dr Voice was phlegmatic about his fate: ‘I don’t think I need to worry too much about what could happen in the rest of my life.’ He was one of those rare people who did not want to live as long as Methuselah. He died of motor neurone disease in 2004, aged eighty, and was buried in a lead-lined coffin.
Health spa heaven. A radium hath with radon inhaler.