Out of all the characters who encounter radium in this episode, the only one to emerge unscathed is the guy who comes face-to-face with Satan.
Featured above: Gustave Téry and Pierre Mortier fighting over ethics in video game tabloid journalism.
It feels good to be back! But we packed a lot into this episode, so, you know the drill. More notes and sources cited coming later.
However, I promised footage of swordfights! I would embed them here, but YouTube requires you to watch them on their website, due to violence. So:
Ron Winslow, who wrote that 1990 piece on Eben Byers, is still writing for the Wall Street Journal!
It was at this time that I concluded to sell my soul to Satan. Steel was away down, so was St. Paul; it was the same with all the desirable stocks, in fact, and so, if I did not turn out to be away down myself, now was my time to raise a stake and make my fortune.”
So begins Mark Twain’s 1904 short story, “Sold To Satan.” When preparing for the ensuing negotiations, the nameless protagonist is surprised by the Devil’s elemental composition:
I rose to receive my guest, and braced myself for the thunder crash and the brimstone stench which should announce his arrival. … But he was not a fire coal; he was not red, no! On the contrary. He was a softly glowing, richly smoldering torch, column, statue of pallid light, faintly tinted with a spiritual green, and out from him a lunar splendor flowed such as one sees glinting from the crinkled waves of tropic seas when the moon rides high in cloudless skies.”
After half an hour of small talk, the narrator musters the nerve to ask what Satan is made of.
He was not offended, but answered with frank simplicity:
“That accounts for it!” I exclaimed. “It is the loveliest effulgence I have ever seen. The hard and heartless glare of the electric doesn’t compare with it. I suppose Your Majesty weighs about–about–”
“I stand six feet one; fleshed and blooded I would weigh two hundred and fifteen; but radium, like other metals, is heavy. I weigh nine hundred-odd.”
I gazed hungrily upon him, saying to myself:
“What riches! What a mine! Nine hundred pounds at, say, $3,500,000 a pound, would be–would be–” Then a treacherous thought burst into my mind!
He laughed a good hearty laugh, and said:
“I perceive your thought; and what a handsomely original idea it is!–to kidnap Satan, and stock him, and incorporate him, and water the stock up to ten billions–just three times its actual value–and blanket the world with it! … Do you know I have been trading with your poor pathetic race for ages… but none of those people ever guessed where the real big money lay. You are the first.”
It’s an amusing vignette, quintessential Twain. But he was not the first to draw connections between Hell and elements.
Indeed, Satan has been no stranger on our chemical journey! We’ve studied sulfurous brimstone and Luciferian phosphorus. Nickel takes its very name from Old Scratch. We haven’t even gotten to plutonium yet. But radium certainly earns its place among this disreputable bunch. Even aside from this literary connection, radium is responsible for a truly inordinate amount of torment.
You’re listening to The Episodic Table Of Elements, and I’m T. R. Appleton. Each episode, we take a look at the fascinating true stories behind one element on the periodic table.
Today, we’re jawing on about radium.
Radium is the other element discovered by the Curies, Marie and Pierre. They found it the same year they discovered polonium, and much the same way: by playing around with the uranium ore called “pitchblende.” They named this one “radium,” from “ray,” since it’s so very radioactive. Three million times more radioactive than uranium, providing a Neapolitan blend of alpha, beta, and gamma radiation.
You may remember that working so closely with such potent materials ultimately led to the deaths of not only Marie Curie, but also her daughter Irene and her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie. Interestingly, Pierre did not meet the same fate, despite being subject to the same conditions. He probably would have, eventually, but he was run over by a horse-drawn cart while crossing the street in the rain.
That happened in 1906, when Marie was only 38 years old. And as dedicated as she was to Pierre, she did move on. After all, she was certainly not dead.
By 1911, she began living life to the fullest with Paul Langevin — a younger man, rather handsome in a turn-of-the-century sort of way, the kind of guy who would climb the Eiffel Tower just to take some atmospheric readings. But the two tried to keep their romance out of the public eye. Langevin was one of Pierre Curie’s former students, but that wasn’t the scandalous part. Paul Langevin, you see, was a married man. His wife had recently given birth to their fourth child.1 2 3
This wasn’t Paul’s first extramarital affair, but Madame Langevin was determined to make it his last. When she learned that the two had a little love nest near the Sorbonne, she became enraged. Enraged enough to (allegedly) hire a thief to break into the apartment and recover a bundle of correspondence between the two laboratory lovers. Rather racy correspondence, at that. For instance, Paul wrote,
I am trembling with impatience at the thought of seeing you return at last, and of telling you how much I missed you. I kiss you tenderly awaiting tomorrow…”
And so on and so forth.
With these letters in hand, Jeanne Langevin told them to end the affair or she would spill it all to the newspapers. Well, either the couple failed to hide their continued indiscretions, or Jeanne decided to do it anyway, because soon it was plastered on every front page in town — one paper described it as “the greatest sensation in Paris since the theft of the Mona Lisa.”
Brief aside: Did you know the Mona Lisa was stolen? It had happened only a few months earlier in 1911. One of the Louvre’s employees just grabbed it off the wall, hid it under his coat, and sauntered out the door. An impressive feat, because the Mona Lisa is by no means a small painting. The funny thing is, while the Mona Lisa is possibly the most famous work of art in the world today, almost no one cared about it or even knew about it until it was stolen.4
Anyway, back to the chemical couple.
Predictably, Curie was painted as a home-wrecking harlot, and Paul the hapless fool who had fallen into her trap. And the timing could not have been worse. The story broke right before Curie was due to appear before the King of Sweden to accept her second Nobel Prize.
There was much wringing of hands among the Nobel Committee. One member said, “We must do everything that we can to avoid a scandal and try, in my opinion, to prevent Madame Curie from coming. … I don’t know who could have her at their table.” A fellow Nobel laureate wrote to Curie, “I beg you to stay in France; no one can calculate what might happen here… I hope therefore that you will telegraph… that you do not wish to accept the prize[.]”5
She did receive one note of support. It read:
I am convinced that you [should] continue to hold this riffraff in contempt…if the rabble continues to be occupied with you, simply stop reading that drivel. Leave it to the vipers it was fabricated for.”
That letter was written by Albert Einstein.
Additional context makes him out to be less of an ally, unfortunately. In a letter to someone else, he wrote, “She has a sparkling intelligence, but despite her passionate nature, she is not attractive enough to be a danger to anyone.”6 7
Meanwhile, Paul Langevin found himself embroiled in a slightly more physical conflict. Gustave Tery was one of the many newspaper editors to cover the affair. He had written, “This man is nothing but a boor and a vile coward,” and, well, Langevin simply wasn’t going to let that stand. He challenged Tery to a duel — pistols at dawn.
Apparently this sounded good and chivalrous, since both men showed up, but it did not wind up being the noble scene that they surely imagined.
They found Paul Painlevé, a math and science teacher, to sort of “referee” the event, but not because he was knowledgeable about guns or duels. It was more that he was the only guy willing to do it. So the combatants were caught off-guard when Painlevé suddenly rose his voice and quickly counted to trois. Langevin raised his pistol, but when he saw that Téry hadn’t moved, quickly lowered it. The scene was conspicuously silent but for the continued cooing of undisturbed pigeons.8
Shots were not fired. Téry later wrote that he did not want to “deprive French science of a precious mind, whether that mind worked on its own or preferred to resort to Mme. Curie as gracious intermediary.”9 Zing! For his part, Langevin said, “I am not an assassin.”10
But Téry had spit some true vitriol about Curie, and people were lining up to fight him about it. Pierre Mortier, another journalist who was friends with Curie, challenged him to cross swords. Téry emerged victorious after wounding Mortier in the arm. But Téry wasn’t the only belligerent news man in Paris. Competing editors M. Chervet (pro-Curie) and Leon Daudet (anti-Curie) drew epees over the substance of the charges, with Team Curie taking the win after “several fierce bouts.”11 12
In total, Parisian polemics fought five known duels over the matter, but the person who best defended Marie Curie’s honor was Marie Curie herself.
“…[T]he prize has been awarded for the discovery of Radium and Polonium,” she wrote. “I cannot accept the idea that the appreciation of the value of scientific work should be influenced by libel and slander concerning private life. I am convinced that this opinion is shared by many people. I am very saddened that you are not yourself of this opinion.”13
When she and Pierre won their Nobel Prize in 1905, they decided their laboratory work was more important than the awards ceremony and did not attend. This time, she made a point of traveling to accept her award, where she cordially enjoyed an eleven-course meal with the King of Sweden.
The love affair, however, was over. The couple simply couldn’t weather the public torment. She spent the next year recovering before returning to academic life.
Langevin went on to reconcile with his wife, and later fathered a child with his secretary.
Clearly, radium presents a potentially lethal occupational hazard, as we’ve seen with three out of four Curies. But it wasn’t always chemists and physicists who worked closely with the element. In fact, they didn’t even see the worst of what radium could do.
Radium can perform a pretty neat trick: A little of its salt mixed with a little zinc sulfide makes paint that glows in the dark. And not that weak stuff we have today, where you have to leave it out in the sun all day to “charge” just to get the faintest little glow. The radium emits alpha and beta particles, which collide with the zinc sulfide and excite its electrons. Then, just like with neon and several other materials, those electrons emit light when they retreat to their resting state.
That’s useful for switches and dials people might read in the dark — like a wristwatch. Luminescent timepieces became all the rage when the Radium Luminous Material Corporation started manufacturing them in 1917. But production wasn’t automated. Painting those tiny numbers with the company’s patented “Undark” paint required human precision.
And so they hired scores of skilled labor for the cheapest wages possible; i.e., young women. Most of them were teenagers; some were as young as 11 years old. That wasn’t terribly uncommon for the era, especially since a sizable chunk of the nation’s male workforce had just been deployed to the trenches in Europe.
Most families needed that kind of income, and the other job options tended to be in sweatshops, factories with heavy machinery, or munitions plants. In contrast, painting watch faces looked positively cushy. The girls even had a little fun with it. They’d sometimes paint their nails, their faces, or even their teeth a brightly glowing green.
If you’ve ever painted miniatures, you know that it requires a close eye, a steady hand, and a paintbrush with a sharply pointed tip. The company instructed the girls to ensure that last thing by a technique called “lip-pointing.” That is, giving the brush a quick lick between strokes. Just a quick taste of those radium-coated paintbrushes. The only side effect, their managers promised, was that “radium would put rosy cheeks on [them].”14 15
Honestly, though, that wasn’t terribly uncommon for the time either. People were more than willing to slather and fill their bodies with all manner of radioactive substances. I mean, come on! The stuff glowed! There had never been anything quite like it.
Tho-Radia sold a line of cosmetics containing — what else? — thorium and radium. The packaging loudly proclaimed that the contents were concocted by one Dr. Alfred Curie. Evidence suggests that he was a real person, and not just a mascot of corporate invention, but he had no stronger relationship to Marie and Pierre Curie than you or I.16 17 18 19
In the thirties, German confectioners Burk & Braun sold a radium-laced chocolate bar. “If you are healthy, preserve your precious health,” the advertisements proclaimed. “If you’re suffering, increase your chances of getting well again!”20
Radium was promoted as an ingredient in everything from cigarettes to suppositories.21 Sometimes this was nothing more than a ploy — for instance, “Radium Nutex fine-quality prophylactics” did not actually contain any radium, thank goodness.
On the other hand, Radithor Certified Radioactive Triple-Distilled Water contained at least as much radium as creator Dr. William J. Bailey claimed. The only false advertising there was the claim that it effectively treated over 150 diseases, from arthritis and hypertension to lethargy and impotence. At best, it probably worked for… none of them.22 23
But plenty of people believed that it did, and none had more faith than one Eben Byers. He was a playboy/industrialist/Yale graduate/Manhattanite/professional golfer. In 1927, he injured his arm after falling out of a train’s upper berth following a Yale-Harvard football game. It caused persistent pain, for which his doctor prescribed Radithor.24 25
Incidentally, Radithor’s inventor, Dr. William J. Bailey, was not actually a doctor — he was a Harvard dropout. He did know a lot of doctors, though, and he offered them a $5 kickback for every case of Radithor they prescribed.
Whatever physiological effects the elixir may or may not have had on Byers, he definitely felt like it did the trick. And then some, apparently, because he kept taking it. He drank three vials of the stuff per day. He offered it to his girlfriends, he sent cases of it to his friends, he even regularly gave it to one of his racehorses. Bailey couldn’t have asked for a better spokesperson.
Across the Hudson, employees of the Radium Luminous Material Corporation were starting to exercise greater caution when working with element 88. Exposure limits, protective gear, that sort of thing. Not for the girls painting the watch faces, though. No such measures were put in place for them.
Soon enough, there were consequences. Current and former watch-painters were starting to get toothaches. Truly terrible toothaches, which sent them on frequent trips to the dentist. The ladies often left those appointments with fewer teeth in their heads than when they arrived.
What was happening? Once again, the periodic table provides a clue. Three spaces above radium lies calcium, and the human body treats the two elements similarly. Specifically, it carries them to the bones. Radium is preferentially carried to the jaw, where it concentrates and does constant damage to the surrounding tissue. One ex-employee, Grace Fryer, had a jawbone riddled with holes, like moth-eaten clothes. Her spine, too, had practically disintegrated.
This was a serious problem, and the RLM Corporation started spinning up the damage control machine. Company President Arthur Roeder hired Cecil Drinker, a Harvard professor, to conduct an internal investigation. Drinker and his team witnessed more than just a cavalier attitude toward radioactive substances. Every surface was covered in a thick coat of radium dust. “Their hair, faces, hands, arms, necks, the dresses, the underclothes, even the corsets of the dial painters were luminous,” he wrote. He was convinced that this was the cause behind the painters’ health problems.
That wasn’t what Roeder wanted to hear at all. Considerably flustered, he argued that some infection acquired outside the factory must be to blame. He even had another official report that said so. When Drinker asked to see that other report, Roeder refused — and threatened to sue Drinker if he published his findings independently.
Interestingly, Roeder did submit Drinker’s report to the New Jersey Department Of Labor — but this version of the report had only positive things to say about the Radium Luminescent Materials Corporation, claiming that “every girl is in perfect condition.”26
Grace Fryer and her colleagues sought legal recourse, but for the longest time, they couldn’t find a lawyer willing to take their case. The myriad mystery symptoms were commonly attributed to syphilis, when anyone cared to ask at all.
The public paid a bit more attention when the rich white guy came down with similar symptoms. Eben Byers only quit his Radithor habit after having drunk more than 1,400 bottles of it over a few years. When his teeth started to fall out, the Federal Trade Commission asked for testimony. Byers was too ill to travel by that point, though, so FTC attorney Robert Hiner Winn made a house call. It was a horrifying encounter. Winn later wrote for Time Magazine:
A more gruesome experience in a more gorgeous setting would be hard to imagine. … Young in years and mentally alert, he could hardly speak. His head was swathed in bandages. He had undergone two successive operations in which his whole upper jaw, excepting two front teeth, and most of his lower jaw had been removed. All the remaining bone tissue of his body was slowly disintegrating, and holes were actually forming in his skull.”27 28 29
Many of the Radium Girls wound up in similarly dire shape, impossible to ignore. After two years of searching, Grace Fryer finally found a lawyer willing to take on her ex-employer, now renamed US Radium. The company had finally started providing protective gear to its painters, and advised against licking the paintbrushes, for whatever that’s worth.
They also met Fryer’s lawsuit with an impressive display of obstruction. Their grand strategy was to avoid liability by drawing out the lawsuit as long as possible… in the hopes that Fryer and the four other plaintiffs would die before it could be resolved.
The case had finally gained a fair bit of attention. The editor of the New York World called the tactic “a damnable travesty of justice… There is no possible excuse for such a delay. The women are dying. If ever a case called for prompt adjudication, it is the case of five crippled women who are fighting for a few miserable dollars to ease their last days on earth.” Even Marie Curie chimed in, saying, “I would be happy to give any aid I could. There is absolutely no means of destroying the substance once it enters the human body.”
The delays did not have the company’s desired effect, but neither were the girls awarded the $250,000 each they were seeking. Mediated by a totally unbiased US Radium stockholder, the parties agreed to a $10,000 settlement and $600 annual stipend each. It did become a landmark of labor law, and dial painters did enjoy slightly safer working conditions, although the radioluminescent timepiece industry waned to virtually nothing after World War II.
As for Radithor, it was taken off the market in December 1931. Byers died three months later. The Wall Street Journal revisited the story in 1990, summing things up quite succinctly with a now-infamous headline: “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off.”
Amazingly, even after the demises of glowing watches, radioactive energy drinks, and several dozen innocent young girls, radium didn’t disappear completely.
Twentieth-century musician Frank Zappa was a figure as controversial as he was influential. During his life, he produced more than 60 albums that are categorized as everything from “experimental jazz” to “comedy rock.” Detractors called his work “sexist adolescent drivel,” but according to Rolling Stone, “his eccentric genius was undeniable.”
So it’s not terribly surprising to learn that he had a rather unorthodox childhood.
In fact, he and his family were practically a walking chemistry experiment. His father was a meteorologist for the US Army, and often brought home flasks of mercury for Frank to play with. They kept a bag of DDT in the closet, and his father made a little extra cash as a guinea pig for various chemical agents. The Zappas lived down the street from tanks that stored mustard gas, so everyone had their own gas mask — just in case there was ever an accident. They kept theirs on a coat rack at the end of the hall.
Even ordinary ailments had extraordinary treatments. Take sinus infections, for example. Zappa wrote in his autobiography, “The doctor had a long wire thing — maybe a foot or more, and on the end was a pellet of radium. He stuffed it up my nose and into my sinus cavities on both sides.”30
This procedure, nasopharyngeal radium irradiation, was actually somewhat common at the time, circa 1950. The doctor would leave the radium pellet in the patient’s nose for eight and a half minutes per side, flooding the inside of the head with radiation. Treatment would usually continue for several sessions.31 32 33
(And you thought a COVID test was invasive!)
His monumental career obviously didn’t hinge entirely upon this one bizarre medical treatment, but it was influential. Noses would make fairly prominent appearances in his music’s lyrics and on his album covers. And he did die pretty young, just a few days short of his 53rd birthday, due to prostate cancer. It’s impossible to draw a direct line between those two things, but plenty of people have noticed the correlation.
Thus, I implore ye element collectors to exercise caution when pursuing element 88. It actually could be the most dangerous element we’ve encountered yet, in a very practical sense. It’s not the most radioactive one, but that’s why it’s so dangerous. It actually sticks around for a really long time; its most common isotope has a half-life of 1,600 years. So if you manage to find one of those radium-coated watches, be careful — it’s still quite hot!34
You wouldn’t know it to look at it, though. Remember how the paint needs a layer of zinc sulfide in order to glow? Well, while the radium is still there, the zinc sulfide would have broken down long ago. A radium dial in the hand today is all downside, I’m afraid.
Radium was finally eliminated from consumer products in the 1960s, so unless you plan on refining a sizable chunk of pitchblende or digging through the superfund sites where luminescent paint factories used to stand, you’ll need to go antiquing.
Perhaps the best and most terrifying of those antiques would be the radiendocrinator.35 This was another of Not-Doctor William J. Bailey’s great achievements. Sold in a gold-embossed leatherette case, the credit card-sized device carried the equivalent radiation of 250 bottles of Radithor, and promised similarly vague yet all-encompassing health benefits. Anyone could wear the device in several different configurations, but the most notorious set of instructions was directed toward the male customer:
Suffice to say, “under the scrotum” is the last place a person should ever hide a sample of radium. Consider yourself informed.
However you acquire radium, and wherever you decide to store it, Group 2 probably provides your only chance to collect physical samples of every element in one full column: beryllium, magnesium, calcium, strontium, barium, and of course, radium. The final entries of every other group are either too hazardous or too fleeting to become a permanent part of your collection. Just remember that great care and discretion are essential if you don’t want your collection to outlast you.
Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. To see film of some of those Parisian swordfights, visit episodic table dot com slash R a.
Next time, we’ll begin another periodic detour, this time through the actinide series.
Until then, this is T. R. Appleton, reminding you that the employers of today are no more altruistic than they were a hundred years ago.
- Mental Floss, Marie Curie’s Sex Scandal And The Duel It Inspired.
- American Institute Of Physics, Marie Curie And The Science Of Radioactivity: Scandal And Recovery (1910-1913).
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- CNN, Mona Lisa: The Theft That Created A Legend. Sheena McKenzie, November 19, 2013.
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- Einstein’s Mistakes: The Human Failings Of Genius, p. 183. Hans C. Ohanian, 2009.
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- Marie Curie, p. 180. Robert William Reid, 1978.
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- Mining And Selling Radium And Uranium, p. 72-74. Roger F. Robison, 2014.
- NobelPrize.org, Marie And Pierre Curie And The Discovery Of Polonium And Radium.
- News.com.au, Unbelievable True Story Of The ‘Radium Girls’. LJ Charleston, September 1, 2019.
- The New York Times, A Glow In The Dark, And A Lesson In Scientific Peril. October 6, 1998.
- Gizmodo, Seriously Scary Radioactive Products From The 20th Century. Vincze Miklós, May 9, 2013.
- CNN Style, When Beauty Products Were Radioactive. Jacopo Prisco, March 8, 2020.
- lucyjanesantos.com, Alfred Curie And Tho Radia. Lucy Jane Santos.
- History Today, Looking Radiant. Lucy Jane Santos, July 17, 2020.
- The History Of Sweets, p. 159. Paul Chrystal, 2021.
- Mental Floss, 9 Ways People Used Radium Before We Understood The Risks. Adrienne Crezo, October 9, 2012.
- Oak Ridge Affiliated Universities Museum Of Radiation And Radioactivity, Radithor (ca. 1928).
- Scientific American, The Great Radium Scandal. Roger M. Macklis, August 1993.
- Popular Science, I, Scientist: For That Healthy Glow, Drink Radiation! Theodore Gray, August 2004.
- Allegheny Cemetery Heritage, Eben M. Byers: The Effect Of Gamma Rays On Amateur Golf, Modern Medicine And The FDA. C. Prentiss Orr, Fall 2004.
- Harvard T. H. Chan School Of Public Health, Deadly Occupation, Forged Report.
- Screams Of Reason: Mad Science And Modern Culture, p. 159. David J. Skal, 1998.
- Lessons From History, The Blessings Of Radium Water Made His Head Disintegrate. Dale M. Brumfield, March 15, 2019.
- TIME, Radium Drinks. April 11, 1932.
- The Real Frank Zappa Book, p. 20. Frank Zappa with Peter Occhiogrosso, 1989.
- Otolaryngology – Head And Neck Surgery, Nasopharyngeal Radium Irradiation: Fundamental Considerations. Henry D. Royal, November 1996.
- Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, Radiation And Your Health: NRI: General Information.
- National Cancer Institute, Nasopharyngeal Radium Irradiation (NRI) And Cancer: Fact Sheet. January 10, 2003.
- Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Could Your Collectible Item Contain Radium?
- U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Radium Historical Items Catalog. M. A. Buchholz, CHP and M. Cervera, August 2008.
- Oak Ridge Associated Universities Museum Of Radiation And Radioactivity, The Radiendocrinator.
- PeriodicTable.com, Radiendocrinator(), An Example Of The Element Radium. Theodore Gray.