Book Review: Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium by Lucy Jane Santos

Cover of the book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium By Lucy Jane Santos
Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium
by Lucy Jane Santos
Pegasus, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on June 1, 2021.

Given the known dangers of radiation, it’s difficult to comprehend how anyone could have thought it was healthy. But for nearly half a century after the discovery of radium, radiation was touted by scientists and medical experts as a cure-all for a whole range of maladies, from cancer to tuberculosis to various skin conditions. Radium was used in spas, steam treatments, salves and poultices, face creams, hair tonics, toothpaste, and more. People were even encouraged to drink radioactive water. Scientists recommended a range of radiation-based medical treatments and worried about unscrupulous businesses selling patent medicines that falsely claimed to contain radium. It was only over time that the dangers of radiation became clear. The development of the atomic bomb marked the end of radium’s golden age. In telling this history, Santos is careful not to judge from the perspective of hindsight: the use of radiation in medicine wasn’t quackery, it was supported by the best current scientific understanding. It’s an entertaining and eye-opening tale of a strange time in the early history of modern science.

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