I recently asked a former client, Lucy Jane Santos, to write a post about her recently published book, Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium. I edited some early chapters of the book, as well as the proposal Lucy put together for her agent. We stayed in touch, and I eagerly followed the book’s journey to publication. If you’re interested in beauty products, medicine, and/or science, you need to read this book.
Lucy’s account of writing Half Lives
It had been at the back of my mind to do a PhD for several years, but I couldn’t come up with a good topic. As a self-funding student, it needed to be good enough for a supervisor to consider, the institution to let me do it and something that could sustain my interest for almost a decade, as there was no way I could do full time study.
I knew I wanted the project to be something about beauty or makeup but what aspect? It was a struggle.
But one day the topic fell into my lap. I had been in the habit of scouring antique shops and auction houses for years and buying up weird and wonderful beauty products. And on one of these trips I happened on a pot of face powder from a brand I had never heard of before: Tho Radia. The ingredients, which were listed on the base, included the little nugget of information that it contained radium bromide. I was hooked.
It got me thinking – where, when and why did these products arise? Why would anyone buy this? What did it promise? What was their cultural significance? I got very frustrated because honourable exceptions aside like the wonderful website Cosmetics and Skin, I found very little about the use of radium outside of hospitals that didn’t seem to dismiss it as something that was merely fraudulent – quacks – or the people that bought it were just foolish.
This then, I decided, would be the PhD topic.
And it was, for a couple of years, anyway. My passion for the topic remained intact but I found the PhD experience too restrictive and the history too wide and unwieldy. So, I pulled out of the university, said goodbye to my (brilliant) supervisors and put together a proposal for a book. An agent picked it up and we soon had publishers’ interest before landing a contract with Icon Books who shaped my work into Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium.
Half Lives tells the fascinating, curious, sometimes macabre story of the radioactive element radium 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, a boon to the housewife, and an ingredient in a startling host of consumer products – to its role as a cure-all in everyday 20th-century life.
Eight years on and still passionate about the history of radium, I remain very grateful that I found that pot of Tho Radia.
About the author
Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th-century health, beauty and popular culture with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. She writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.