This is a guest post by Joe Malone
While reading The World as I Found It by Bruce Duffy (1987), a novel about the social and philosophical interactions between Wittgenstein, Russell, and Moore, I came upon the following, referencing Bertrand Russell and the married woman he was carrying on an affair with, Lady Ottoline Morrell:
Then Ottoline left for the health spa in Lausanne, where, in addition to the waters, she was given glasses of whole cow’s milk cut with brewer’s yeast and radium. “I now know why they call it radium,” she wrote. With a draught of this heavenly cocktail, she said, she felt like an icon of the Virgin, surrounded by rays of hammered gold, her hidden passion.
After reading this passage, I wanted to find out more about what’s the deal with radium water.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, radioactivity was still novel and a variety of hucksters and marketeers peddled nostrums containing radioactive substances, including radon and radium.
Painful to think about.
The principal claim for these products was that they were “natural,” and that natural is good. Hot springs sometimes produce radioactive water. If your water is “flat”, why not buy some of the healthy stuff?
The same sorts of health claims are evident today. Perhaps some of the claims are true but perhaps some are dangerous. Radioactive potions, salves, and suppositories, now those are dangerous.
Radon has a half-life of 3.8 days, so bottled, radon-infused water was typically no longer radioactive when consumed. Noting this, businesses marketed a lead-lined water dispenser that contained enough uranium to cause the water in it to cloud x-ray plates.
So, caveat emptor: Don’t believe everything you read (present example excluded).
Lady Ottoline did not suffer radiation poisoning during her spa visits, apparently, but she was killed on March 14, 1938, by the experimental drug Prontosil, which was a newly discovered antibiotic.
In an obituary published in The Times, Margot Asquith wrote, “We delighted in her distinguished carriage, beautiful countenance and original clothes. In spite of an admirable sense of humour I never heard her utter an unkind word — of how many clever women can we say the same?”
The Times, April 21, 1938
Bruce Duffy, The World as I Found It, 1987
Joe Malone blogs at joem18b.wordpress.com. He lives in Burkina Faso