Radium, discovered in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie, is luminescent, giving rise to its first commercial application as a luminous paint on clock faces, watches, aircraft switches and instrument dials so that they would glow in the dark. At the time of its discovery, scientists were unaware of the danger Radium posed and carried vials of it in their pockets and handled it freely without precaution. Treated as calcium by the body, Radium is deposited in the bones where the radioactivity degrades marrow and mutates bone cells. Marie Curie’s death from aplastic anemia in 1934 is blamed on improper handling of radium and lack of ventilation to prevent the accumulation of radon, its decay product gas, also radioactive. Prior to the discovery of these serious adverse health effects Radium was used as an additive to products like toothpaste and hair creams as well as in foods and health “cures.”
My interpretation of Radium was inspired by the story of the “Radium Girls” who, early 1920s shaped the points on their brushes with their lips when painting clock and watch faces. Within two years, they had all died of bone cancer. An editorial cartoon from a Herbst newspaper of the period depicts young girls dipping their brushes in dishes of Radium offered by skeletons. The red rhinestone lips, radiation symbol and numerous clock faces stitched with “glow in the dark” thread, informs the sad story.