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Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. 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.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other products at an auction house several years ago. It got me thinking- what did it promise? why would you buy this? I was hooked but also frustrated as – honourable exceptions like the wonderful website Cosmetics and Skin – I couldn’t find much about it. So, I decide to do the research myself.

I had no idea when I started what secret and surprising histories these products would reveal. From the fake doctor who promised a cure for cancer to the spa towns of Bath and Buxton who offered radium water on tap. There are radium chocolates, breads and meats and, of course, radium toiletries and cosmetics. I say secret histories because they really did take some uncovering – there is a fairly unsurprising reluctance to talk about the radioactive past. To get at these histories I have scoured antique shops, car boot sales and flea markets. I have travelled around Britain, New York and Paris to speak to historians of theatre, music, fashion, cosmetics and medicine.  And I have drunk radium water up the top of a mountain in Austria, had a very embarrassing mix up about the etiquette of nude bathing at a radon bath in the Czech Republic and have met all sorts of fascinating people along the way.

What's next?

I have been working on a side radium project – The Museum of Radium - which catalogues and documents my (ever increasing) collection of radium consumer items. Over the next few months I am going to add fuller descriptions and also put together some mini exhibitions.

What's exciting you at the moment?

I am a trustee of the Art Deco Society UK and we are putting together a series of virtual events over the next six months. We have planned a piano performance, some wonderful speakers and are looking at other ideas to bring some more art deco into people’s lives and to support research and engagement into the subject. 


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