Friday, July 3, 2020

Britain’s Radium Spas

By Lucy Santos

The discovery of the radioactive substance radium in the late 19th century prompted a flurry of experiments to scope the limits of its potential applications. Scientists and, in turn, medical practitioners and entrepreneurs would struggle to understand the complicated properties of radioactive elements.

It had taken Marie Skłodowska Curie four years (and eight tons of source material) of hard work to isolate one- tenth of a gram of radium chloride (RaCl2– a compound of radium and chlorine which takes the form of white crystals or powder).

With such a protracted production process further experimentation would prove difficult.
Owning radium salts conferred great social and professional prestige. In the early years of the 20th century it was the most expensive, and most desirable, substance in the world.

Access to radioactivity became logically easier in 1904 when scientists tested water from nineteen hot mineral springs in France and Austria and declared that most were radioactive. How this was possible was thanks to the radioactive decay chain. Whilst this is quite a complicated process (and wasn’t fully understood in the early 1900s) put simply radioactive elements are radioactive because they exist in a state of perpetual breakdown: constantly evolving into something else and discarding their excess parts as they decayed. As one shortened example: uranium (one of the most common metallic substances in the Earth’s crust), decays into thorium, which in turn becomes radium. After radium comes radon: the only link in the chain that is a gas. That then turns into polonium. Eventually, after multiple transformations, the uranium decay chain ends with a ‘stable’ element – lead – which stays put and emits no more radiation.  Each of these parts of the chain has a distinct and varied ‘half-life’: the average amount of time it takes for half of the atoms of the original element to turn into a new element. Radioactive water, therefore, could be found present in the environment naturally wherever deposits of uranium rocks were found. Radon, because it is a gas, is easily released into the environment through human disturbance such as mining or by escaping through natural cracks in the ground, where it emerges onto the surface or into the water. Radium could also be present in the rocks that mineral waters trickle over: in which case it infuses the water with radioactivity.

In Britain alone places such as Harrogate, Matlock Bath, Matlock, and Buxton were established to have radioactive waters of one kind or another. Facilities and treatments sprung up all based on the theory of mild radium therapy, that exposure to radium in small doses (most commonly administered by drinking radium laced water or by breathing in radioactive gas) is beneficial: triggering a chain of physiological reactions that boosts the immune system in many different ways.

Britain’s Radium Spa

The ancient spa town of Bath in Somerset began marketing itself as ‘Britain’s Radium Spa’ and the spa which was ‘Richest in Britain in Natural Radium Emanation’ and in doing so saw a significant upturn in the numbers of people visiting the town (which had been known for its beneficial waters since the Romans developing an extensive bathing complex there).

Such was the demand for radium water and associated treatments that the Great Western Railway added new services to the city as well as a new coach with a ‘ladies’ attendant for the comfort of lady invalids travelling alone’ between Paddington and Bath.

‘Radium water’ was on offer at the Pump Room in the town for two pence a glass. The practice of drinking the waters in the Grand Pump Room had been a popular past time for the fashionable elite for centuries in its luxurious surroundings. It was used by Jane Austen (who lived in the town from 1801 to 1806) in the novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion as the central setting for social activities and the meeting place for characters. Visitors could take out a subscription to the Pump Room which entitled them to drink the mineral waters often accompanied by the music of a small orchestra who performed during the ‘morning drinking hour.’ The cost was per glass, or you could buy a book of coupons that permitted you to have fourteen glasses of water in the ‘yellow looking tumblers’ that Dickens refers to in The Pickwick Papers.

The mineral water is drawn directly from the spring beneath the Pump Room: a powerful supply of over eight gallons per minute and then received into a circular marble basin surrounding a beautiful fountain.

Buxton, in Derbyshire, also had its own Pump Room, were health seekers could take a table overlooking St Anne’s well to watch the Well Attendants (an official title for the women that held this role), smartly dressed in their uniforms, dip a long-handled tool with a small glass attached into the warm water before serving. The well, which had been installed in 1912, was cleverly designed to form a showcase for the ‘constant flow of radioactive water’ and was also left open so that the visitors could breathe in the radioactive emanations at the same time as drinking them, for double the health benefits.   There was a small charge to enter the Pump Room, but once inside, drinking water was unlimited.  The water was particularly recommended for its diuretic properties:  it helped increase the amount of urine you produced and was therefore recommended as a treatment for heart failure, liver cirrhosis and some kidney diseases.

As at Bath, Buxton Natural Mineral Water (the forerunner of the ever-popular Buxton Mineral Water) could also be bought directly from the Spa’s General Manager or from shops in the town. The official guide to Buxton, in an excellent piece of cross-promotion, advertised the radioactive water as: ‘A British Water for British Whiskey!’

Reliance on water treatments and visits to spas dramatically declined in the 1940s and 1950s as conditions such as polio, tuberculosis and diphtheria were gradually conquered by the widespread use of vaccines. The introduction of the National Health Service in 1948 and a comprehensive range of healthcare meant people were even less willing to pay money to take a water cure.

But the town of Bath still proudly proclaimed its radioactive waters as a marketing tool well into the 1950s until it was forced to change its practices rather dramatically following Britain’s worst nuclear accident, at Windscale.  Over three days in October 1957, a fire raged at the Cumbrian nuclear site.

The resulting release of radioactive contamination (the main component was the artificial  isotope iodine-131) and the publicity surrounding the fears of radioactivity caused the staff of the spa treatment centre and the guides of the Roman Baths to request clarification on the risks they were exposed to in the course of their employment. The Medical Officer for Health at the time, Dr Astley Weston, called in the Radiological Protection Service, which made careful measurements of the waters. The results would have been a relief to the concerned staff members and their families: the levels of radium in the waters at Bath were one-tenth of what had been reported in 1912. With more powerful measuring devices, Dr Weston and his team concluded that the air and the water at Bath showed little likelihood of causing any harm. And implicit with this, there was no real prospect of them doing any good either.  Any mention of radioactivity was dropped from the spa brochures and the radium inhalatorium was turned into a gift shop before being demolished a few years later.

St Ann's Well, Buxton. Constant Flow of Radio Active Thermal Mineral WaterCredit: Credit: Collection of Derbyshire County Council, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.
Britain’s Radium Spa. Credit: Collection of Lucy Jane Santos.
Radium Trink Kur. Credit: Collection of Lucy Jane Santos. Photograph: Sonee Photography
For more images from my collection visit


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.
Museum of Radium:
Twitter: @lucyjanesantos_
Instagram: lucyjanesantos_

Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020

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