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August 2017

The Legacy of the Radium Girls

Author Affiliations
  • 1The Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology, New York University School of Medicine, New York, New York
JAMA Dermatol. 2017;153(8):801. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2017.2576

Discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie, the radioactive element radium became one of the first wonder drugs. Known for its alluring luminescence, the benefits of radium were touted both commercially as an additive in toothpaste, cosmetics, and even tonic water, as well as medically. The first published reports of radium therapy in dermatology described radium-containing disks or tubes applied to basal cell carcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas, nevi, warts, keloids, vascular lesions, and lupus erythematosus. At the American Dermatological Association Annual meeting in 1923, an overview of radium therapy concluded that “the introduction of radiotherapeutic agents into dermatologic practice constitutes, perhaps, the most important addition to this field of medicine in many years.”1(p50) Physicians were, however, warned about radium’s deleterious effects, which included “hyperaemia… deep and intractable ulceration, to be followed later by telangiectasia, pigmentary anomalies, atrophy or keratosis, and occasionally, by malignant change.”2(p1353) Forebodingly, “grave and even fatal symptoms may be set up in the bones and in the blood stream years after treatment.”2(p1353)