Radium and the Secret of Life
by Luis A. Campos
University of Chicago Press, 2015
Cloth: 978-0-226-23827-2 | Paper: 978-0-226-41874-2 | Electronic: 978-0-226-23830-2
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226238302.001.0001
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYREVIEWSTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

Before the hydrogen bomb indelibly associated radioactivity with death, many chemists, physicians, botanists, and geneticists believed that radium might hold the secret to life. Physicists and chemists early on described the wondrous new element in lifelike terms such as “decay” and “half-life,” and made frequent references to the “natural selection” and “evolution” of the elements. Meanwhile, biologists of the period used radium in experiments aimed at elucidating some of the most basic phenomena of life, including metabolism and mutation.

From the creation of half-living microbes in the test tube to charting the earliest histories of genetic engineering, Radium and the Secret of Life highlights previously unknown interconnections between the history of the early radioactive sciences and the sciences of heredity. Equating the transmutation of radium with the biological transmutation of living species, biologists saw in metabolism and mutation properties that reminded them of the new element. These initially provocative metaphoric links between radium and life proved remarkably productive and ultimately led to key biological insights into the origin of life, the nature of heredity, and the structure of the gene. Radium and the Secret of Life recovers a forgotten history of the connections between radioactivity and the life sciences that existed long before the dawn of molecular biology.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Luis A. Campos is associate professor of the history of science at the University of New Mexico.

REVIEWS

“Biologists, physicists, public intellectuals, and popularizers in the first half of the twentieth century all asked themselves some form of the question: is radium alive? In this thorough and challenging study, Luis Campos not only chronicles and contextualizes their many divergent answers, but also accounts for the gradual irrelevance of the question. Valuable as a straightforward intellectual history of radium in the life sciences, and in particular for the light it sheds on little-studied episodes like Burke’s sensational claim to have detected radium-induced life, this is also a thought-provoking meditation on the place of metaphor in science and the history of science.”
— Matthew Lavine, author of The First Atomic Age

"Radium and the Secret of Life probes the experimental and metaphorical connections between transmutation and mutation. As that coupling makes clear, it was a book waiting to be written. Campos provides a deeply researched, engagingly written, and provocatively argued history of this potent conjunction, and how it disintegrated so fully as to be nearly forgotten."
— Angela Creager, author of Life Atomic

"By writing the story of radium back into the history of early genetics, Campos upends some of its standard tales. . . . Handling his subject with care, and exploiting its unique properties at every turn, Campos demonstrates radium's capacity to reveal the secrets of science and history alike."
— Science

"In four revealing case studies, Campos explores radium as a vitalizer (as associated with life-producing “radiobes”), a stimulant (e.g., in botany, as inducing and directing evolution), as a mutagen (in studies of fruit flies and plants), and as an analytical tool (as used to mutate genes). He argues that radium cast the history of genetics 'in an entirely new light' and even engendered a shift in the meaning of mutation itself. . . . This is a fascinating, informative look at how the discovery of a single element led to the transformation in understanding matter and life itself. . . . Essential."
— Choice

"In his meticulously researched Radium and the Secret of Life, Campos recounts the often-giddy response to this newfound nightlight on the periodic table. Radium’s novel properties, Campos shows, were a surprising source of scientific energy and experimentation. Biologists, for example, constructed metaphors that likened radium and life that fueled new findings about genetics, heredity, and evolution. Ultimately, however, the toll the element took on radiation researchers (like Marie Curie) and women who painting radium numbers on watch dials provided a darker counterpoint to a time before the hydrogen bomb would equate radium not with life but with death."
— Colloquy

"Working within the metaphor that radium’s role in biology underwent a series of transmutations akin to a radioactive decay chain, Campos uses four case studies to illustrate how radium served as a vitalizing agent, a growth stimulant, a mutagen, and, finally, a radiobiological tool before being eclipsed by other techniques. Radium and the Secret of Life is engagingly written and well referenced and contains appropriate illustrations."
— Isis

"Radium and the Secret of Life uncovers the impact of radium in yet another realm, showing the transformative presence of radium in the history of biology and, in particular, in the early history of genetics."
— Distillations

"In revealing previously unknown connections between the sciences of radioactivity and heredity, Radium and the Secret of Life demonstrates the remarkable productivity of metaphor in generating new understandings and approaches between disciplines, and invites us to reconsider our understanding of what it means to be alive."
— History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences

"Campos’ interest is firmly in intellectual history, and the way ideas spread between disciplines, laboratories, and the past and present. By focusing on a particular element, Campos convincingly puts what may traditionally be considered an object of the physical sciences at the center of a history of biology. Therefore, while historians of twentieth century biology are Campos’ main audience, the book will be of interest to those with an interest in the history of physics, radioactivity, and inquiries into the origins of life. And while Campos does not engage directly with emerging scholarship on ‘new materialism’, Radium and the Secret of Life implicitly demonstrates its relevance to historians of life sciences. . . . In revealing previously unknown connections between the sciences of radioactivity and heredity, Radium and the Secret of Life demonstrates the remarkable productivity of metaphor in generating new understandings and approaches between disciplines, and invites us to reconsider our understanding of what it means to be alive."
— History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences

TABLE OF CONTENTS

- Luis A. Campos
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226238302.003.0010
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Luis A. Campos
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226238302.003.0001
[radium craze, radioactivity, living atom, living element, popularization]
This chapter explores how the powerful association between radium and life first “came to life”: in the earliest biological metaphors and metaphysics of early radioactivity research; in pre-existing discursive traditions and popularization practices relating heat, light, electricity, thermodynamics, and notions of a “living atom” to life (all of which were easily subsumed under the new radioactive umbrella); in the popular radium craze of the first decade of the twentieth century; and in the aftermath of controversy regarding other types of rays supposedly produced by living things. Radium, in short order, became the living element: the element of choice not only for biological metaphors in a new realm of physics, but even for biological application. (pages 11 - 55)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Luis A. Campos
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226238302.003.0002
[origins of life, spontaneous generation, radiobe, cosmic evolution, Cavendish Laboratory, J. Butler Burke]
This chapter examines the early and most extreme apotheosis of these connections between radium and life in claims emanating from the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge to have produced life from radium. Among the first experimental work on the origins of life on the primordial earth, J. Butler Burke’s controversial work proved to be a key reworking of the history of spontaneous generation. In a series of sensational experiments, Burke produced cellular forms that were, if not quite living, at least life-like. Half-radium and half-microbe, these “radiobes” proved both immensely popular and immensely controversial, and served as a founding moment in the history of experimental research into the origin of life that has to date been routinely overlooked. Burke’s work explicitly linked for the first time the discourses of cosmic and organic evolution with concrete experiment, and with an element that appeared to bridge both realms. Revealed at the height of the radium craze, Burke’s findings also demonstrated the rapid sedimentation of the vitalistic metaphors surrounding radium. Not only reminiscent of life, radium itself, quite literally, vitalized matter. (pages 56 - 99)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Luis A. Campos
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226238302.003.0003
[mutation theory, transmutation, stimulation, experimental evolution, Daniel Trembley MacDougal, Charles Stuart Gager]
This chapter examines how botanical investigators in the early twentieth century used radium to induce or control biological evolution. Explicitly linking the transmutation of the physical species of radium with the transmutation of biological species, Daniel Trembley MacDougal and Charles Stuart Gager of the New York Botanic Garden and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, respectively, independently irradiated plants with radium in an attempt to study the physiological effects induced as well as to provide experimental confirmation of Hugo de Vries’ new “mutation theory.” Metaphors of radium’s powers were put to experimental test at this moment and passed. Even among those plants that happened not to mutate, radium was seen to have “stimulated” and “accelerated” their growth toward an “early senescence.” What would later be taken as a clear sign of mutagenic damage was at this time clear proof of radium’s relevance in the novel early twentieth-century quest to experimentally induce and ultimately control evolution. (pages 100 - 153)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Luis A. Campos
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226238302.003.0004
[Thomas Hunt Morgan, Albert F. Blakeslee, Drosophila, Datura, mutants, mutation, evolutionary engineering]
This chapter explores the uses of radium by two of leaders of classical genetics: the Columbia University geneticist T. H. Morgan and his work on the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, and the Cold Spring Harbor investigator (and later its second Director) Albert F. Blakeslee who worked on the jimsonweed Datura. Morgan focus on animals led to an understanding of mutants in terms of genes; Blakeslee’s focus on plants led to an understanding of mutants in terms of chromosomes. Radium thus enabled investigators to confirm in deeper cytogenetical detail the ways in which induced mutation could occur in a suitable model organism. This chapter explores how radium’s effects in animals and plants were thus also inextricably related to ongoing shifts in the understandings of the artificial induction of “mutation.” Radium was thus instrumental not only in attempts to understand the physical nature of mutation, but even in what some even called “evolutionary engineering.” (pages 154 - 194)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Luis A. Campos
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226238302.003.0005
[artificial transmutation of the gene, Hermann J. Muller, Drosophila, X-rays]
This chapter focuses on Hermann J. Muller’s legendary “artificial transmutation of the gene,” and how he came to his researches through his fascination with radium. Muller argued that mutation and transmutation were fundamentally connected, and that radium could be useful not only to produce phenotypic and chromosomal mutants in Drosophila but mutations at the most fundamental level of all—the genes. In his shift from radium to X-rays, and from transmission genetics to transmutation genetics, Muller radically recharacterized what had been a pluralistic set of understandings of “mutation” into a fundamentally genic phenomenon. This shift in the meaning and referent of “mutant” and “mutation”—from organism to chromosome to gene—marked not only the beginning of the end for a multi-level nuanced understanding of mutation in favor of a fundamentally genic theory of mutation, but also ended up distancing radium from life in experimental terms. As the gamma rays of radium were increasingly understood by biologists to have the same effect as X-rays, Muller’s focus on the gene as the proper target for mutation and the X-ray as the proper tool—work for which he later won the Nobel Prize—became a sentiment and a practice more widely shared. (pages 195 - 239)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Luis A. Campos
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226238302.003.0006
[transmutations, disintegrations, radioactive residues, radiobiology]
In the final chapter I explore the afterlife and persistence of radioactive residues in Muller’s later work, in that of his contemporaries, and in the larger context of the study of heredity in the 1930s and 1940s, including radiation genetics. As the experimental productivity of this once all-powerful metaphorical and metaphysical association between radium and life slowly decayed to trace residues (and tracers) in a generalized background of radiobiology, the once-pronounced clicking of the Geiger counter of historical narrative slowly merges into noise. In these cases, it becomes increasingly less clear whether there is any such legitimate connection to be drawn to these further transmutations, decays, and disintegrations of what were once powerful associations between radium and life. In recounting such a history, with its countless possible historical residues, Radium and the Secret of Life thereby challenges the very idea of any neat historical narratives of the “life and death” of radium’s role in biology. This form of historical narration suggests what a “hermeneutic of transmutation”—a serious attempt to deploy “radium” as an epistemic tool for the historian as much as it was for the scientist—might look like. (pages 240 - 264)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Luis A. Campos
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226238302.003.0011
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Acknowledgments

Notes

Bibliography

Index