The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore; published 2017 by Sourcebooks
I have to give Sourcebooks props for their superb marketing on this book; I felt like I was seeing this book everywhere I turned, so I finally decided to buy it on Audible. I’m glad I did, because it’s a story I intend to tell to my children and everyone else who will listen.
After Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium in 1898, it was quickly hailed as a miracle element. People were drawn to it like bugs to bright lights on a hot summer’s night. Radium’s entrancing luminosity meant it was painted onto military instruments like aircraft dials and watch dials so that they could be seen in the dark.
During World War I, radium companies began to mass produce these military instruments and hired thousands of young women to do the work. They were taught the “lip, dip, paint” routine: The girls used their lips to shape the bristles of the paintbrush into a fine point, dipped the brush into the radium, and then painted the numbers on the dials. Rarely did they rinse their brushes between applications—that would waste radium, and ruin the fine tip they’d perfected.
Working in these watchmakers’ factories became a highly sought-after occupation for young women. They could help the war effort—and they were paid good money. They could buy the nicest shoes and dresses, often a big appeal for girls from working class families. And working with radium was fun! As the book reports, the girls would paint it on their teeth to make them shine. The radium coated their dresses and skin so that they themselves shined in the dark, which was good fun for date night. To amuse themselves, the girls would paint glow-in-the-dark mustaches on themselves and make faces in the dark room. They had a grand time.
And all the while, their supervisors encouraged them to do so. Why not? Radium was beautiful; how could it possibly be dangerous?
The scariest part of reading this book was the continuous message: It could’ve been me. If I had lived then and been close to a radium factory, I’m sure I would’ve applied. Again, why not? Good money and good fun—what’s not to love?
There were a few doctors and scientists who knew the dangers of radium, but their voices were effectively silenced by the radium companies, who controlled the media. It took decades and many lost lives for radium to be recognized as a dangerous substance.
The book reads like a series of unfortunate events. One by one, girls in one factory town start to get drastically sick. One loses her teeth and oozes pus from her mouth. Another has a bad hip. Another’s leg is starting to mysteriously shrink. More lose their teeth and their jaws decay—sometimes literally falling out of their mouths! The descriptions of their pain is gruesome.
And the doctors are mystified, because so many of them have different symptoms. Eventually one doctor decides it must be something to do with the girls’ occupation—but he’s just one voice. Little does he know that across the country in another factory town, another doctor has decided the same thing. While reading this book, I kept thinking if only these doctors had modern communication! Imagine how much faster they could have solved the mystery!
Again, the radium companies silence these individual voices, playing wack-a-mole to keep their reputations strong. But the girls keep getting sicker and sicker. Many die, and their deaths are attributed to syphilis, diphtheria, and other known culprits of the time. One of the many heartbreaking points of the story is how many good, innocent young girls were accused of sexual promiscuity because of this diagnosis. They died painful deaths full of shame—even though they knew they were innocent! It took decades before their bodies were exhumed and they were finally vindicated.
The book tells many girls’ stories, but two in particular stand out:
In New Jersey, a group of five radium girls all afflicted and in terrible health decide to press charges against the company that hired them. They face all sorts of barriers. For a long time, radium poisoning wasn’t recognized as a possible workplace hazard—and even when it was, the girls’ symptoms sometimes didn’t appear until years after they had left the company’s employment; it was easy for the companies to argue that the girls contracted the disease sometime after their work at Radium Dial. But these five girls—and one courageous lawyer—fought bravely to make sure the companies were held to account. Unfortunately, throughout it all, the companies maintained their innocence. Eventually the girls settled, accepting cash to help pay for their exorbitant medical bills and leave their families with some money after they died. Although it meant the radium companies weren’t officially found guilty, it was one big step toward the recognition of a widespread problem.
The other storyline is of Catherine Wolfe Donohue, a radium girl from Ottawa, IL. Catherine had seen her past coworkers die and get gravely ill. She knew it was the radium. Her teeth fell out, the doctors continued to take out rotted parts of her jaw, the bones in her leg started to rot so that one leg became shorter than another. She weighed 90 pounds. And then 70 pounds. And then 59 pounds! Her body literally rotted from the inside out—she was a walking dead woman.
But Catherine fought, and fought hard. She had support from other women at the radium company, and she had a good lawyer and a good judge. The judge allowed her to testify from the couch in her living room so that she didn’t miss any court dates because of her health. She won the case—the first time the radium companies were officially found guilty. And the radium companies fought back just as hard. They appealed the ruling eight times, eventually trying to take the case to the Supreme Court. Thankfully, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, upholding the ruling of the lower court who found them guilty. Although Catherine died before she could finally see the victory, her determined fight was a landmark in the case against radium.
Today, there are health and safety standards put in place thanks to the radium girls. We know more than ever about the dangers of radioactive substances thanks to these girls’ sacrifices. Despite how we benefit from their lives, this is not a story with a happy ending for the radium girls. There is no cure—nearly all of them died from the terrible effects of radium poisoning, and the very few who lived long lives all suffered health problems.
I can’t say that this is an enjoyable read/listen—but I can say that I couldn’t stop. I found excuses to drive so that I could hear more. I listened to it while cleaning and walking the dog. I made my boyfriend listen to it with me. I had to know what happened!
My boyfriend was a bit put out with the book: everyone dies, and the bad guys don’t ever receive justice. How could it be a good story? Nevertheless, it’s a story that deserves to be told. The radium girls deserve to live on in our literature and our history. That’s the very least we can do to honor their memories.