Book Review: The Radium Girls
The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women
As this is Memorial Day weekend, I wanted to share with you details about an engrossing book I just finished, which is related to both World Wars.
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women was written by Kate Moore and was inspired by a play about a group of women exposed to radioactive radium paint while working to produce glow-in-the-dark dials for military equipment in World War I.
At the turn-of-the-previous-century, the science was settled: Radium was widely heralded as a miracle substance after it was first isolated by the Curies. It could cure disease, and give you a wonderful glow! The chemical was used for a variety of purposes, including a health tonic called Radithor.
Another use was as part of the paint mixture for the the numbers on clocks and watches, to make easier to see, as they would glow in the dark. The best available workers for the detailed work that required superb hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills were women, some as young as 14 or 15. The radium industry began to boom during World War I and remained fairly strong thoughout the next two decades.
Assured by their employers (United States Radium Corporation and Radiant Dial) that the radioactive mixture was completely harmless, the women sat around tables painting, moistening the extremely fine brushes in their mouths before they dipped them into the paint. Since this was the age before worker safety standards, they would also eat and drink in their work areas, surrounded by radium-containing dust.
Some of the girls would even paint their teeth, faces, hair, and clothing to make them glow. The job was fun, and the wages were excellent for women of that era.
However, many of their lives took a dark turn as they sickened with what we know recognize as radiation sickness. Among the first victims was Mollie Maggia, whose jaw literally broke and fell into the hands of her dentist during a 1922 emergency procedure. She died shortly after, after her throat hemorrhaged because of the destruction of soft tissue in her throat.
After some of the women died and more became ill, the companies dismissed any claims that the work was unsafe. The corporations ignored pleas from victims and their families, who sought financial assistance for enormous medical expenses.
The Radium Girls also describes the court cases and the bravery of two lawyers who brought two separate lawsuits and obtained court victories and vindication for the poisoned women who were their clients.
These women are among those who sacrificed their lives during war, producing the equipment for the military. Additionally, they may have saved the lives of millions of their countrymen in an entirely unique way. In the 1950’s, “the era of plutonium”, the Atomic Energy Commission wanted to better understand the health effects caused by strontium-90. Because the compound was similar in behavior to radium, the Radium Girls (both living and dead) were studied.
As a result, in 1963, President John Kennedy signed the international Limited Test Ban Treaty. The agreement prohibited tests above ground, underwater, and in outer space.
The book’s final chapter includes the description of the bronze statue erected in 2011 in Ottawa, Illinois (where one of the plants was located). It honors the memory of the Radium Girls, in terms of their dedication to the country, fight for justice, and legacy of safety standards implemented as a result of their ordeals.
The Radium Girls is a compelling read, which is a superb blend of science and personal stories. While covering the legal wrangling and outright fraud perpetrated by the firms discussed, Moore does an excellent job of avoiding a “corporations are evil” message. She also brilliantly conveys the sense of lifestyle and cultural values applicable exactly 100 years ago.
I give the book 4.5 stars out of 5, and would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys history, mystery, and science blended together in a meaningful story of exceptional American women.
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I think it is important to not view the past and judge it on present knowledge. Radiation was something new in those days, the effects not well understood… as when Pierre Curie put the capsule of radium in his pocket on a trip… burned a hole in his skin. Henri Becquerel had learned of penetrating radiation in 1896. Thorotrast, an early angiographic contrast agent used into the 1950’s was an alpha emitter and over decades patients developed cancers. Radium was a justifiable workman’s compensation claim but hardly an intentional poisoning of people. Very very tragic but not criminal.
There have been other major mistakes that take on significant public danger such as serratia marcescens release in 1950 in San Francisco Bay to test effects of potential biological warfare. This created a microbial nightmare echoing to today.
Wait until you view the segment on cobalt toxicity from artificial joints to get an idea that such things still happen…. Netflix “The Bleeding Edge” coming in July 2018.
Sorry, but I cancelled Netflix.
“and judge it on present knowledge” = the conceit of modernity
Safe a barrel for this low-lifes:
CNN’s April Ryan slammed for tweeting article about Trump running child-trafficking ring:
How this corrupt maxine waters wanna-be is allowed to remain in the White House press briefings is beyond ridiculous.
Speaking of waters:
Maxine Waters Discovered To Be Paying Daughter Over 100k In Campaign Funds:
AG Sessions, you corrupt POS: any reaction?
What has any of this to do with the article?
It can be difficult getting people to take new-fangled stuff seriously. Nowadays they blast fetuses with ultrasound like it’s some sort of game. Sometimes it’s hard to escape the conclusion that people are pretty dumb.
I recall the case of a firm which made lead-acid batteries. To eliminate the possibility of their product causing future birth defect problems for their employees, no women (except those over a certain age) were allowed on the production floor. For this precaution the company was, of course, sued. So even when people aren’t being pretty dumb, someone will find a way to use the legal system to make them act as if they were. And as always, no good deed shall go unpunished.
I’m glad they didn’t oversell the “corporations are evil” angle, it puts readers on the defensive.
And there is no need here.
It sickens me that Radium Corp went to such lengths to gaslight women who sacrificed their lives in support of our boys overseas.
I like Erin’s solution, brought in special for you folks
My bad, gaslighting doesn’t begin to cover it. Fraud, corruption, evil. That’s better.
How could any information about radium’s health effects possibly justify a ban on tests in space? Whom exactly could they hurt?
But after some duck duck going … I found JFK was more interested in stopping nuclear proliferation more so than the health effects per se of the radioactive fall out.
Fallout? From outer space?! Surely you can’t be serious.
EMP and lethal radiation is a result of an air burst. Space wouldn’t be that much different with a large enough weapon.
EMP yes…. lethal radiation from space…not so much. Who needs the radiation when one can EMP bomb a civilization back to the 1700’s and not damage property… just starve people. Two Nork or Iranian bombs and lights out. Iran is practicing container ship launches. One doesn’t need an ICBM… intermediate at most and games on.
I agree Milhouse…Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Castle Bravo had far more effect on test bans than radium. With Strontium-90 showing up in cow’s milk after Soviet tests, a lot of people liked the idea of containing dispersible nuke tests. Radium is just a nuisance compared to Cs-137, I-131, Cobalt-60 and Strontium-90.
The article went a little far off field.
No one knew the potential effects of radium back then. Curie died from chronic radiation exposure aplastic anemia.
Early radiography was the same a present day industrial x-rays, and the standard of exposure was how many xrays until the skin turned red… “erythema dose”. Fluoroscopes for shoes led to thymic and thyroid cancers. The radium girls are an unfortunate blip on the radar screen of exposure.
As it happens, one of my majors is Chemistry and it also happens that I did a paper on exactly this topic from the viewpoint of WWII: What did those scientists who worked on The Bomb actually know and was it true that nobody knew what the effects of radiation would be.
Long before the Radiation Girls a researcher in a lab that Marie Curie had founded in Poland died horribly of radiation poisoning when she accidentally ingested some radium while pipetting. Back in those days there were no such things as the pipettes you see on CSI and NCIS. Glass tubes were used and suction provided by mouth like sucking on a straw.
This incident I’m sure was not known to the average man on the street but it was absolutely well known to the scientific community – before both the radium girls and the atomic bomb. Any suggestion that the scientists working on the bomb had no clue about the potential results is sheer malarkey.
Moreover, this is the ONLY suggestion I’ve ever read that alluded to the idea that the Radium Girls were working on behalf of the military. That, too, is bunk and hokum. Those young women were painting the numbers on watch faces, what you might consider the Rolex of the early 20th century. There was nothing patriotic about this work in the least.
The Radium Girls did make one HUGE contribution to modern life, however. Their’s was the first class action lawsuit to establish employer liability for workplace hazards. And THAT was well known by the government, corporate America and the scientific community.
A hydrogen (fusion) bomb contains a fission bomb that starts the hydrogen reaction. Considering the state of rocketry in 63, there was a concern that a failed launch could release the radioactive material in the fission bomb into the atmosphere. Also, there were concerns about the result of a bomb that failed to explode and burned up on reentry, spreading the radioactive fissile material into the atmosphere.
There was also a desire to avoid weaponizing space. If you can launch it to test, it’s not too hard to orbit it and then send it back down on demand.
“…the companies dismissed any claims that the work was unsafe. The corporations ignored pleas…”
I find this statement an interesting way to look at this slice of history. Legally, these actions are by companies and corporations. But, actual decisions are made by people–people who benefit from an activity but do not absorb the risks of that activity. People in control. There were people who had a moral obligation to protect and help these injured women and prevent future harm even if they had no legal obligation. The first sign of a problem was an indication that at least one underlying assumption (safety) may not be true. These decision makers did not have today’s knowledge but I suspect they did know how to think and they did know something was wrong. This was a moral failure as much as a technical failure. Maybe some managers blew the whistle and were silenced. These “little people” are my heroes, not the Elon Musks of the world.
Yes, some good came from their work. Life is complicated but the account is settled up at the end and some persons (not companies) will be asked “Why did you ignore the pleas?”
Thank you for the Book Review.
It’s entirely unlikely the factory owners had any idea that the work would kill their workers, the dangers of radiation damage were not well understood back then – as shown by the many scientists studying radiation who later died from too much exposure.
Radioactive health spas, radioactive health drinks, heck shoe stores even had special x-ray machines for the public to use when buying shoes “to ensure proper fit”.
Now, of course, we know that radiation causes giant ants, plasma-breathing lizards, and nifty superpowers, right?
As a scientist I do have to tell you that these excuses are simply that – excuses. Anyone working with radium knew from as early as the early 1900s that too much exposure could and would result in death: a scientist working with radium at Marie Curie’s institute in Poland died when she accidentally sucked too hard on the pipette she was using and ingested some radium.
However, times were different. One scientist working in the field of microbiology deliberately ingested tapeworm eggs (along with his brother) so that they could study the results of tapeworm infestation. The scientist that discovered artificial sweetener did so because he stuck his finger in a failed science experiment and tasted the result – something no scientist of today would do in a hundred million years.
I suspect that the general attitude in early years towards radiation exposure stems directly to Marie Curie. Even though she knew that radiation was invisible (she discovered radium because of its effects on a photographic plate), she spent decades working directly with the stuff. In the end, her discovery killed her husband, her daughter and Curie itself.
Bionerd. Chernobyl and other hot topics. The gal in the video warned about radium paint on aircraft dials and talked about children playing with that old war stuff.