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.DONATE
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