This summer, I’m reading eight historical biographies themed around women and science. This first review features The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore. Radium Girls was also one of Science Friday’s 2019 summer reading picks!
Lip, dip, paint. The girls were told that this was the best way to get the glowing paint perfectly onto the numbers of the watch faces. Using their lips to point the brush, the girls delicately painted each number so it could be more easily seen in the dark. Yet with each stroke, they unknowingly delivered a dangerously radioactive substance into their bodies.
So begins the story of America’s shining women.
It was America’s roaring twenties, and the girls had a well-paying and enjoyable position with Radium Dial. They reveled in the attention they received for their ghostly glowing clothes and skin after working with the paint. Sometimes they’d decorate their faces and dresses with the radium paint before they went dancing or partying. At the time, the dangers of radium were virtually unknown. The United States Radium Corporation (USRC) boasted a myriad of health benefits from their product. After all, how could such a beautiful, luminous substance do any harm? It wasn’t until the girls began to fall ill and die, each of them only in their early twenties – one after the other – that they and their families and medical experts began to realize the substance the girls worked with was deadly. Getting anyone to believe them, however, was another matter entirely. All the while, their time was running out — the glowing girls were “doomed to die.”
Radium Girls is a thrilling account of the lives of the girls who worked for the USRC in the early twentieth century. Moore includes details about the girls that bring them to life so that the book doesn’t feel like a historical account, but a riveting novel. Careful not to let her readers slip into the sense that the book is not a true story, Moore provides subtle reminders that these girls were very real, and the lives lost to radium poisoning were casualties of a greedy corporation unwilling to admit their product was at fault. Compelling and immersive, Moore’s book invites readers to step back into the twenties, just before and at the start of the Great Depression, and experience factory work along side the radium girls. As girl after girl fell ill, the company did its best to keep the rest of the workers from knowing whether they, too, might be in danger.
Moore’ cast of characters – the real girls and their families, the doctors and dentists and lawyers, and the members of the USRC – is extensive. It can be difficult to keep up with at times, especially because the groups of girls and split into two different cities. But Moore does a wonderful job of emotionally attaching her reader to the characters and making sure their individual personalities shine enough that you are able to remember who’s who as Moore takes you through their stories.
I enjoyed the scenes in court the most. After losing friends and family to radium poisoning, and working with scientists and doctors to prove radium was truly harmful, the girls managed to take the Radium Company to court. The scenes there are exciting and frightening because the laws were not in the girls’ favor, but clearly an injustice was indeed happening. The girls were mocked, scorned, and many did not believe them. And yet their bodies, their bones, were evidence: as the girls grew more sick, their jaws fell apart. Their teeth fell out. They grew sarcomas and lost movement in their legs or arms. Reading about the effects on their body was often sickening.
Yet the bravery of the girls, and those acting on on behalf of them, is memorable:
“Human lives,” [the lawyer] continued, bringing his introduction round to the woman at the center of the case, “were saved among our country’s army of defense, because Catherine Donohue painted luminous dials on instruments for our forces. To make life safe, she and her coworkers [are] among the living dead. They have sacrificed their own lives. Truly an unsung heroine of our country, our state and our country owe her a debt.”Radium Girls, by Kate Moore
I was often touched by the ways the girls’ families stepped in to help them, the ways their husbands and, in some cases, children’s lives were affected. Some of the girls were as young as I am (21, 22) when they died, their lives cut short by radium. When they worked in that factory with the luminous paint, they had no idea they had unwittingly accepted a terrible, painful death.
Reading about the girls’ pain – in one scene, a girl named Catherine holds up her jaw bone in court after it had fallen out – is enough to make you nauseated or simply cry. The outrage the girls’ pain evoked, the sheer grief experienced by their husbands, moved me to tears at some scenes. Moore quietly reminds you, as the reader, are carrying on these girls’ stories. We are keeping them alive after all these years in order to protect other innocent workers from every suffering the same fate.
Radium Girls is a tale of what happens when a corporation silences women and suppresses science. It’s a caution against heedless belief in a substance we don’t quite understand, and an outcry against unjust treatment of innocent workers. In some ways, it reminded me of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, in some ways, perhaps with a more positive note.
“The Radium Girls did not die in vain,” Moore writes. “Although the women could not save themselves from the poison that riddled their bones, in countless ways their sacrifice saved many thousands of others.”