The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

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This is the first book I’ve read as part of Doing Dewey’s Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2018. This book has been on my radar for a while now and I’m kicking myself for not reading it sooner.

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Have you ever had a watch that glowed in the dark? My husband tells me that he once had a compass that did. He no longer has it, but it was his father’s old Army compass. I don’t know when that compass was made, but it was probably painted in the 1920’s or 1930’s by dial-painters. These were young girls in their late teens and early twenties who painted watch dials with a luminescent paint; this paint would even cause the girls themselves to glow in the dark!

The scary thing is that the girls wanted to work as dial-painters because they wanted to glow in the dark. The job was lucrative as well as glamorous. It allowed these girls to buy not just clothes–but furs too!–and, the girls enjoyed glowing green in the dark.

However, years later, there would be a terrible cost to being exposed to this paint.

The whole problem stemmed from how they painted the watch dials. Painting the numbers on a dial required detailed work and so the girls used a method called lip-pointing. They would dip their brush in the paint, shape the brush with their mouth into a point and then paint… “lip… dip… paint.” As a result, they were slowly ingesting radium into their bodies, which would have a cumulative effect with devastating consequences.

At that time radium was considered beneficial to our health. It was a cure all for almost any ailment and there were all sorts of radium remedies available depending on the need. The average person was unaware of the hidden dangers of radium, and those who knew about it were not telling others, especially those who worked at the factory, otherwise.

This would be part of their battle years for to come: getting those who knew about the dangers of radium to speak up.

This book is powerful. It tells the story of dial–painters who suffered radium poisoning through the paint they used to paint watch dials and their battle for justice.

Kate Moore does a wonderful job of bringing these girls and their stories to life. Told from interviews with family members and various archived material, she tells their story as if it were happening now. We are introduced to the girls when they start work as dial-painters, young and full of life, and follow them from their initial stages of poor health– which started with tooth pain– through mounting medical bills, misdiagnosis, and worsening health; we also read about their attempts to fight the well-funded companies responsible and, sadly, for too many, we read about their horrible, senseless deaths.

Throughout the book I could not believe how heartless the people at the United States Radium Company and Radium Dial were. Worse yet were the doctors involved. How could these doctors see the pain and suffering of these young women and not speak up? Money. There were certain doctors involved in this fight who worked for the company– and didn’t have the girls best interests at heart. At one point they were testing the girls’ blood, however, they never shared the test results with the girls. The company was more interested in keeping the girls calm and productive than accepting any responsibility and possibly saving lives. The company doctor even went so far as to tell one woman that she didn’t have a “…single trace of radium in her body. She later died from radium poisoning.” (P. 183). It was just so wrong–they were lied to at almost every turn! And, these companies exhibited a pattern of deceitfullness from the very beginning in order to protect its profits with little regard for the sick women involved. Not only was it heartbreaking, but it should have been criminal!

The book is filled with stories showing both the dishonesty and underhandedness of the company and the strength and fortitude of these women who put up a brave fight even when the odds were against them. Margueritte Carlough, who suffered terribly before she died, used all the strength she had in her body to bring a suit against the company; others would soon follow. And, Catherine Donohue fought the company with every fiber of her being, even testifying from her couch in her home because she was so weak. These women were incredibly brave; they fought through pain and, often, terminal illness, but they were fighting for a purpose: their families and to benefit others.

These women really did not receive the justice they rightfully deserved, but because they did fight, they were instrumental in bringing attention to the dangers of radium and laws were enacted that protected future workers. In the end, their efforts did benefit others.

This book was so sad. These women fought so hard with very little support, but because of them, safety standards now exist and we have a better understanding of the effects of radium on human health. This a story that needs to be told and Kate Moore does a wonderful job of telling this story from the girl’s side. We see their pain and struggle, their fear and frustration, their perseverance and will to live both for themselves and for their families.

This is not a happy read, but in my opinion, this book is a must-read.

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