One of my high school friends, now a nurse, suggested Kate Moore’s 2017 book, The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women to me right around the time it was first published. I bought it then, but as it goes with me and my book collection, it’s taken two years to get around to reading it. I’m glad I took the time. The Radium Girls is a fascinating, horrifying, beautifully written, tragic story, that ultimately ends in triumph.
Kate Moore, a British author who has written for the Sunday Times and has penned many books of varying genres, first became aware of the “shining women” when she directed a play about them called These Shining Lives. She correctly ascertained that she had a winner in writing the story of the many young women from Newark, New Jersey and Ottawa, Illinois who worked in factories, using radium paint to make the dials of watches and other instruments glow in the dark. Moore’s work on this story is very interesting and extremely readable.
Who were America’s “Shining Women”?
In 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium (Ra), a chemical element that was once heralded as completely harmless and life giving. Radium was helpful in making luminescent paint that was used to make instrument panels, watches, clocks, aircraft switches, and other things glow in the dark so that they could be seen when there was no light. The luminescent paint was a game changer in technology and, about one hundred years ago, one of the best jobs a young woman in Newark, New Jersey could have was working at the United States Radium Corporation in a studio, painting dials with radium based paint.
Moore writes that the group of young women who worked at the factories were good friends. The work was pleasant and paid very well. They even had fun with the glowing paint, which they had been assured would not harm them. The technique they used to paint the dials required the women to “point” the paintbrushes with their lips. Doing so caused the women to ingest the paint, but again, they were promised it was harmless. Using other methods to get a fine point on their paintbrushes took longer and used more of the product, which was “precious”. However, that didn’t stop some of the women from purposely painting their fingernails and teeth with the substance, simply because it was kind of “cool”. They’d eat lunch at their work stations and came home with the radium paint particles all over their bodies and clothing, spreading it to those who didn’t work at the company. After work, they would literally glow in the dark, prompting them to have the nickname, “Ghost Girls”.
For awhile, all was fine. The women enthusiastically painted the dials, filling orders as fast as they could and raking in handsome paychecks for their time. But then, after years of doing the work and thousands of exposures to radium, the women began to get sick. Often, the illness began with what seemed like dental problems. One of the women would get a bad toothache. She’d go to the dentist, who would pull the tooth. Then, before long, another tooth would have to be pulled. Pretty soon, she would lose all of her teeth, and the woman’s jawbone would begin to disintegrate. The jaw would have chunks of bone breaking off and bleeding, getting infected, and destroying the woman’s health as the poisoning affected other parts of her body and turned her into an invalid. Dentists were at a loss to determine what was causing the rash of dental issues among the employees at the dial factory, but it repeatedly happened to many of the women who worked there.
Pretty soon, the toothless women with the disintegrating jawbones became anemic. They developed sarcomas, some of which ended in amputations. Again, doctors had no idea what was wrong with them and could not seem to help their patients get well. Some of the less scrupulous of the physicians realized what was happening and made deals with the radium corporation not to release their data. Instead, they’d claim the women had syphilis, which smeared their reputations.
Although it was clear the women were suffering horribly after having been exposed to the radiation, the United States Radium Corporation refused to compensate them. Instead, they engaged in cover ups and outright lies. The bravest of the women came forward in a lawsuit to force their employers to do the right thing. But it was an uphill battle– expensive, physically grueling, and there weren’t many lawyers who wanted to take on the job. Worse, some of the women who had come forward to fight were unable to see it through, as they perished from their illnesses before a judgment could be made.
Kate Moore has done a masterful job writing this book. I had never heard of America’s “Shining Women” before I heard about Moore’s work from my friend. I kept meaning to get around to reading it. I’m so glad I finally made the effort. This is a great read, which left me both angry and awestruck. As Moore points out, the women who got sick were not the only ones who suffered. Some of the women were married and had children, and their husbands, if they didn’t divorce them due to the illness, had to stand by and watch their wives wither away. Some of the women were left infertile… if they were lucky. One woman had three miscarriages and delivered a stillborn child after having been exposed to the radium based paint.
Greedy company officials, fixated on their fiscal bottom lines, would have the women checked over by medical professionals, but the ones who were very sick never got their results. The officials knew that if those women knew what had happened to them, they would cause a scandal. As we know now, that cover up was ultimately futile. They got their scandal, and ultimately the women who managed to survive, and their friends and families, got some justice. Perhaps more importantly, workplace safety became more of a thing, for women and men.
I liked that Moore translated the monetary settlements into today’s money. For example, a judgment of $5000 back in the 1920s would equate to about $90,000 now. Moore would put today’s equivalent in parenthesis, which gives readers an idea of what the money was worth. The same went for the hospitals’ and physicians’ bills, which would seem very “cheap” by today’s standards. Back then, they were substantially high, and truly caused hardship for the women, despite those who had managed to hang on to their well-paying painting gigs. The aftermath of the factories lingered even after they closed. One former building was turned into a meat plant, which led to people getting cancer. In fact, there were higher than normal incidences of cancer in the towns where these plants were… people and animals were affected. Quite a few pet owners lost their pets to cancer well before the animals every fully matured.
This book is also extremely well researched. Moore covers the women in Newark, New Jersey and Ottawa, Illinois, writing their stories as if they were part of a soap opera, which makes the book compulsively readable. Not only is The Radium Girls informative on many levels, it’s also weirdly entertaining. Moore has a knack for writing compelling stories. I can’t say that I’ve ever been interested in chemistry, but Moore made me want to learn more about radium, which I consider quite an impressive feat. On the other hand, I did study public health, and this is definitely a subject for public health students. I can see it being relevant in several disciplines– environmental science, epidemiology, health administration (paying for all that treatment), and even health promotion.
So, if you’re looking for an excellent read and you like science and history, I would absolutely recommend Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women. You’ll learn a lot, and the pages will practically turn themselves. I would not be surprised if someone turns this story into a TV series or major motion picture.