In the early 1900s, radium was looked upon as a miracle element capable of amazing things, quite a different reputation from the one we now recognize as true.
In the 1910s, through the 1920s, and into the 1930s, the “Radium Girls” were looked upon as the chosen few for they were the ones privileged to work with the wondrously glowing material. These girls — and most of them were just that — worked as “dial painters” painting the dials of watch faces and airplane instruments so the numbers would glow in the dark.
Such work required meticulous attention to detail, using only the finest of paintbrushes, which the girls would swirl to an even finer point with their mouth.
“Lip, dip, paint.” The procedure was part of the their training. “Lip” the brush to a point, “dip” it in the radium material, and “paint” the dial.
By all accounts, the girls liked their jobs. Though the work was challenging, they enjoyed one another’s company, and of course, there was the added benefit of being some of the few to work with radium. Wearing their best clothes to work so they would glow when they went out at night, sometimes painting their nails or lips with the material — it was all part of the fun.
But then, girls started having little health problems. A tooth that had to be pulled leaving a socket that never healed. A slight limp. Pimples.
As the years progressed, the sockets that didn’t heal became jaw bones that broke and fell out in their mouths. The limp became a leg that had somehow grown shorter. Pimples turned into bumps which grew into full-sized lumps and ended up as tumors.
Disclosure: I had never heard of the Radium Girls until I received a free advance reader edition from the publisher (Sourcebooks) of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore.
If I hadn’t it’s likely I would have requested a copy from the library once I read a review. I’m a sucker for underdog stories.
The girls were indeed underdogs; they came from working class families, but eventually took on two of the most powerful and wealthy companies of their time.
Their story was heartbreaking, bringing tears to my eyes. Their illnesses seemed to me to be the opposite of Alzheimer’s Disease, a physical breaking down of their bodies while the strength of their minds and spirits kept them fighting.
Many of the Radium Girls died young, and by young, I mean in their twenties and thirties. And although initially the companies were as ignorant about radium’s lethal powers, in the end, they simply didn’t care.
Readers, they lied. They lied to the girls. They lied to the girls’ families, and they lied in court.
They lied to save their almighty profits.
This probably doesn’t surprise you. I may be a cynic, but it sure didn’t surprise me. Workers, especially women, have ever been looked on as expendable resources, but the brazenness of these companies actions still shocked me. They knew these women were radioactive before the women did, probably because company doctors were allowed to examine them without sharing the results of those examinations.
I was also stunned to learn that sometimes even the girls’ own communities shunned them. (Now they have a statue in their honor.)
However, what truly sets this story apart is the realization that we owe much to these young women and to the fact that they continued fighting, in one case virtually from a deathbed. It is their fight that led to work safety standards and eventually to the development of OSHA.
Many survivors participated in research at the Center for Human Radiobiology (CHR) for decades. CHR also exhumed the bodies of more than one hundred dial painters for further research. Amazingly, the researchers didn’t share what they found with their subjects either.
Still more amazingly, as late as 1979, one of the companies’ sites was found to have unacceptable, environmentally hazardous levels of radioactivity, and they were charged with cleanup, which the company never actually did. Another site was razed and the waste dumped around its town. That town now suffers a higher than average cancer rate.
The Radium Girls comes out in May. Read it if you’re a history buff, a fan of the underdog, or simply think heroines don’t exist.