In the late teens and early 1920’s, many young American women were thrilled to find paying work outside the home in factories that sprang up in the wake of WWI. Two of these factories, Radium Luminous Materials in Newark, New Jersey and the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois, manufactured glow-in-the-dark wristwatches. The factories employed young women, many of them starting when they were teenagers, to delicately hand paint the watch faces with incandescent paint made with radium powder. Though scientists knew that the radioactive element could destroy human tissue and it was used in the fight against cancer, it was also considered a wonder drug that could cure anything from “hay fever…to constipation.” While the girls were elated just to be in the presence of the expensive substance (which sold for $120,000 a gram), it didn’t hurt that the jobs also paid handsomely. Because the radium powder was so expensive, the girls were admonished to use it sparingly. But the powder scattered everywhere when they tried to mix it with the paint, settling on their skin, clothes and hair, which all glowed in the dark when they got home. They also got paint in their mouths from licking the thin brushes in order to make them fine-tipped enough to paint the tiny numbers. It was fun when their clothes and teeth shone in the dark, and with all the money they were making, they could afford the latest stylish clothes, go to parties after work and enjoy being young. Until, one by one, they all began to sicken…and die, many before they reached thirty.
This is the true story of several of the women who fatally suffered from radium poisoning the 1920’s and their efforts to sue the companies that not only made them sick but refused to admit that radium was poisonous. Kate Moore‘s poignant, sympathetic work reads like a legal medical thriller as she dives deep into the lives and families of the women who were affected and chronicles their heart breaking attempts to hold the companies accountable. Shockingly, one of the companies didn’t even consider testing the ill women until the first MALE scientist died as a result of radium poisoning. As I read, I couldn’t help but think of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, another tragedy where workplace safety was compromised when it came to female laborers. Radium Girls is for anyone interested in women’s history, medical mysteries, labor laws or courtroom dramas, because this story has it ALL!