Commentary: The Radium Girls

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The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, by Kate Moore. Naperville, IL, 2017.

When radioactivity was first discovered in 1896, no one had any inkling that it was particularly dangerous. Marie Curie, who with her husband Pierre first isolated the element they named radium, used to carry tubes of the stuff around in her pocket or would leave it in desk drawers.  Because it was discovered that radium seemed to target diseased cells more than healthy ones, it was even thought to be healthful, and was used in all manner of quack cures.  But its most common use came from the ghostly glow it emitted: to create luminous dials for watches and other equipment, an industry that began in the US during WWI and eventually boomed during the 1920s.

Kate Moore’s gripping book tells the story of the women who painted these watch and clock faces.  The reader, reading of how they did so, immediately knows this story will not end well.  The girls—some as young as early teens—were instructed to point the tips of their brushes in their mouths before dipping them into the miraculous paint, a process they would repeat over and over again.  Moore’s book chronicles the lives of a number of these women in two cities: Newark, NJ and Ottawa, IL. These “shining women” held privileged, skilled jobs for which they were well paid.  They usually worked in well-lit studios, enjoying a great deal of camradie and the ability to buy the latest fashions or to support their families. And the radium paint they used? The fine dust coated their hair and their clothes, marking them out as special. They would even sometimes paint their nails with the paint, or take it home to practice. No one thought twice about it. Radium was thought to make you healthy.

But gradually, it became clear that something was horribly wrong with these women. It usually took years to manifest (sometimes years after they had stopped working as dial painters.) It would start with tiredness or exhaustion. Then, usually, there would be problems with their teeth that dentists could not explain; when the teeth were pulled—if they didn’t drop out on their own—the wounds would not heal properly. Some of them developed limps,  and would notice that it seemed one of their legs was shorter than the others.  Doctors would be stumped.  More gruesome symptoms would then manifest—sometimes bits of jaw would drop out along with the teeth, and foul-smelling, pus-filled sores would line the womens’ mouths. Others developed huge swellings that turned out to be sarcomas—a type of bone cancer.  Women began to die—but their deaths were blamed on all manner of other diseases, including syphillis.

Gradually, however, a few doctors began to suspect that it was the radium that was causing these issues.  It was known that radium could cause severe burns, and some of the male workers in one of the plants (which also manufactured radium) also became sick.  But it took  burning the bones of one of the male victims and analyzing the ash to determine that his bones were riddled with radium to begin to point doctors towards the real cause of the illnesses.  Tests were devised to test how radioactive the women were, and the results showed they showed extremely elevated levels. Even then, company officials at the United States Radium Company in New Jersey continued to claim radium was not dangerous and could not possibly have caused the illnesses the women were experiencing.  They conspired to cover up all evidence to the contrary—until, an extraordinary turn of events, a talented lawyer was able to win a settlement for five of the afflicted women.

Even then, the story repeated itself a few years later in Illinois:  Women coming down with a mysterious set of symptoms; doctors being baffled (and eventually, being actively hostile to learning about radium poisoning—the radium dial plant employed many workers in the depth of the Depression), company officials burning evidence and lying to both their workers and the town, and particularly remarkably, not even bothering to require that the women stop licking their brushes (a practice that, had it been stopped, would have saved lives.). This time, however, the resulting lawsuit resulted in long-term changes to the industry, with radium poisoning finally being unequivocally identified as the cause of the womens’ illnesses.

Moore wrote the book based on research she did while she prepared to direct a play about the “Radium Girls”.  She found lots of academic works, but no one had really told the stories of these women in a narrative fashion.  And this is, indeed, the strength of the book.  I read it from cover to cover, 400 pages exclusive of notes, in just over 24 hours—it was absolutely gripping.  She particularly focuses on two women —Katherine Schaub in New Jersey, Catherine Wolfe Donahue in Illinois—who had been key plaintiffs in the two respective lawsuits—but the reader gets to know the heartbreaking stories of multiple women.  The climax of the book—the testimony of Catherine Wolfe Donahue, first in court, but then, when the findings were appealed, from what would eventually be her deathbed—is shattering.  It is only during her first testimony that Catherine is told that her condition is terminal, and she literally swooned and had to be carried out of the courtroom (an event actually recorded by photographers).  Her strength to more or less will herself to keep living even though her body was literally disintegrating is heartbreaking, and makes the justice obtained at the end all the more glorious, if bittersweet (she did not live to see the final appeal denied by the Supreme Court.)

These cases have had some interesting long-term consequences. The cases of the Radium Girls were extensively studied in subsequent years as examples of long-term radiation poisoning.  Radium is particularly nasty as it has a long half-life (1600 years for the most stable isotope) and does not kill quickly.  On the periodic table, radium is in the period II column, same as calcium, which means that it is taken up by organs that depend on calcium—particularly teeth and bones. The radium then lurks in the bones for years, emitting alpha particles and slowly killing the production of blood cells—leading to anemia (one of the first signs of radium poisoning, and what killed Marie Curie in 1934).  Eventually, the bones become so weak and porous that they start to disintegrate, particularly in areas close to where the radium was ingested.  The radium also produces mutations, leading to bone cancers.  The knowledge gained by studying the dial painters over the years (not all of them died young) led to greater understanding of—and respect for—radiation.  Oddly enough, it did not mean the end of the use of radium for luminous dials—a competitor company founded in Ottawa, IL did not close until 1978.  And the former sites of the two plants studied in this book caused all kinds of problems after their closure with contamination of the local communities (soil from the sites was even used as fill for building, causing nightmares years later.

And these were only two examples of radium contamination.  One of the factors that inhibited the redevelopment of the Metropolitan building in Detroit (which I wrote about in January) for years was radium contamination.  The site had been used for jewellery manufacture; whether dial-painting actually took place there or whether they assembled watches from pre-painted dials, the residue with the 1600 year half-life would definitely have been a showstopper.

Even today, museums and collectors still struggle with the legacy of the use of radium.  It’s a serious issue when restoring vintage aircraft, for example.  It certainly does make me think, when I look down at my watch with its glow-in-the-dark hands highlighted in phosphorescent paint—hands which depend on exposure to light to glow. To think that this type of paint was once thought more dangerous than the radium paint used by the Radium Girls…

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