Thanks, Net Galley, for a review copy of this book for this post, which contains affiliate links.
The Radium Girls is non-fiction at its finest: a really interesting book that teaches me about a topic I’d known nothing about. In this case, it’s all about radium. Specifically, it’s about the lives of the “radium girls,” young women who got jobs painting numbers on clock faces with radium-based paint in the WWI era. Why radium? It glowed in the dark.
Radium: Liquid Sunshine
The famous Marie Curie (along with husband Pierre) discovered radium in 1898. She called it “my beautiful radium.” It produced a glow which “stirred us with ever-new emotion and enchantment.” Radium was claimed to restore youth to the elderly, making “old men young.” It shone “like a good deed in a naughty world,” and was dubbed “liquid sunshine.” You could buy radium-infused lingerie, radium butter, radium milk, and more. One girl painted radium all over her teeth one night before a date for a brilliant smile. After all, the element now used in radiation cancer treatments was said to be “harmless to humans and easy to use.”
The residue from radium extraction was sold to schools and playgrounds, where it was mixed with sand. It was proclaimed “most hygienic … more beneficial than the mud of world-renowned curative baths.”
Radium Luminous Materials Corporation
The girls covered in this book got jobs working at the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation. Many were young — one was just fifteen. The job paid well for the time: “it was the elite job for the poor working girls.” The girls sat along long tables, each with her own pot of “Undark” (the name for the luminous paint). In order to get the fine point needed to paint the small faces, the girls continually put the brushes in their mouths to create a sharp point. This was calling “lip-pointing.”
At the end of their shifts, the girls were brushed down in an attempt to recover radium dust so it could be used again. Still, much remained on the girls, who “glowed like ghosts as they walked home through the streets.”
“What radium means to us today is a great romance in itself. but what it may mean to us tomorrow, no man can foretell.” — Dr. Sabin von Sochocky, founder of the Radium Luminous Material Corporation.
Radium Goes Bad
But after a few months or years of working with radium, many of the girls developed issues. Many developed toothaches and had teeth pulled, but this never solved the problem. Their jaws seemed to be disintegrating. One scene is described of a dentist feeling a girl’s jawbone, which broke apart in his hand. Other girls developed joint pain and limps. None of their doctors seemed to know what was going on. And radium firms produced journals extolling radium, which were distributed free to doctors.
Many of the girls banded together and realized they were facing the same issues. They found a lawyer to represent them, but not surprisingly, the radium firm didn’t go down without a fight. First they claimed innocence because most of the girls’ issues started a few years after their employment. One dentist who treated many of the girls, disappointingly “sold out” to the radium company, agreeing to deny that radium caused their dental issues when the firm made a large payment to him.
I rail a lot about political correctness. During my teaching years, I always refused to join the union because of its liberal views. But, a book like this did convince me of the need for a union-type group in the early days. It really was frustrating to see all the lengths the radium companies went to to avoid paying anything to the women they’d, in many cases, basically sentenced to death. There was a lot of discrimination to the women based on their gender as well: a doctor said of one of the women, “She is one of the most difficult patients to handle. I am really at a loss what to do with this highly hysterical woman.”
The women, meanwhile, held on due to their faith and the support they gave each other. Their sufferings really were pitiful to read about. “Why should I be so afflicted,” asked one. “I have never harmed a living thing. What have I done to be so punished?” One had an arm amputated, another a leg. Many died before reaching age 30. And yet, facing the woman whose arm had been amputated, a company exec stated, “I don’t think there is anything wrong with you.” Another employee testified, “The girls that people thought died from radium and looked so terrible looked terrible when they were hired.” Wow!
Going to Court
My least favorite part of the book was the final third, where the court cases were described. I felt this part bogged down and dragged on. Did the women win their case? What happened to the radium company? You’ll have to read it to find out 🙂
This is a fascinating look at a part of history I’d known little of. Had you known about the radium situation?