History / John / Nonfiction / Science

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls: The Dark Side of America’s Shining Women tells the stories of the many women who worked at the United States Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey and the Radium Dial Company, which operated in nearby Ottawa, Illinois from 1922 until the mid-30s. These women painted watch, clock and other instrument dials with a luminous paint made partially from radium. The instruments were particularly important during World War I.

There was already some knowledge of the dangers of radium, although not to the women working at the factories. Sabin Von Sochoky, an Austrian born doctor who invented luminous paint, had studied under Marie and Pierre Curie. He was one of the heads of the Orange, New Jersey radium dial operation. The United States Radium Corporation taught their dial painters to wet their brushes with their lips rather than in water dishes, which the company felt wasted the paint. Some employees felt ill and quit, but most trusted what the Radium Corporation was telling them to do. Grace Fryer was following the instructions to lip, dip, and paint one day when Von Sochoky happened to walk by and notice what she was doing. He noticed the brush between her lips and said, “Do not do that” to her. He repeated his statement and added, “You will get sick.”

Unfortunately, Von Sochoky’s warning to Fryer was quickly dismissed by her immediate supervisor. The dial painters’ lip pointing method of painting was causing them to ingest radioactive paint. Many started showing signs of illness in the mouth. Teeth loosened, fell out, and then sores that would not go away formed in their mouths. They would also experience pain in their jaws, which at times led to their jaws crumbling. Other sores and tumors formed in their bodies, sometimes making it necessary to amputate limbs. Worst of all, many dial painters met an early death.

The Radium Girls is obviously not light reading, but Moore does manage to do a good job telling the story without getting bogged down in details. She also brings out the personalities of the women, such as Catherine Donohue of Ottawa. The women eventually took the Radium Dial Company to court. Donohue was so weak from radium poisoning that she had to give her deposition for the trial from a bed at her home. Moore also includes an epilogue that explores some of the positives that developed in part from what the radium girls went through. The main one being more protection for workers from hazardous work environments.

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