I don’t typically have a problem with my blood pressure, but reading this book got my blood boiling.
This well-researched non-fiction book takes a look at the dark side of a once-glowing industry. During the first World War there was a demand for watches and clocks and other instruments with glowing dials. The Radium Dial Company in New Jersey set up shop and become one of the biggest producers of glowing dials and numbers and hands for watches and clocks. The glowing paint was made with a combination of phosphor and radium – a relatively new source (at least a new form of radium [with a half-life of 10,000 years – though that wasn’t known at the time]).
The girls (women were hired, like with many jobs, because the men were serving in the military) were paid by the dial and precision was as important as speed and the girls were taught to take a fine brush, bring it to a tight point by using their lips, then dip in the phosphor/radium paint, and paint. Repeat. They were assured, time and again, that the paint was completely safe and they even laughed and played with the fact that they would glow in the dark themselves. And because they were paid by the dial, they often ate their lunches at their work table in order to be more productive.
This isn’t a mystery, though…the reader knows what’s coming. Soon the girls start to experience unusual aches and pains. Local doctors haven’t seen these sorts of things and the wasting away of the girls is attributed to a number of things, including venereal disease. And when a death certificate says that the cause was from a sexual disease, it’s pretty hard to pin it on the business and get due compensation from them.
Because the radium was ingested by the mouth it attacked the bones in the jaw first, in most cases (radium eats away from the inside and destroys bone tissue). Therefore, it was often dentists who first noticed the effects and it was a specialist in New York City who really uncovered the problem. And though that in itself was a long (and painful) process (too late for some), it was only the beginning of the problems workers at Radium Dial Company (and another plant in Illinois) would face. Denial by the company owners and management continued long into and throughout legal processes.
And this is where my anger tuned in.
I wanted to get up and punch Radium Dial owners in the nose. The lies, the deceit, the cover-up. It all seemed so clear (in hindsight) that they knew (or at the very least suspected) that something in their materials was making their employees sick, but in usual corporate fashion – even in the 1920’s and 30’s – it was better to leave the women to fend for themselves and mount huge medical debts.
It is a heart-breaking story. I can’t imagine anyone reading it and not being moved by the plight of these women. Author Kate Moore makes it personal – introducing us to the girls and letting us get to know them individually.
Moore builds this story nicely and we come to realize that what the girls … and the world … needs is a champion – someone to take up their cause and fight – to give them a small amount of relief and to help change the laws for the future.
You’ll have to read this to see how it turns out. It’s a powerful read and there aren’t many happy endings here, given the nature of the story, but it’s something that should be read.
Looking for a good book? The Radium Girls by Kate Moore is a powerful story of young women facing death by industrial poisoning and their efforts to stay alive, be compensated, and ensure this doesn’t happen again.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women
author: Kate Moore
hardcover, 480 pages