The Radium Girls


UnknownI was so moved by this story, I hope I can find the words to explain why. There are no spoilers. The jacket clearly says what the book is about. Soon after the discovery of radium by the Curies in 1898, it became the most valuable substance on earth. It destroyed human tissue, so it was put to use battling cancerous tumors with remarkable results. It could restore vitality to the old. Very rich people drank radium water as a tonic, spending as much as $3700 (current equivalent) a glass. Entrepreneurs were scrambling to find lucrative applications of the wonder element. The radium girls were a part of the industry that provided luminescent clock faces to clock companies. The paint, called Undark, was invented in New Jersey and was a combination of radium and zinc oxide. Using very fine brushes to paint the tiny numbers on the dial, the radium girls dipped the brush into the paint, then put the brush between their lips to form a narrow, pointy tip before applying the paint to the dial. With such demand from the public for watches that could be read in the dark, and promising military contracts for luminescent airplane dials, the industry quickly boomed. This story is about corporate greed’s ability to trample on human dignity, ignore ethical and moral responsibility in order to feather the bottom line. The human casualties were legion in this book. I will focus on just one, an emblem, a standard, of what these women suffered simply because they were doing their job. Of the many luminaries in this story, Catherine Wolfe Donahue embodies the heart and soul of this tragic drama, and yet, the book is only marginally about her. All the women take center stage.

In 1922, Catherine Wolfe was a shy 19 year-old looking for work at the promising new Radium Dial Company, across the street from her church, St. Columba in Ottowa, Illinois. She felt very fortunate to get this well-paying job. Her training included learning the “lip, dip, paint” method described above. Soon, she became very good at it, and her status in the company rose. She  married Tom Donahue and thought her life coudn’t get any better until her first child was born. But instead of better, Catherine started feeling poorly. She began walking with a limp, and experienced pain in her hip that wouldn’t go away. Later, her jaw began to ache. She felt so much pain, she couldn’t properly take care of her baby. Other young girls at the factory were developing varied symptoms of disease, too, but repeated visits to local doctors yielded no diagnosis and no relief from the pain. Newspapers were beginning to report about radium poisoning in New Jersey, so Catherine and other afflcted girls, unable to get a diagnosis in Ottowa, turned to Chicago where they finally found a doctor who was able to diagnose their disease: radium poisoning. Armed with a diagnosis, and an occupational connection, Catherine, and girls at other similar plants attempted to get compensation for their job-related diseases. Rufus Reed, Catherine’s boss, told her “I don’t think there is anything wrong with you,” as she hobbled slowly to meet him. Radium Dial’s official response was “Nothing even approaching {these}symptoms has ever been found.” There were innumerable lawsuits where the defense lawyers lied, their witnesses lied, company executives lied, and it was glaringly obvious that not only did they know that radium was hazardous to life, they flagrantly put full page ads in the newspapers claiming that radium was safe.

I have given a brief summary of the ordeal of one woman, but when you read this book and hear the multiple stories of pain and suffering, it is overwhelming. And yet women, many women, like Catherine, fought through their pain and through sheer will, stayed alive to seek justice.

The trial against the United States Radium Corporation began in January of 1928. The Prosecution rested its case at 11:30 AM on April 27. Markley, the lead lawyer for USRC asked for a conference off the record. When the judge  returned, he announced that the hearing would be adjourned until September. Some of the girls might not even be alive in September! Their lawyer immediately found two lawyers to switch their court dates with him, bringing the hearing up to May. USRC was not happy with this and said that it would be impossible for them to proceed in May as their experts were going abroad for several months. Norman Thomas, a social politician who was referred to as the social conscience of America, declared that the case was a “vivid example of the ways of an unutterably selfish capitalist system which cares nothing about the lives of its workers, but seeks only to guard its profits.”

Kate Moore has written an incredibly complicated tale that weaves historical fact with character development worthy of a novel, to not only maintain interest, but to educate and enlighten the reader about this important piece of our history.

I have departed from my normal format and have left out beauty, because it was overshadowed by pain and suffering, making it impossible to find any beauty other than the tenacity of the women who fought to have the corporations acknowledge their culpability in denying the disease and failing to support their sick employees. As for food, again, many of the women in the book couldn’t eat because they had lost teeth and some even had lost their jawbones. To include food in this post just didn’t feel right.




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