If you’ve never heard of the “radium girls” and their sensational trial in the mid 1930s, you’re not alone. Until reading this book, neither had I. But it is a piece of history that needed to be told.
After Marie and Pierre Curie discovered Radium in 1898 it became the “wonder element.” Radium was put into face creams and lotions, people drank radium-infused water, and its glowing properties were put to use in special paint at the Radium Dial Company in New Jersey. “Fortunate” women were hired to paint over numbers on watches worn by American GIs fighting in WWI. Later, radium watches and clocks were sold across the US.
The highly trained women who painted the dials made more money than most in the workforce. They could help their families and still afford expensive clothing. Others longed to follow in their glowing footsteps. That’s right, the dust from the workroom clung to them, making their glowing figures instantly recognizable as they walked home each evening.
Speed was of the essence and these women kept up, 6 days a week, long hours every day. Paid by the unit, they were trained to use the “lip, dip, paint” method, a quick way to give the brush that perfect point necessary for such delicate work.
But over time the radium worked its way in deeper than the women’s skin and hair. A toothache here, a painful hip there, a sore arm, and worse. Much, much worse. Radium poisoning was making its appearance, starting slowly until it could not be ignored.
Radium Girls tells the story of these women and what they endured physically, emotionally, and financially as their health issues began dominating their lives. Eventually their illnesses forced the medical community to connect the dots and someone needed to be held accountable. So began the lawsuits against Radium Dial, who, for years, stubbornly refuted all accusations.
The book is important and I’m so grateful to finally know of this segment of history, one you would never learn about in school. These women’s suffering cannot be overstated, as you read believing…hoping…knowing that surely the company will be made to pay, right? Sometimes the company’s reactions were so, so frustrating.
A very impressive recounting of the events and, although long in coming, the vindication these women deserve.
June 2020 Update: This morning I learned that Radium Girls has been made into a film, set to release last April, but delayed due to COVID-19. This is a story that was crying out for more attention. I hope the film does it justice. More info is available HERE.