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The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of…

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women (2016)

by Kate Moore

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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I received this from Netgalley and Source Books in exchange for a fair and honest review. This was an extremely sad account of the torment the women of the United States Radium Company had to endure to obtain justice for their wrongful poisoning. It’s a example of profits put before people and is heart rending. These women showed unbelievable courage in the face of adversity. This book was well written and researched. Be prepared to be saddened by the accounts of the anguish these women went through. ( )
  Arkrayder | Oct 13, 2017 |
First published at Booking in Heels.

This is technically a non-fiction work about the women who earned a living by painting luminescent dials on watches in the 1920s. I say 'technically,' because I have never cried this much over a non-fiction book (or any fiction book either, in fairness). The tone is a rarely-seen perfect mix of the emotional and the technical - although every single page contains near constant quotes from the women and their families, the remaining text tells the women's story with a very sympathetic narrative.

That's not a criticism. I never felt like I was being emotionally manipulated and it would be very, very difficult to write a book of this nature and be objective. Aside from the original horror of the women being told to put radium in their mouths in the first place, they were lied to nigh-on continuously by the company and even so-called medical experts. Their bodies collapsed, their hearts broke and their bank accounts emptied, but the company continued to Appeal, even after the Courts had already made a decision.

The tone of the text is light and very accessible, but the subject is not. Their jaw bones literally fell out of their mouths. There are photographs in the middle of the book - most are included to emphasise that these women were real, human, living people (temporarily, at any rate) but there are a few that show the size of tumours, disintegrated bones, etc. There is one particular photo that I kept turning back to and I cried every single time I looked at it. One of the women collapsed during a Court hearing after she was told that her condition was fatal (her well-intentioned doctors had decided to keep this information from her) and a photographer somehow got a shot mid-collapse. It really demonstrates the lack of knowledge provided to these women and their emotional state at that time.

There aren't words to describe how much these women suffered. It's not just the physical horrors, but the way they were treated. One woman was posthumously slapped with a 'syphilis' label even though there was no indication of any sexually transmitted disease and another woman's body was pretty much stolen from the hospital by the organisation before the family could pay their respects. They were shunned by their communities for creating trouble for the factories that provided jobs for local people and some of the women's husbands became jealous of their (later) wealth and threatened to gas them.

I cried on a train, I cried on a bus and I cried in a cafe. This was real, this happened and people did nothing. My eyes are watering with angry tears as I write this six weeks after I read it.

It's very hard to separate the topic from the book, but I'm going to try because I don't think Kate Moore's skill deserves to be overshadowed by the tragedy she writes about. She writes very well - to say that a good 300 pages of The Radium Girls is about a legal battle, it flows, it's interesting and it's engrossing. She has clearly put a tremendous amount of effort into research and interviewing the relatives of the deceased, and she appears to genuinely care about the plight suffered of the radium girls.

And Grace Fryer was never forgotten. She is still remembered now – you are still remembering her now. As a dial-painter, she glowed gloriously from the radium powder; but as a woman, she shines through history with an even brighter glory: stronger than the bones that broke inside her body; more powerful than the radium that killed her or the company that shamelessly lied through its teeth; living longer than she ever did on earth, because she now lives on in the hearts and memories of those who know her only from her story.

Please read this book. Firstly, it's important that we acknowledge these brave and strong individuals who were so profoundly abused in so many different ways. Their bodies and their fight went on to form the basis of ground-breaking legislation that is still in place in the US today, and allowed for progress to be made with preventing radiation toxicity in others. They were ignored and shunned when they were alive, and that was not acceptable. At least now we can look back and retrospectively apologise.

Secondly, I'm desperate to talk about this book so hurry up and read it! I want to talk about the women, the people and especially how radium affected the whole town. The factory was eventually used as a meat locker - so naturally everybody who ate the meat became severely ill. After that the factory was knocked down... and the rubble was deposited around town. Dogs died prematurely, citizens developed an inordinate amount of tumours... you get the idea. I want to talk about it.

Lastly, it's just a brilliant, brilliant book. Kate Moore is a wonderful writer who has tackled an extremely difficult subject with dignity and grace. Every second that I wasn't reading this book, I wanted to be. It's riveting and completely engrossing. ( )
  generalkala | Oct 7, 2017 |
THE RADIUM GIRLS is a brilliant, shocking, humanistic, and enraging story about young women who were unknowingly poisoned with radium at their jobs as watch dial painters during and after WW1. The companies knew that radium was a dangerous substance, but never disclosed that information to the painters. When the girls began complaining about strange pains, growths, and bone problems, they were either fired from their jobs, or were told that the symptoms were syphilis, hysteria, or some "female" complaint. What follows is an exhausting story about a massive and long-lasting cover-up scheme undertaken by the radium companies, and how the girls fought against it. The end result brought about the creation of a new governmental department, focused solely on protecting workers health and safety.

The companies - United States Radium Corporation in Orange, NJ and the Radiant Dial Company and Luminous Process Corporation in Ottawa, IL - enjoyed lucrative contracts with the US government, providing glow-in-the-dark watches and other products for use during wartime. The substance that they used to create this glow was the newly-discovered radium. When mixed with other substances, it created a radium paint that could be applied using thin brushes. The companies needed workers to do the painting, and advertised in local newspapers - specifically requesting young women - and offered the opportunity for large wages. They paid by the piece, and the girls' earnings were limited only by how many watches they could paint during their shift. Most of those who applied were working-class girls, in their mid/late teens and early twenties, who were delighted to have the money; some even out-earned their fathers.

Each was provided a limited quantity of radium paint for their shift, but some radium particles hung in the air around the workroom. No protective clothing or shields were provided to the workers, because they were told that there was no risk in working with the radium. In fact, many girls ate their lunch at the workstations, ingesting radium on their food, along with bringing it home in their hair, clothes, and shoes. At night, even after vigorous washing, the girls literally glowed in the dark from the residual radium.

Painters were instructed in the "lip, dip, paint" technique, through which they applied radium paint to their brushes, twirled the brush between their lips to make a fine point, and then applied the paint to the watch. If there was leftover paint, sometimes the girls would paint their eyelids, lips, teeth, fingers, and other exposed areas with the paint, as a way to surprise boyfriends during evening dates. Although a single day's quantity of paint contained only a slight amount of radium, the cumulative effect of this exposure would prove catastrophic.

Some girls left their painting jobs to get married and start families. Others left for work opportunities elsewhere, but some stayed for five years or more. All of them began experiencing frightening symptoms, especially considering few of them had reached 30 years old, including soreness in joints and bones, strange dental pain and sore teeth, fatigue, and general weakness. These progressed to tooth loss and bone disintegration, with some women having to have their entire lower jaw removed because the bones had shattered and the gums were highly infected. Others experienced unusual and large growths on their shoulders, spines, or legs. Some women noticed that one leg was getting shorter than the other. Others had repeated miscarriages or babies born with strange conditions. None of these women believed what was happening, and it took many years for medical professionals to begin to suspect it was related to their jobs as dial painters.

Because news wasn't as widely disseminated in the early twentieth century as it is now, these two groups of women didn't know about each other, and their shared health issues, for quite a long time. In fact, it wasn't until some of the workers at the Orange, NJ factory filed a lawsuit and took legal action against the US Radium Corporation, that any widespread attention was paid. Once it was, it influenced a group of women from Ottawa, IL to take similar action, and it was their case that, led by a brilliant and highly sympathetic lawyer Leonard Grossman, changed workplace regulations in the US forever.

RADIUM GIRLS is really two books in one. The first focuses on a few of the individual women who worked at the radium factories, their families, and their legacies. It describes the friendships they shared, the ways they assisted each other, and their particular health struggles as the radium took hold in their bodies. It truly and deeply brings humanity and specificity into a very abstract situation. It's not just about the dial painters as victims, but as human beings.

The second is concerned mainly with the vast cover-up work done by the radium corporations, and the subsequent legal battles between them and the sick/dying workers. The extent to which the corporations mislead their workers, the US government, and the public about radium's danger is mind-boggling. Because there were few regulations in place to protect people against hazards in their workplaces, the companies had no incentive to provide truthful, safety information. When studies were done on radium, and researchers found it to be very harmful, the corporations took action to suppress the publication of these studies, or hired their own "experts" to refute whatever data they didn't like. When some of the women died, corporation representatives were present at the autopsy and confiscated the radioactive bones so that they wouldn't be accounted for later.

When workers decided to file suit against their employers, they had a very difficult time finding representation. Not only were these huge, well-funded corporations with robust legal teams but there were complications regarding the statute of limitations in New Jersey and Illinois. Often, the symptoms of radium poisoning don't appear for months or years, or even longer, so the corporations argued that it couldn't have been their fault. Or they argued that the women were already sick when they were hired (which they weren't), and that should exempt the company from compensating them. Although all the painters were instructed in the "lip, dip, paint" technique, the company contended that the only workers who painted that way were the women filing suit, so it was their fault that they got sick. They also strongly argued that radium was not poisonous.

It was through sympathetic judges and competent legal council that the women were able to receive some compensation for their injuries. However, by the time they finished trying to appeal the decisions, the companies had either gone bankrupt or had re-formed in new states, thereby excluding them from having to actually pay the designated monies. In fact, the son of the Luminous Process Corporation, Joseph A. Kelly Jr., still owns a radium process concern that can be traced back to his father's legacy in Ottawa, IL.

The extent and depth of research in RADIUM GIRLS is astronomical. The author has spent time with the families of these women, with the many case files from the legal disputes, newspapers, and many other sources. Midway through the book, there are a set of reproduced photographs, some showing the debilitating effects of the radium on the girls' bodies. While the work itself is tremendous and very informative, I was a bit off-put by the writing style. Instead of just linking the facts together, which is compelling enough story, the author introduces her own opinions and assumptions into the work. Her imagery was sometimes so pained that it was uncomfortable to read. I wish there was a way to retool the story of these amazing women without adding such unnecessary flourishes.

RADIUM GIRLS is a true David-and-Goliath story, and the reader spends a tremendous time getting to know the many Davids and their incredible lives, most cut too short. It is a shocking story about the extent to which corporations will easily sacrifice their workers in the name of greed. It also shows that there can be justice for those who have suffered from this greed, and that justice can benefit countless numbers of others. These radium girls are true heroes, and I'm so thankful to Kate Moore for providing this detailed record of them. ( )
  BooksForYears | Sep 21, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A cynical reader of Kate Moore’s THE RADIUM GIRLS may easily infer how little has changed since the dawn of the 20th Century. Her accounting of the primacy of profit over people can’t fail to bring to mind the specious claims of today’s fossil fuel industry and its paid politicians that the degradation of our environment is but a hoax or the belief by some that access to good health is a privilege rather than a right. Moore tells the story of how corporations, the legal system, and healthcare providers failed to protect several young women from horrible illness and early death. Some in the radium dial industry kept these girls working with radium despite clear knowledge of its dangers; collected health data but never gave the results to the women; sorted them by radiation levels to see who would die first; repeatedly denied culpability even for decades after their responsibility was decided by the Supreme Court; and conspired to limit adequate compensations to survivors. This level of corruption seems beyond the pale, yet also seems prevalent enough today to be concerning.

Moore focuses on two main themes in her investigations of the history of the radium dial painters: their medical problems, and their court battles to achieve justice. She chronicles in excruciating detail the personal stories of the horrific declines and disfigurements that each woman suffered. As Moore tells it, there were few grey areas. The women are portrayed as heroic figures. They were just beginning their adult lives, looking forward to marriages and starting families. Most were from modest backgrounds, attracted by the unusually high earnings that were possible doing piecework painting luminous numerals on watch dials using a radioactive substance. They were oblivious to the dangers associated with this work—and kept that way by their employers. In fact the women took pleasure in radium’s glow, using it on their clothing and even their bodies. They took pride in being recognized in their communities as the “shining girls.” Moore uses their deadly practice of moistening their brushes as a way to obtain a fine point in a haunting mantra for the disregard for radium’s dangers—“lip … dip … paint.”

Medical problems play out against the background of almost constant court battles between the injured workers and their employers. In this case, the heroic figure was Atty. Leonard Grossman, who worked pro bono to achieve justice for the sick women, known in the press as “The Suicide Club.” He was pitted against stereotypically corrupt corporate villains. These people controlled radium’s image with the public, characterizing it as safe and even healthful (“Liquid Sunshine”) while contradicting data available as early as 1906 that showed radium to be a bone seeking element that could exert harmful effects almost indefinitely (half life of 1600 years) once lodged in the skeleton. The corporations persisted in denying liability, placing blame on the women for using unapproved methods like “lip pointing.” Other villains in the scenario were most of the legal and medical professions who turned blind eyes to their suffering and the failure of government to intervene with regulations.

This fascinating story has flaws however. It tends to drown in a sea of information and often seems to be one-sided. Compelled to vividly chronicle each woman’s story, Moore’s narrative suffers from excessive and repetitive detail. It is difficult to follow the decline of each victim and the repeated failings in the courts. The book would have benefited from more focus on one or two women and a more succinct telling of the legal battles. Another flaw stems from a strong sense of bias in favor of the women and against everyone else. Moore has strong beliefs about this story and reveals them by characterizing people either as heroines and villains with little room for ambivalence. One suspects that the story would have benefited from a more balanced approach to the information. ( )
  ozzer | Sep 16, 2017 |
This is a true, brilliantly written, compassionate book about young women who were poisoned by the radium paint that they used to inscribe the numerals on glow-in-the-dark clocks and watches. The majority of these women suffered horrific injuries and died agonizingly painful deaths while the companies and men responsible denied any culpability and refused to assist in any way, acting in an absolutely unconscionable and reprehensible way. It is rare that I give 5 stars to a book, but I recommend this one to everyone. It's one of the best books I've read in a long, long time. ( )
  flourgirl49 | Sep 13, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Moore, Kateprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Brazil, AngelaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I shall never forget you... Hearts that know you love you And lips that have given you laughter Have gone to their lifetime of grief and roses Searching for dreams that they lost In the world, far away from your walls.   ---Ottawa High School yearbook, 1925
For all the dial-painters And those who loved them.
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The scientist had forgotten all about the radium.
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