I just finished a book – a history – of the “Radium Girls” as they came to be known. If you are old enough, you’ll remember the fabulous glow in the dark, radium dials in watches, alarm clocks and other devices as well. It was a lucrative business not very long after Marie and Pierre Curie won their Nobel Prizes for the discovery of radium and polonium. The Curie’s discoveries followed the discovery , by Henri Becquerel of radioactivity with whom they shared their first Nobel. The changes it brought us are part of our lives to this day.
The moving, engrossing and rage provoking bio by UK author Kate Moore, tells us a complete and detailed history of the hideous and fatal damage caused by the high paying, deadly work offered to young women in the 1920’s, when the realization of how very profitable the use of radium could be. How the use of this glow in the dark killer, became lives taken and lost from radium paint. It uncovers corporate greed of a devastating ugliness that infects and grows without an end in sight.
Marie Curie died at sixty-six from aplastic anemia caused by radioactivity. She died for science and research. The women who became the “Radium Girls” died for good pay and work for women at a time neither was in great abundance. And as radium became a revenue stream in the corporate floors of commerce, the Radium Girls walked to work in a New Jersey factory (another was in Ohio) and painted the dials of watch and clock faces with radioactive paint. Moore details the techniques used and foretells the scope of this tragedy. Yet as they left work each day, these were happy, laughing women who glowed in the dark. It all seemed quite magical. It was the late teens and early 1920’s -and this was a job that seemed too good to be true. It was too good to be true.
Radium is carcinogenic quickly. (Remember all those 50’s celebs with Geiger counters looking for Uranium in the Nevada desert (same place Cheney found the yellowcake) and the rapid clicking? These actors walked in a similar radioactive neighborhood as the Manhattan Project.) If the juggernaut companies knew in the 1920’s – they never told and the very young women died hideous deaths. Young, vibrant women who made good money, went to church; some mothers, others making bridal plans and ALL sentenced to death. The bigwigs never said a word. There was no workers comp and these were the days of miracles and wonder – glow in the dark dial timepieces one of the many.
There is no wonderful happy ending. There was no cure for radium poisoning and the action the element takes in a human body, has a half-life of 1160 years. But it can work quickly and the hideous symptoms announced an almost inevitable and painful death.
Eventually compensation was reluctantly given to survivors children and families but corporate guilt was not part of it. No company admitted guilt. Little has changed in that respect. You can probably tell this book shook me to the core. It broke my heart. It confirmed all I knew about the reasons for tort law. It amplified the story of Karen Silkwood.
I fell in love with these women. I ask that you read it. You will never be the same. Kate Moore, a very fine writer and a natural storyteller, has written a cautionary tale that is as relevant now as it was in the 1920’s. I hope to see more from her.
FYI: It is fully footnoted, has a bibliography and photos.
Additional info on radium, results of exposure and in-depth bio’s of the Curies and Becquerel require only a Google Search.