A century ago, radium was one of the most exciting wonders of modern times. Not only could it make things glow in the dark, it also had healing properties that could be used for medicinal purposes. Then America went to war, and the demand for radium products skyrocketed. In 1917, many young women from Newark, New Jersey were presented with the opportunity to work for the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation. Painting radium on watch dials paid well, and the positions were highly sought. The women, most in their late teens and early twenties, were taught how to mix radium — a fine powder that floated everywhere — with water to create a paint. To get a fine enough point on their paintbrush, they were instructed to put the brush tips between their lips. Lip…dip…paint.
The Newark plant was rather strict about how much of their product was used, and the women were reprimanded if any was wasted. Demand for radium products increased, and a second plant in Ottawa, Illinois was opened. There, they weren’t so strict. Radium was fun — and healthy! — and the girls were allowed to take leftovers home to paint on their skin and clothing; their fashionable glow made them the envy at dances.
First in Newark, and later in Ottawa, the radium painters began to suffer from mysterious illnesses. Their mouths began giving them trouble, and pulling any problem teeth did not fix the problem. In fact, their mouths turned into abscesses that would not heal. Dentists had never seen anything like it. As time went on, symptoms grew more alarming and the pain became unbearable. But since it was only happening at first to a couple of people — and since radium was clearly healthy — the correlation was never made. Finally, the same symptoms were happening to so many people that the evidence couldn’t be denied.
Except the company executives did deny it, and they fought their victims viciously in and out of court.
The Radium Girls is brutal and infuriating. A lot of what the women suffered through was swept under the rug at the time — by the company, by the towns the company was located in, by medical professionals themselves. It’s a story of gross negligence and greed, and the author does not hold back from describing the physical horrors that the women experienced towards the end of their short lives. It’s also an ugly reminder of the ways that women’s pain is often dismissed; some of the biggest steps forward for the women came when a couple of notable men died from the effects of radium.
The sad thing is that we’ll never know the true extent of the damage the company caused. The women Moore includes in this book are just a handful considering the number of employees the company hired over the years. Some women survived what they went though. Some might have died from cancers that did not manifest themselves until much later in life. Some might have “just” been chronically unable to carry pregnancies to term. There’s no way to gauge the full scope of this company’s abusive practices. It’s an incredibly sad, powerful book, and I’m glad that Moore was able to fully flesh out so many of the women’s stories and add them to the historical record.
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women was released in April 2017 by Sourcebooks. I listened to the audiobook version released on May 2, 2017 by HighBridge Audio.