I heard about UK author Kate Moore’s 2017 book ‘The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women’ because it won the prestigious Goodreads Choice Award for History & Biography. A quick glance at the blurb (and there’s a very condensed version of the story from Buzzfeed) and I was intrigued by this chapter of history, that does indeed sound like an episode of ‘Stuff You Missed in History Class’.
I am not a big non-fiction reader, however – least of all of books such as this, that run to 480-pages. But I decided to give this one a go, and I am so glad I did. This is now – quite possibly – my favourite read of 2017. An infuriating but necessary read that feels like the most apt and thoughtful way to send-off 2017. The year that a serial sexual abuser was inducted into the White House, #MeToo rang out across the world and there’s a sense that many people are waking up to injustice.
Moore’s book, in many ways, highlights how far we’ve come – but also how long we’ve been fighting.
In 1898, Marie (and Pierre) Curie developed the theory of radioactivity and techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two elements, polonium and radium. In 1901 when ‘The Radium Girls’ opens its prologue chapter, French physicist Henri Becquerel is transporting a glass vial of radium to London in his waistcoat pocket – where he will eventually discover an inflammation of the skin, right where the vial was pressing. By then it’s too late however, for in a Paris hospital radium has been successfully used to treat a case of lupus … thus, its proclamation as a wonder-element would begin and radium therapy (particularly in the fight against cancer) would herald it as an elixir of Biblical proportions.
The book then leaps to 1917, and will by the end take readers through to 1938 … and even beyond, in a manner of speaking. Its focus, however, is on the booming wartime and then post-war business of ‘radium dials’ – watches and clocks with the numbers and hands painted in radioluminescent paint, so they’d glow green in the dark. These dials were painted by ‘Radium Girls’ – an entirely female workforce of young women (some even pre-teen) who signed up to help the war-effort, and then later found prosperity in one of the last booming businesses to survive the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and Great Depression … these women hand-painted the dials with fine brushes – brushes they were instructed to press between their lips to keep the fine point, then dip in radium, paint the dials, and repeat the process – lip, dip, paint – through to the companies producing millions of clocks and watches a year. The story initially focuses on the first business – United States Radium Corporation – based in New Jersey, but eventually swings to the Radium Dial Company built in Ottawa, Illinois a few years later.
These Radium Girls – who would daily become covered in the radioluminescent paint as they sat working diligently at their work-stations – were nicknamed “ghost girls” for the way they glowed in the dark, eerie and beautiful.
These women had no cause for concern in ingesting the radium paint – for the world had fully embraced radium as a wonder-cure and catchall product. It was used in toothpaste, beauty products, and drinking coolers – there was even "Radium Brand Creamery Butter” advertised (though because of its expense, it’s hardly likely all of these products contained traces of radium – still) it was a booming business. Some may even say, it was among the first “wellness industries” created. Furthermore – the Radium Girls, upon induction to their dial-paining work – would watch their forewoman scoop up a glob of the radium paint with a spatula and lick it off, to show how harmless it was (it could – they were told – even be considered a free healthcare treatment!). Some companies even sold granules of used radium paint to schools and crèches – for use in their sandpits, since it had the same consistency.
But within a few short years, something odd begins happening to the dial-painting workforce of women. Their teeth start falling out, and their gums don’t heal, but ulcer. Eventually their jaws start loosening, and then disintegrating – in one case; a dentist is able to lift out a honeycombed jaw from the mouth of a girl with no instruments but his bare hands. Doctors and dentists are perplexed – they suspect “phossy jaw”, first discovered as a common ailment of the match-stick industry, and use of white phosphorus. But they can find no evidence of the women coming into contact with such a substance. Syphilis is then assumed, in at least one patient who eventually dies from her injuries – particularly as she was a woman living alone, and all that that implies.
But then other women start complaining of pain in their legs, arms, backs – in their very bones and joints. The medical industry is completely perplexed – especially as the only thing connecting these women is their work at the Radium Corporation, and – as everybody knows – radium is perfectly harmless. There is no such thing as radium “poisoning”. Even when they started dying, one by one, radium was slow to be recognised as their cause.
The story unfolds – and over the course of 400+ pages we meet the men and women who became both champions and villains in this saga. We see the role unions and humble workers played as sleuths, piecing together a medical puzzle and corporate cover-up. Doctors in the pockets of radium companies, willing to outright lie and steal. Radium bosses, who knew the dangers and preferred to keep their big profit-margins than save lives. A young, inexperienced attorney willing to take on a civil lawsuit, and become champion for these women. And the women themselves, who refused to go quietly – even as they knew they were dying and would likely reap no benefits from their lawsuits, but who wanted these companies to be held accountable. Women who wanted to make sure no others would suffer as they now were.
I’m reminded of the true-crime book ‘In Cold Blood’, and criticism Truman Capote had to weather when he pioneered the nonfiction genre into the mainstream. The main one being from critics who said it wouldn’t sell, because readers knew how the book would end – with the execution of convicted killers, Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Smith. Still, to read ‘In Cold Blood’ is to read a potboiler that’s no less thrilling and heartbreaking for piecing together the events that lead and follow tragedy, and knowing how it will all conclude. I’d say the same of Kate Moore’s ‘The Radium Girls’ – when the foregone conclusion for modern audiences is to read with slack-jawed incredulity at the ways the 19th century carelessly handled (what we now know to be) one of the most dangerous substances on the planet.
At the end of the day, ‘The Radium Girls’ perhaps works so well because Moore still presents the story as a procedural. She knows full well that readers know who the killer is, and the cover-up that won’t stay buried. But she still takes us through its paces, letting the tragedy unfurl in “real time”. In this too, I’m reminded of one of the greatest films of the last ten years (in my opinion), the likewise investigative procedural 2015 film, ‘Spotlight’ – about how the Boston Globe uncovered the decades-long history of church sexual abuse in their city, but would eventually lead to a worldwide investigation. This story is also positioned, knowing that their audience are aware of who the villains are – but works to show how the puzzle was pieced together, who the players were.
At first I wondered why this story hadn’t been adapted for film or television before. Indeed, parts of it had such a pace and substance that echoed movies like ‘Silkwood’, ‘Erin Brockovich’, and ‘Norma Rae’. And not just for those being about women against industrial and capitalist regimes – but for being about poor people who are expendable in the eyes of corporations. Why didn’t I know of the Radium Girls story beforehand – especially when it’s so universal? Not just about American labour reform, but really the story of how the world came to truly understand one of the most revolutionary discoveries of the 19th century – radium. But as the book goes on – broken down into three parts, spanning from 1917 to 1938 – it becomes apparent why this story, however compelling, would be difficult to dramatise.
The players keep changing. Heroes emerge, only to die. Pointlessly, painfully, and young (most in their early-20’s) – no matter how heroically they faced their end, there is no cure for radium poisoning, especially when the substance has a shelf-life of 1600-years.
I can’t quite recall, but I think in this book Moore mentions at least 50 women specifically – and of those, about 25 take the stage in some capacity to pull our focus. Certainly it feels like there are two heroes who shine slightly brighter – Grace Fryer and Catherine Wolfe Donohue – for the leadership roles they took on amongst their group of poisoned friends, leading class-action lawsuits and refusing to back-down in the face of insurmountable odds. But these women (it’s no spoiler to say) do die. They leave behind a powerful legacy, but they die tragically nonetheless.
The timeline also splits between the New Jersey case against the United States Radium Corporation, and Ottawa’s Radium Dial Company. For this reason, I think a television series would be the best format for an adaptation (and I certainly hope there is one) – although I could see a movie taking inspiration from a film like 2002’s The Hours.
Then there’s the fact that some of the events seem too unreal and abhorrent to be believed. But they’re true. Like a doctor in the pocket of Radium Dial stealing bones of a deceased girl at autopsy, so they couldn’t be tested for radium. Or a husband of one of the afflicted women, getting into fisticuffs in the middle of the street with her old manager – who still refused to admit any wrongdoing, even when one of his former employees came to him after having her arm amputated due to a radium-caused sarcoma on her elbow.
This year – 2017 and the year of #MeToo – was an interesting and infuriating one in which to read the book. A book in which nobody initially believed women. They were gaslighted – deliberated and cruelly – and told to disbelieve their own bodies, their own decay. Doctors lied to them, big corporations became frustrated when they didn’t die quick enough. Towns turned against them – particularly during the Great Depression – when the women were seen to be troublemakers, hell-bent on taking jobs away from their struggling towns.
After all, Radium Dial had long been a valued employer. With the country in the middle of its worst-even economic depression – what some were now calling the Great Depression – communities were even more protective of the firms that could give them work and wages. The women found they were disbelieved, ignored, and even shunned when they spoke out about their ailments and the cause.
I was reminded of something the author Gillian Flynn wrote, for TIME Magazine that stuck with me – that gnaws at me. She wasn’t just talking about sexual abuse, but the whole goddamn system. The patriarchy and the powerful (one in the same) and their treatment, their views, of women – when she wrote;
I feel humiliated and angry. They hate us. That’s my immediate thought, with each new revelation: They hate us. And then, a more sick-making suspicion: They don’t care about us enough to hate us. We are simply a form of livestock.
That never feels truer than in this book – which shows just how expendable women were in the eyes of the corporations who killed them.
One may think that the story of ‘The Radium Girls’ is antiquated – look how far we’ve come, in understanding the rights of workers, and of holding big businesses accountable! But this story is still happening today – somewhere, somehow.
Look at the Grenfell Tower fire in June of this year – started by hazardous cladding that was installed to make a block of public housing flats in North Kensington more appealing to residents in wealthier surrounds. The Flint (Michigan) water crisis began in 2014, and is still unresolved – an entire town in the United States of America has been without clean drinking water for nearly five years now.
‘The Radium Girls’ was an important book for me to read – a story I am so grateful to now know about. But it is not a story that ends in 1938 (and not just because to this day the women’s bodies are projecting radioactivity from their graves). Rather – it’s a testimony to ongoing battles; to hold big businesses accountable (not give them bigger tax-breaks) and to never put profit before people. The legacy of these women is one of speaking truth to power. Which they did – with their dying breaths.