Book recommendation: The Radium Girls

The Radium Girls, subtitled The dark story of America’s shining women, by Kate Moore is the true story about a group of young women, employees of the Radium Dial company in the early 1900s, who sounded the alarm about the dangers and health risks of radium. It’s an incredible story of courage, friendship, and resilience. Despite repeated setbacks, they fought their employer to tell the truth about what made them sick. 

A heartbreaking story. 

Imagine you’re a young girl living in a town with few opportunities for work. You’d like to help your family and yourself because you dream of getting married and starting your own family, but without money, that seems like a far-off dream. 

Then a clock making factory opens up in your neighborhood. They make a sought after watch whose dial numbers glow in the dark and they need young, hardworking girls to paint the dials. The job pays well and you’d be working with your friends. It’s perfect. You’re happy to contribute to your family and you love your work. 

When you begin to experience strange symptoms, like a sore jaw and aching teeth, you go to the dentist and he says your tooth must be pulled. And then another. Then another. And then your hips and knees begin to ache and the doctor has no idea what’s wrong with you. 

Your symptoms grow worse and most of your earnings, because you’re still dragging yourself to work, go toward doctor visits and medicine to relieve your symptoms.

But the cause of it all is a mystery. Then your friends start dying and you wonder if you’ll soon follow. 

This is the story of The Radium Girls. 

I found the story fascinating and horrible. Meticulously researched. The author, Kate Moore, explains in the Author Notes that she first heard of the Radium Girls when she directed the play that dramatized the story: Radium Girls: A Play in Two Acts by D. W. Gregory in London. The story so intrigued her she wanted to learn more. In the writing of the book, she researched historical records, interviewed descendants, some of whom shared letters, and journals of the women involved. 

When radium was first discovered by the Curies in the late 1800s, people didn’t know what to make of it. Products, elixirs, and serums containing radium had snake oil, cure-all claims. No one had made a connection to radium and radioactive poisoning. 

The glow in the dark property of radium made it an indispensable tool for soldiers on the battlefield during WWI. And the glow in the dark radium dials became a big money-maker for Radium Dial Company. 

Lip, dip, paint

In order to get a pen-like tip of the brush, they would lip, dip, paint.  

It meant bringing the tip of the brush up to their lips, moistening the brush with the tongue, and twist the handle as they pulled the brush away, making the tip fine like the point of a sharpened pencil. Then they’d dip the fine point in the radium and paint the dials. 

The lip, dip, paint went on all day every day.

Radium exposure is deadly, but they didn’t know that then.

They also didn’t know that their company had another factory in NJ whose employees suffered similar symptoms and fought a similar battle.

These women chose to stick together and fight for what they believed was right. They found a champion, attorney Leonard Grossman, to fight their case against their employer in the courts. Their cause became a battle for social justice, truth over profit, corporate responsibility, and employee safety. 

Author, Kate Moore, did a beautiful job researching the stories and breathing life into the brave women and their families who lived with the misguided belief that they could trust what their company and government told them, that they would be protected from harm and that their company would never intentionally put them at risk for profit’s sake. 

For more information about the book and author, go to theradiumgirls.com

The story of the Radium Girls are soon to come to life on film. Go to radiumgirlsmovie.com for more information.

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