Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Radium Girls
Reviewed by Jane M. Ekstam

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

by Kate Moore
Simon & Schuster, 2016

Radium Girl
Eight-Year-Old Peg Looney
Ottowa, Illinois
The Radium Girls is the story of the American girls and young women who painted watches, clocks and military dials with radium, a substance considered luxurious, a promoter of good health and a miracle cure for a wide variety of ailments. The young painters worked in studios instead of noisy and cramped factories like so many other women, received high salaries, and considered themselves fortunate to secure such a glamorous job. There was, however, a high price to be paid some years later in terms of health and life style. Moore describes the lives of a wide range of female painters, whom she dubs 'characters'. She covers the period from 1917, when many were employed by the United States Radium Corporation or the Radium Dial Company, to the mid-1930s, when some of the survivors filed law suits for compensation. In addition to the many women and girls described in The Radium Girls, the list of 'characters' also includes company presidents, vice-presidents, chemists, executives, doctors and investigators.

By 1917, when the USA entered World War One, the demand for radium, which allowed soldiers to read clocks and dials at night, was insatiable. There were plenty of women ready to do the work. Miss Irene Rudolph is a case in point. After five years of painting watches and dials, the initial glamour had gone: Rudolph was barely able to walk, and her mouth was seriously damaged by so-called lip pointing. This technique, which was advocated by employers, entailed putting the brush to the lips to bring the hairs together, and then dipping it in radium. The system promoted greater accuracy, which was particularly important when painting small numbers. Despite numerous visits to the dentist, Rudolph's condition worsened; so much so that, after some months, 'she'd had to give up her job in a corset factory' (48). Her case was not unique. Chapter 11, for example, describes how in 1924 Dr Barry 'had never had such a busy January. Patient after patient came through his door, pale hands clutched to thin cheeks, discomfort obvious in the women's questioning eyes as they asked him what was wrong' (75).

Quinta McDonald, another 'character' in The Radium Girls, was put in a constricting plaster cast that encased her body for nine months. She could barely walk and by the end of 1925, her family doctor had been called out ninety times, resulting in a bill for $270 ($3,600 in today's terms). Life was finished; there was no cure.

The truth about radium had been kept a carefully guarded secret. As Kate Moore points out, specialists had known as early as 1914 that "radium could deposit in bone and cause changes in the blood" (123). Deceptively, in the initial stages, radium appeared to actually promote health rather than harm it, as witnessed in the characteristic rosy complexions. This was only a temporary condition, however, "because, while radium stimulated the bone marrow to produce extra red blood cells, this soon became "over-stimulation" (124). Red blood cells were destroyed, anemia resulted, and there were other ailments, including necrosis. Both companies at which the girls/women were employed denied responsibility for their former employees' state of health. And in the case of Radium Dial, Moore explains that the company went one step further: "in December 1936, [it] abruptly closed its doors and upped sticks—to where, nobody knew" (314).

Catherine Donahue was one of the women who took her case to court. She described her pains, which had appeared after only two years of painting with radium. "The pains had spread all across her body; her ankles, her hips, her knees, her teeth" (338). She had become bedridden. Dragging herself to court, she produced evidence that shocked all those present: two bones that had been removed from her jaw. This, however, did not sway her former employer, who argued that compensation could not be paid because the law only covered diseases incurred from poisons. The hearing was deferred for a month, to allow for the submission of further evidence. This was a major blow for Catherine Donahue, whose health was extremely frail and whose life expectancy was very short.

One month later, when justice was finally brought to bear, and Catherine Donahue was awarded compensation: £5,661 ($95,160 in today's values; this was "the maximum possible award the judge could deliver under the provisions of the law," 359), it was almost too late. One month later, Catherine Donahue was dead.

The Radium Girls is a painful book to read. It is shocking and very personal. Its "characters" are taken from real life, making the story all the more tragic. The Radium Girls is based on solid research conducted in New York, Washington D.C., Chicago and Ottawa, Illinois. Moore met the families of the women, visited their homes and graves and the studios where the girls and women worked. It is Moore's hope that through her study the radium girls will be remembered.

The Radium Girls contains comprehensive notes (45 pages), a useful "select bibliography" and numerous black and white photographs. It is an authoritative and empathetic study of an important part of American history—a part that has hitherto been largely neglected.

Jane M. Ekstam


  1. Fascinating review. It's so tragic that this went on for so long at the expense of so many innocent people. I wonder if there aren't modern analogues--coal mining, chemical workers, etc.

  2. An excellent review. As the son of the lawyer who represented the women, I am so glad that word about this outstanding book.