89 pages 2 hours read

Kate Moore

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

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women (2017) is a cultural history of radium by English author Kate Moore. The book focuses on a series of court cases in which young women, ravaged by the effects of radium, took on powerful radium companies in court. This study guide covers the Sourcebooks Kindle eBook version. Please note that this guide might contain graphic quotations and depictions of autopsies and details about how radium damaged the women’s bodies.

Moore chronicles the lives of many young female employees of the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation in Newark, New Jersey and Radium Dial in Ottawa, Illinois. These women bore the consequences of releasing an untested substance into mass production, sustaining extreme pain, disability, and death from ingesting radium. The book is a cautionary tale about the overly optimistic narratives of invention and rapid commercialization that have become commonplace in the modern world, and an indictment of corporate greed and disregard for human life.

Part 1 describes the early, happy days of radium dial production. Moore highlights a few key figures, including Katherine Schaub, a teenager who was hired to work at Radium Luminous Materials Corporation during World War I. Along with other immigrant girls, she was instructed to paint watch dials with luminescent paint for use by soldiers. The many job openings at the factory garnered excitement in the town, and the young women eagerly recruited their siblings, family, and friends to join, as the work was well-paid and more pleasant than most other jobs available to women of their social class at the time. Many of the women at the factories developed close friendships—even as they were inadvertently ingesting a chemical that would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

After World War I ended, many of the workers left the company and started families. The company was renamed United States Radium Corporation. By this time, scientists already were learning of radium’s toxicity. Administrators at US Radium were aware of this but ignored it for the sake of profits. The women who remained at the factory began to experience symptoms of radiation poisoning. Amelia Maggia was the first medically documented case: After complaining of a toothache, its removal revealed an open wound that never healed. The poisoned tissue spread throughout her jaw until it bled so profusely that she choked on her own blood and died. Simultaneously, Radium Dial was opening locations in Illinois and recruiting more dial-painters, usually still young, poor, female immigrants.

After other young women developed mysterious illnesses, aches, pains, and limps, Katherine Schaub took matters into her own hands, contacting the Department of Labor to demand an investigation. The Department failed to act. Katherine then connected with Catherine Wiley, who headed the Consumers League in New Jersey. Together with Harvard professor Alice Hamilton, they escalated the issue to the Department of Health. The first formal study of the dial-painters and their health was launched. This advocacy triggered a cascade of events that reached a new level when a paper detailing radium’s danger was released. Though the dial-painting factories were then shut down, many women had lost their lives or were irreparably damaged. Katherine, along with several others (Albina Maggia, Quinta Maggia, Grace Fryer, and Edna Hussman), searched for legal representation to take on the corporations that exploited their health.

A lawyer named Raymond Berry took on their cases and found that their doctor, Flinn, was fabricating clean bills of health and had no qualifications to determine whether they had radium poisoning. Katherine and most of the other women died due to acute stress related to radiation sickness and a combination of psychosocial factors.

In Ottawa, similar health problems were arising, but the New Jersey suits were unknown to the women in the isolated Midwest. After the deaths of several women, former dial painters including Catherine Donohue, Charlotte Nevins Purcell, and Pearl Payne filed suits with the Illinois Industrial Commission. After a frustratingly drawn-out case full of appeals, the Supreme Court found Radium Dial guilty, setting a precedent for mandatory health safety testing and regulation in workplaces in the United States. 

The Radium Girls provides an example of corporations’ tendencies to deny science and exploit the vulnerable to achieve their ends throughout American history, while also painting a vivid portrait of the women who fought back.

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