by Kate Moore, 2017, 477 pages, paperback, ISBN 978-1-4926-5095-9 $17.99 USD
Reviewed by Lyle Sadavoy, Toronto, Ontario
The Radium Girls chronicles the dial painting industry and the women who painted these dials with radium–based paint. As sad and depressing as the lives and times of the dial painters were, it is equally important to understand the full narrative. Kate Moore's writing style is easy, clear and enjoyable. She has delved deeply into the lives of the dial painters and has written a very thorough historical account of the dial painting industry. Because of this thoroughness and attention to detail, you feel the intense suffering, experience the excruciating losses and revel in the triumphs of the dial painters. It is a rare history book that brings you into the action.
Moore has divided the book into three primary sections in addition to a prologue, an epilogue and a postscript. A complete bibliography is included along with some 50 pages of notes arranged by chapter. The prologue sets the stage with the riveting story of the first known death by radioactivity from radium. With it one gets a taste of Moore's wonderful writing style and an idea of the tragic events about to befall those working with the element.
The first main section, Knowledge, begins in New Jersey in 1917 and introduces us to the players, the individual dial painters. Moore goes to great pains to allow us to know these young girls. We read about their lives, hopes, dreams and plans for the future. We are also introduced to the process by which radium attacked the painters. The agony and suffering must have been tormenting as their bodies literally began to disintegrate. But this was the early ’20s, and radium was the amazing new element and wonder drug. The main isotope was radium-226 with a half-life of 1,600 years. Everyone wanted a piece of it. While presently, a wrist watch will glow from a backlit face on the press of a button, some of us may recall having a watch that literally glowed in the dark, on its own — like magic. It was truly amazing to behold. The young women, in their late teens and early twenties who painted these dials also glowed in the dark, from the residues left on their clothing and skin from work. Very few knew about and even fewer cared to consider the hazards. While tragic, we are given hope as, very slowly, headway was made in the realization that it was radium responsible for the severe ailments of the dial painters.
The second segment is called Power and it describes the lengths the dial painting companies went in attempting to prevent their workers from finding out about the hazards, to cover up their own results of tests and to fight in the courts to deny compensation to their own workers. Moore pulls no punches, and the reader is buffeted between feelings of pity and sadness for the suffering women and those of anger and disgust for the companies. One is easily reminded of more present day issues with tobacco, pharmaceuticals and automobiles, where profits were placed ahead of people.
The last section is entitled Justice. It was a slow, painstaking process, and Moore delineates both the pitfalls and the triumphs. Throughout, Moore writes as a voice for the dial painters, who, over the span of some 20 years, are now women. For the reader, the gamut of emotions is intense as we follow, via Moore's sequence of events, the rollercoaster ride these women experienced. Moreover, we bear witness, as many of the dial painters finally succumb to the onslaught of the poison in their systems.
After you finish cheering along with the remaining women at the end of the third part, read the epilogue and postscript to round out the history. In the epilopgue you will see how Glenn Seaborg used the information gleaned from the dial painters to keep those on the Manhattan Project safe from radiation poisoning. As a postscript, Moore reminds us all that the judgement in 1938 did not stop radiation poisoning. Painting of luminous dials with radium-based paints continued until
1978, with the same lack of regard for workers as was the case with the companies 40 years earlier. Fast forward 40 more years and workers are still fighting, albeit on a different stage.1
The Radium Girls is a marvellous book and enjoyable to read even if it evokes raw emotions. It is primarily a history, and while the science of radioactivity is involved, more is written about the biological effects of radium on the body and the incredible forensic discoveries that enabled it to be discovered as the culprit. As such, it is a book that can be enjoyed by a teacher who is interested in the background history or it can be a gift to a family member or awarded as a prize to a high achieving student.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."2 While it is unlikely that radium poisoning will be repeated, the knowledge of wrongdoing in the past will hopefully hold governments and companies to account to prevent injuries or properly compensate workers who are injured. This is the legacy of the Radium Girls.
- George Santayana, The Life of Reason, vol. 1: Reason in Common Sense, 1905.