The Radium Girls

Recommendation: Yes, absolutely yes 

Where to read: Anywhere, doesn’t matter

Read with: A family-pack of tissues

In brief: I read this in about five hours and was in tears for easily half of it. This is narrative non-fiction at its finest, appealing to both the historian and the lawyer in me but with a far greater resonance than that. 

In The Radium Girls, Moore tells one of the original workers’ compensation stories, though don’t let that put you off. In some ways, it’s a tragedy like other industrial tragedies, from the match-girls of Victorian England to miners and tradies dying of mesothelioma, with predictable villains relying on document shredding, lobbying and statutes of limitations on tort claims. In other ways, it’s a peculiarly horrifying series of events. 

Hundreds of American women, mostly young, poorer and unmarried, were employed during WWI to paint luminous dials onto the watches and instruments needed by the newly-formed American Expeditionary Forces. The luminous paint was made of radium, the beautiful “miracle” element used in tonics and medicines and  popularly thought to encourage health and vitality. Given cheap brushes too coarse for the delicate job of painting tiny numbers onto tiny dials, the girls were instructed to “point” their brushes, soaked in radium, with their mouths.

As they continued working, they grew weaker and anaemic. Hair fell out, skin broke out and teeth rotted and were pulled from gums which never healed. After a while, when the teeth fell out bits of jawbone came along too. Arthritis started to set in, bones became fragile and broke and they developed disfiguring cancers, ulcers and lesions. Some, those who died early, had their deaths attributed to syphilis. Other doctors suspected phossy jaw. No one, not the dentists nor the doctors nor the surgeons, could help them. Enter the lawyers, stage right. 

The problem, legally speaking, was that their employers knew precisely what was killing and maiming their former employees; the effects of radiation weren’t exactly unknown, even in the 1910s and 1920s. As far back as 1900, experiments had showed that radiation could cause serious damage to human tissue and senior staff at these companies took steps to protect themselves from the material they told their employees to ingest. 

What followed was a harrowing struggle in the courts and the press to achieve some kind of compensation, a struggle made all the more difficult by the womens’ increasing frailty, their lack of financial resources and, frequently, their gender. Their fight was, however, the catalyst for key labour reforms designed to protect future workers. 

Moore comes from a dramatic background at it shows clearly here – the book frequently takes on novelistic overtones and there’s no doubt she extrapolates from source material. It’s a history, sure, but it’s not the kind with footnotes. Normally, that would piss me off however it is so utterly beside the point here you neither notice nor mind.

The Radium Girls more than deserves a spot on your shelf and on your reading list. 

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