Book Recommendation | The Radium Girls by Kate Moore | Recommendation by Jeanette Larson

Genre: Non-fiction

This book explores a relatively unknown part of our occupational history and the path to occupational and safety laws and agencies. The subtitle for Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women is particularly poignant. The young women we meet in the book were considered to be lucky. They had found wonderful jobs that helped the war effort and paid well, especially at a time when jobs were scare. But in this case, they found that shining was not a good thing.

Just before World War I, a new substance called radium was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie. It was touted as a miracle mineral, able to cure cancer, beautify your skin, and even revitalize a flagging sex-life. It also killed hundreds of young women who unknowingly exposed themselves to a substance they were assured was safe. As the United States prepared for war, radium-dial factories opened throughout the nation. Dials that could glow in the dark were essential for airplane instrument panels and soldiers' watches. Young girls would dip fine brushes into radium and then use their lips to make a finer point before applying the radium paint to the dials. Soon they were literally glowing in the dark. Assured that the radium paint was safe, some girls even applied leftover paint to their lips before going out for a glowing evening of fun. 

And then they started dying. Their story is richly narrated by Kate Moore, who did an amazing amount of research to track down the girls (or their families) and learn their stories. One problem with radium poisoning was that the radium hid in their bodies, coming forward in different places, and sometimes waiting years to manifest. Many of the girls died long before they could be interviewed or their tales chronicled.

Going from doctor to doctor, without insurance, the costs were outrageous for these working class girls and their families, yet they could not find any answers. Some where told they had arthritis. One was told she had a venereal disease (although she was a virgin). As the radium ate away their bones and causes cancerous growths on their faces and limbs, they were told there was no cure. While many died in their twenties and thirties, several girls lived into their nineties, with at least one living to be 107. But even the "survivors" had horrible problems throughout their lives from working, often for just a few months, without protection against the radium.

As their jaws were  literally dropping out of their mouths ("phossy jaw" was a known problem for those who worked with phosphorus but was not considered to be a problem for radium),  the radium-dial companies continued to assure the girls that radium was safe. Some executives tried to say that the girls had been in ill health when they started to work. A few of the girls took on the corporations and the state and federal governments. Their fight for protection and compensation is extremely interesting as there were no state or federal laws could help them. No federal agencies could protect them against the unscrupulous and crooked doctors who examined them or the lies told by company men who were hell-bent on protecting the bottom line regardless of who was injured or killed.

I was first exposed (pun intended) to the radium girls in The Poisoner's Handbook by  Deborah Blum, but Moore makes their stories personal and detailed. The descriptions are so vivid that some readers will find themselves checking their own teeth and jaws as they marvel at the tenacity some of the girls had. Their efforts and lives had a tremendous impact on occupational laws and on oversight by federal agencies like OSHA. Their story is also a cautionary and frightening tale of what happens when profits takes precedent over people.

Note: The review copy was provided by the publisher, Sourcebooks and has been donated to the Aransas County Public Library. Check it out!

[ Recommend another book! CLICK HERE ]


Jeanette Larson is a retired librarian and author. She and her husband, retired architect and artist Jim Larson, moved to Rockport several years ago for the birds, the beach, and the coastal community.

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