It made the girls themselves gleam

The Radium GirlsThe Radium Girls
by Kate Moore

I first heard about this book via work. It’s part of a current trend – one that I fully support – of identifying stories from history that are important but little known and giving them a boost. In this case, it’s the story of thousands of women who worked in the (mostly) early 20th century painting dials onto watch faces with radium-based paint, so that they glowed in the dark.

It sounds like a terrible idea and it was. But even though shortly after Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium in 1898 they and their colleagues realised it could cause harm to humans, it became famous for its ability to destroy or reduce cancerous tumours, and was therefore widely considered to be health-giving. So when Dr Sabin von Sochocky, founder of the United States Radium Corporation (USRC), which mined and processed radium in New Jersey, figured out that it could be used to create a glow-in-the-dark paint, this seemed like a brilliant new commercial avenue for the company.

“In a bibliography of radium studies that USRC itself had published [in 1922, there were] articles as far back as 1906 on the damage radium could cause…As radium was such a rare and mysterious element, its commercial exploiters in fact controlled, to an almost monopolising extent, its image and most of the knowledge about it. Many firms had their own radium-themed journals, which were distributed free to doctors, all full of optimistic research.”

The primary use of this paint was watches and when the US joined the First World War in 1917, demand for these radium-dial watches soared. Every American soldier was issued with one, meaning that the USRC suddenly needed to employ hundreds of women to paint those dials. The women were instructed to lick their fine paintbrushes to give them a more accurate point, meaning they were ingesting the radium as well as getting it all over their skin, clothes and hair. (They were given the radium in powder form to mix their own paint.)

It was a well-paid job and therefore a desirable one. The women who worked there were admired for their eerie glow and would play it up, sometimes taking their nice clothes to work so that the radium powder luminescence would stay with them on nights out. But it wasn’t long before some of the women began to suffer from strange ailments that local doctors and dentists could not diagnose – loose teeth and infected jaws, bones that became brittle and hollow, lethargy, arthritis-like joint pains. Over the years, these persisted and worsened but were also joined by infertility and tumours – often in women who had only worked with radium briefly several years earlier, making the connection even harder to make.

“Katherine Schaub…was starting a brand-new job at the watch-dial factory…She was an attractive girl of just fourteen; her fifteenth birthday was in five weeks’ time…She felt almost a little star-struck as she was ushered through the studio to meet the forewoman, Anna Rooney, and saw the dial-painters turning diligently to their tasks…Katherine could see that the powder got everywhere; there was dust all over the studio. Even as she watched, little puffs of it seemed to hover in the air before settling on the shoulders or hair of a dial-painter at work. To her astonishment, it made the girls themselves gleam. Katherine, like many before her, was entranced by it.”

You could argue – and several companies later did – that the people in charge genuinely thought that radium could not be harmful in small doses. But Kate Moore does an excellent job of tracing every moment that proves otherwise – from the protective clothing given to male employees in other departments, to Von Sochocky himself telling one of the dial painters not to put the paintbrush in her mouth because it would make her sick – a statement he later denied in court.

Moore has pulled together facts from letters, medical records, court proceedings, articles in newspapers and scientific journals, as well as interviews with survivors and the family and friends of those who did not survive. Because this is a story of death and suffering – a lot of it – and of people and companies using money and position to deny, mislead and outright lie their way out of culpability, which of course meant that the death and suffering continued for far longer than should have been possible.

“In December 1925, [Dr Harrison] Martland, another doctor called Conlon and the girls’ dentist Dr Knef published a joint medical study based on their work with the women that year. Their conclusion was that this was ‘a hitherto unrecognised form of occupational poisoning’. The article became, in time, a classic example of a medical mystery solved…[Their] conclusions were so radical that they were disputed fiercely…Martland remembered later, ‘I have been under constant attack for my efforts to protect the public and to secure some compensation for disabled, death-facing girls’.”

What Moore has also done is to write this in an incredibly readable, engaging, almost thriller-like style. She introduces us to many of the women one at a time, bringing them to life so that their suffering (and in many cases death) properly hits home. She hits all the right beats at the right moment, so that the full weight of the shock, horror, deceit and duplicity really hits.

This is not a happy story, but Moore does make sure to cover its positive side. The dial painters’ suffering and fight for justice were directly responsible for improvements in workplace safety legislation, workers’ rights and medical knowledge about radium that led to safety standards.

I have been slightly obsessed with this book both during and since reading it. It’s so compulsive, so fascinating and, for me anyway, so emotionally turbulent. I have been struggling for days to get into any other book.

Published 2016 by Simon & Schuster.

Source: Waterstones Bristol.