I owe the discovery to The Radium Girls to book blogger Sarah at The Critiquing Chemist (if you haven’t had the pleasure of her pithy literary analysis, I recommend visiting her site). She reviewed the book back in August and its subject–like most unusual historical episodes–immediately piqued my interest. A providential Amazon sale had the title on my Kindle in minutes (they always get me with that darn $2.99). Little did I know that this tale of radiant courage versus toxic greed would be one of the most difficult books I’ve read in recent memory.
Author Kate Moore introduces us to the young women who worked in early 20th century watch factories, inscribing the dial numbers with luminous radium-laced paint. Since the toxic effects of radium were largely unstudied at the time–many entrepreneurs even touted it as salubrious–the painters worked in conditions that constantly exposed them to the substance. Several years later, many of the women developed severe illnesses that baffled their doctors. Sadly, identifying the cause of their ailments is only the first battle. War ensues when a few brave women, their health failing, pursue legal action against their employers, who are determined to disclaim accountability.
Now, I am neither squeamish nor sentimental, typically displaying about as much empathy as the average mako shark. But this book hurt to read. Moore describes the women’s deterioration in unflinching detail: bones rotting away inside them, teeth and jawbones falling from their mouths, their bodies sapped of all energy and stiffened to near-immobility. As an athlete who revels in her physical being, imagining such conditions horrified me. The women’s youth made it even more tragic. Spry, bright teenagers thrilled at the opportunity to paint dials are reduced to brittle shells by their twenties. It would break any reader’s heart.
But not, apparently, the hearts of their employers. The medical impact of radium is not the book’s most gruesome aspect. No, the most nausea-inducing part of The Radium Girls is the behavior of the companies involved. Radium Dial and its ilk embody every trope of soulless corporate greed. Even after learning of radium’s toxic effects, they try every sleazy, unethical trick in the book to disclaim responsibility and preserve profits. When a determined group of stricken ex-painters finally takes legal action, the company drags the women through years of courtroom drama to avoid paying compensation for ruined lives.
And not just the women’s lives, but those of their families. Parents and siblings, husbands and children all figure prominently in the narrative. Their dedication and loss only amplifies the pathos. I forgave Moore her periodic lapses from objective narration into impassioned commentary, because how can such an extraordinary ordeal not provoke a deep reaction? Especially since, like radium itself, the callous rapacity of industry has a toxic persistence. Contemporary events like Deepwater Horizon and the lead crisis in Flint echo the radium corporations’ utter disregard for humanity.
In the face of such adversaries, we can only strive for the incredible resilience and courage the radium girls displayed. Their arduous fight for justice influenced modern occupational safety laws and improved scientific understanding of radioactivity just in time for WWII and the invention of the atom bomb. The Radium Girls is not an easy book to read, but worth every challenging page to remember the ordinary women whose extraordinary grit left a legacy.