Book Review: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Both as an attorney and in my past life as a journalist, I learned how to research. I also discovered two often overlooked keys in researching a subject, ones I tried to pass on to new attorneys. The first is that you often can research forever so you need to learn when to stop diving into rabbit holes. The second — and more important — is that you don’t need to use everything your research uncovered. Providing an inordinate amount of information hurts more than it helps.

Failure to observe the latter precept decidedly cripples Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women. The book is a meticulous examination of what happened to dozens of young women who painted watch dials. Over the years, they would be given a number of nicknames. The Ghost Girls. The List of the Doomed. Women Doomed to Die. And in February 1938 they named their own group The Society of the Living Dead. The names came from the radium in the luminous paint they applied to dozens of watch and instrument dials a day.

Moore, a British author, delves into the story of these women, their horrendous illnesses and their fight for justice. It’s a tale of corporate callousness and almost criminal deceit, as well as the lag between scientific advances and the law. Unfortunately, it is a narrative that is overwhelmed by people and details.

Two companies are the villains. Prior to World War I, Radium Luminous Materials Corp. opened a watch dial factory in Newark, N.J. (It would later move to Orange, N.J., and become the United States Radium Corp.) After the war, the Radium Dial Company opened in Ottawa, Ill., about 85 miles southwest of Chicago. By applying paint containing radium the numbers on the dials would glow in the dark, leading Radium Luminous Materials to call its paint “Undark.” Some of the numbers were as small as a millimeter in width, so the delicate work called for nimble, dexterous hands. As a result, the painters usually were women and a majority were teenagers.

Three words summarize what gave rise to their eventual predicament. Lip. Dip. Paint.

To ensure a fine point at the end of their brush, the women used a technique called lip-pointing. Throughout the day they would twirl the brush in their mouth to form a point, dip it in the paint and apply the paint to the numbers. This process also moistened any radium that hardened on the brushes. How often each worker lip-pointed each day was reflected in their earnings. Paid on a piecework basis averaging 1.5 cents per watch, the average painter took home $20 a week ($370 today) and the fastest sometimes earned $2,080 a year (almost $40,000 today).

A critical factor in this approach was that radium was considered a wonder drug at the time. When the first plant opened, radium was used to treat everything from cancer to gout to constipation. Dozens of radium-laced products, such as lingerie and cosmetics, even enemas, were on the market. Thus, rather than being warned of any dangers, the girls were told that, if anything, they would benefit from their exposure to radium.

But dozens slowly developed unusual physical problems. Complaints of intractable pain in the jaw was common. Teeth were removed in an attempt to alleviate the pain but not only did the pain remain, the holes left by the extractions didn’t heal. They would form ulcers and abscesses, which would also being showing up in other parts of their mouths. As this progressed, jaw bones would break by simply applying pressure with a finger. They had radiation poisoning, a disease unknown at the time but one that would produce a horrific death.

The first dial-painter died in 1922. She was 24 and only a few months before quit the job she’d held since she was 19. That and worker complaints led to various studies and investigations over the next couple years. Most, though, were conducted by industry experts and company doctors. Moreover, the industry suppressed anything that might suggest radium paint was causing these problems. The situation began drawing media attention when an employee in Orange, N.J., filed the first lawsuit over the condition in February 1925. On June 14, 1925, another female employee in New Jersey became the first dial-painter ever tested for the presence of radium. (Some wondered if it was merely coincidence that the test came a week after the first death of a male employee.) Her death four days later made the front page of the New York Times.

Even more media attention was generated when the parties to the lawsuit were going to autopsy the dial-painter who died in 1924. When her body was exhumed five years after her death those present reported that “the inside of the coffin was aglow with the soft luminescence of radium compounds.” Every piece of tissue and bone examined during the autopsy was radioactive.

Yet not only did the industry aggressively fight the lawsuit and others, it did its best to suppress evidence that might support the claims. Moreover, the fact radiation poisoning was essentially unknown when the women’s problems developed meant the law also was a roadblock. All the suits were brought after the statutes of limitations expired for common law injury or workers compensation claims. While both New Jersey and Illinois made some industrial diseases compensable under workers’ compensation, radiation poisoning wasn’t among them Even if it was, those specific statutes of limitations also expired before the women’s conditions manifested themselves for years and before they knew the cause was occupational.

Given that the radiation poisoning appeared to be a death sentence, public outrage grew as the litigation dragged on and it appeared the radium girls had no remedy. Settlements were eventually reached in most of the cases, although at times it was only enough to cover medical and burial expenses.

Moore takes the reader through the effects on the women, the industry efforts to cover up any danger and the women’s struggle to find legal representation and a legal remedy. The extent of the book’s research is reflected in the fact it has nearly 1,500 footnotes. Yet Moore’s failure to be more discriminating in using the research produces a significant downfall.

At its core, The Radium Girls is a fascinating story of women with horrendous medical conditions fighting dishonest corporations and law that had yet to recognize their plight. But the core gets entangled in excess. The book’s “List of Key Characters” contains nearly 70 names. All of them — and more — are heard from over the course of the book, making it difficult to keep track of who is who. This is exacerbated once the book begins jumping back and forth between people and lawsuits in New Jersey and Illinois. It feels like, having devoted so much time and effort to research and interviews, Moore feels obligated to include as much of it as possible. This leaves an otherwise compelling tale adrift in a sea of information.

Deposited inside the body, radium was the gift that kept on giving.

Kate Moore, The Radium Girls

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