Dark Lives Of 'The Radium Girls' Left A Bright Legacy For Workers, Science

Apr 22, 2017
Originally published on November 27, 2017 12:32 pm

In the early days of the 20th century, the United States Radium Corporation had factories in New Jersey and Illinois, where they employed mostly women to paint watch and clock faces with their luminous radium paint. The paint got everywhere — hair, hands, clothes, and mouths.

They were called the shining girls, because they quite literally glowed in the dark. And they were dying.

Kate Moore's new book The Radium Girls is about the young women who were poisoned by the radium paint — and the five who sued United States Radium in a case that led to labor safety standards and workers' rights advances.

Radioactivity wasn't well understood back then — in fact, radium was considered a wonder substance, and it turned up everywhere. "Radium truly was an international craze," Moore says. "It was in everything from cosmetics to food, and it very much had an allure to it."


Interview Highlights

On the boost to the radium industry during World War I

Soldiers needed watches, and people needed it for the planes and the trucks and so on, and so the dial painters, who were the Radium Girls, they were employed to paint all these dials with luminous radium paint, and they were taught to lip-point — so, to put their brushes between their lips to make a fine point for the detailed handiwork ... Mae Cubberley, who's one of the Radium Girls that I write about in the book, she said "The first thing we said was, 'Does this stuff hurt you?'" And their managers said no.

On the beginnings of illness among the Radium Girls

When the Radium Girls started to get sick, about five years after they started dial painting, the radium firms were determined that they would not link this insidious disease that was taking so long to show itself — and that was one of the problems the girls had.

It would start quite innocently, actually — it would start perhaps with an aching limb, or a bad tooth ... but as the sickness developed and set in with the women, it got a lot more gruesome. All of their teeth would fall out, sometimes replaced by ulcers that would then seep pus constantly. And that aching limb would actually start to spontaneously fracture. And it might not be a limb, it might be their spine, it might be a jawbone.

On the Radium Girls' effect on the Manhattan Project

There was a direct link. Glenn Seaborg, who was a leading scientist on the Manhattan Project, literally wrote in his diary that he had a vision of the ghost girls, of the shining girls, the Radium Girls, and he therefore insisted that they had to do research into the materials that they were using on the Manhattan Project. It was found that they were biomedically very similar to radium, and therefore there were nonnegotiable safety guidelines put in place. And after the war, the Atomic Energy Commission officials actually said the Radium Girls were invaluable, because if it hadn't been for them, countless thousands of other workers would have been killed.

On the lives of the surviving Radium Girls

Through their willingness to allow scientists to probe their bodies, they have given us a store of knowledge about internal radiation that we simply would not otherwise have had if they weren't prepared to do that. And I think for many of the women, it was their gift to humanity, that we're still benefiting from today.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In the early days of the 20th century, radium factories in New Jersey and Illinois employed mostly women to paint watch faces and clock faces with luminous paint. The paint got everywhere - hair, hands, clothes. They were called the shining girls because, quite literally, they glowed, and they were dying. Kate Moore's new book is about the young women who were poisoned by the radium paint and the five of them who sued U.S. Radium in a case that led to labor safety standards and worker's rights. It's called "The Radium Girls," and Kate Moore joins us from the BBC in London. Welcome.

KATE MOORE: Thank you so much.

KELLY: Your book opens a century ago in 1917 - a time when I had no idea you could buy radium lingerie, radium jockstraps, radium toothpaste, pills. It was everywhere. It was considered a wonder drug, a cure-all.

MOORE: It was. It's astonishing to our modern-day perception to read about it, but radium truly was an international craze. It was in everything from cosmetics to food. And it very much had an alure to it. You know, it was the rich and famous who would drink radium water and attend radium clinics and spas.

KELLY: Oh, right, because it was expensive, as well.

MOORE: It was really expensive. It was the most expensive substance on Earth at the time. We're talking about equivalent of 2.2 million dollars for a single gram.

KELLY: Wow. And in 1917, of course, with World War I cranking up, there was huge military demand for watches that you could see in the dark and dials that you could see in the - in the dark.

MOORE: That's right. And as you said, this is when the book opens, so shortly before America joined the First World War. And once they did, of course, join that global conflict, there was this huge boom to the radium industry. Soldiers needed watches, and people needed it for the planes and the trucks and so on. And so the dial painters, who were the radium girls - they were employed to paint all these dials with luminous radium paint. And they were taught to lip point, so to put their brushes between their lips to make a fine point for the detailed handiwork.

KELLY: To actually put the brush with the radium paint into their mouth.

MOORE: Yeah, that's the technique that they were taught. And they did say, you know, Mae Cubberly, who's one of the radium girls that I write about in the book - she said, the first thing we said was - does this stuff hurt you? And their managers said no.

KELLY: When did the young women start getting sick?

MOORE: It tended to take about five years for the initial symptoms to start to show. And that was one of the problems that the radium girls had 'cause, as you said at the start of this interview, radium at the time we're talking about was seen as this wonder drug. It was an incredibly lucrative industry. You know, all those people making the cosmetics and the clinics and so on - they were making an awful lot of money out of it. So when the radium girls started to get sick about five years after they started dial painting, the radium firms were determined that they would not link this insidious disease that was taking so long to show itself. And that was one of the problems the girls had.

KELLY: And when I started getting sick, what were the symptoms?

MOORE: It would start quite innocently, actually. It would start perhaps with an aching limb or a bad tooth that would first start to kind of wobble and then it would fall out, sometimes on its own. But as the sickness developed and set in with the women, it got a lot more gruesome. All of their teeth would fall out, sometimes replaced by ulcers that would then seep pus constantly. And that aching limb would actually start to spontaneously fracture. And it might not be a limb. It might be their spine. It might be their jaw bone. And what was happening was the radium had settled in their bones, and it was actually boring holes inside their bones while the women were still alive. It's horrifying.

KELLY: It's actually rotting their bones from the inside.

MOORE: It's rotting. Yeah.

KELLY: I suppose worth noting - the - these were young women at the time that they were employed working in factories. Not...

MOORE: Teenagers, many of them. Yeah.

KELLY: Teenagers - I mean, how young were some of them?

MOORE: Well, the youngest - records show that the youngest were 11.

KELLY: Oh, wow.

MOORE: Some of the girls I wrote about were 13, 14 when they started.

KELLY: And to reconstruct those stories - I mean, many of these women, of course, are no longer living as you're trying to research this book. You actually went back and saw their communities, tried to go see where they had lived and where they had worked. What was that like standing outside the site where U.S. Radium Corporation was?

MOORE: Yeah. It was something that I thought was really important because, you know, the radium girls have not been entirely forgotten. I think it rings a vague bell with people. But what I wanted to do with my book is to focus on the girls themselves, so my research did take me to their houses. It took me to the sites. It took me to meet their families so that they could tell me about them because, for me, it was always about the women who were the radium girls. You know, how did they find the courage in the face of the horrific poisoning that I've been describing? How did they find the strength to stand up for their rights?

KELLY: You write that they also had implications for research in the Manhattan Project, for example - that there just was not awareness of some of the dangers that workers there faced. And some of the - some of the work that the radium girls had done helped change the way that program was run - maybe saved lives there, as well.

MOORE: Yeah, absolutely. There was a direct link. Glenn Seaborg, who was the leading scientist on the Manhattan Project, literally wrote in his diary that he had a vision of the ghost girls, of the shining girls, the radium girls. And he therefore insisted that they had to do research into the materials that they were using on the Manhattan Project. It was found that they were biomedically very similar to radium, and therefore there were non-negotiable safety guidelines put in place. And after the war, the Atomic Energy Commission officials actually said the radium girls were invaluable because if it hadn't been for them, countless thousands of other workers would have been killed.

KELLY: And some of these - some of the women who survived into their later years - they submitted to medical testing all their lives.

MOORE: Yeah. Again, this is another part of their extraordinary legacy. Through their willingness to allow scientists to probe their bodies, they have given us a store of knowledge about internal radiation that we simply would not have had if they weren't prepared to do that. And I think for many of the women, it was their gift for humanity that we're still benefitting from today.

KELLY: The book is called "The Radium Girls: The Dark Story Of America's Shining Women." It's by Kate Moore. Kate Moore, thanks very much.

MOORE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.