Does anyone else get, like, sympathetic pain/other weird physical sensations when reading about medical stuff? I do, and reading Blitzed the other week basically made all the veins in my arms and legs feel fragile and empty, because I can only read about so many injections. It's an unpleasant feeling, so of course I decided to double down on it and be like "Next I'm going to read a book about RADIUM POISONING!"
I found Kate Moore's The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women basically by accident; I had gone to Porter Square Books on a Friday night to pick up two books I'd ordered (Peter Pomerantsev's Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia and Tariq Ali's The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution. I had decided to go on a Russia kick), and there was a joint author event with Kate Moore and Nathalia Holt, discussing this book and Holt's Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars. It was a great discussion; nothing makes me so glad to live in a city like Boston than being able to randomly wander into a surprise women's labor history night.
The Radium Girls is the history of the women who worked painting glow-in-the-dark numbers on watch faces with radium paint during the World War I and interwar era. There were major radium paint factories—or "studios," as they were called—in Orange, New Jersey; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Ottawa, Illinois. The dial-painters were mostly working-class girls in their late teens or early twenties, although some were older, or even as young as fourteen. The technique used to keep the brush tips nice and fine while painting the numbers was to moisten and point them with one's lips—a technique that meant the young women were constantly ingesting radium paint.
Radium, if you didn't know, is fantastically toxic, especially internally.
People back then didn't know, mostly. They knew that radium could treat cancer by burning out the cancer, and from this they largely concluded that it was therefore very healthy. There was a great craze for putting radium in everything, such as cosmetics and tonic water. Fortunately, radium was extremely expensive, so most products marketed with radium didn't actually have any radium in it. There were some exceptions, like one rich guy who drank radium tonic every day for years, and then eventually his jaw fell off.
The girls who worked at the dial-painting studios had landed one of the most prestigious, best-paid gigs available to working-class women at the time. It was a glamorous job, partly because of radium's mystique, and partly because the job got the girls covered in radium powder all the time, which then made them glow in the dark when they went out at night. The first big radium company whose workers we meet is the United States Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey—incidentally, about twenty minutes from where I grew up, midway along the commuter rail between my town and New York City, on the Morristown line—whose founder, Dr. von Sochocky, had invented the radioluminescent paint they marketed as Undark. The men who worked in the labs used gloves and masks and aprons and all that normal (for the time) protective gear, since they handled radium in the sort of quantities that would burn skin--but they all thought that was basically just an annoyance. The dial-painters had no protection, since it was assumed that the radium in the pain was of such small quantity that there was no danger.
It was a few years before the first girls started to develop tooth problems, and if the teeth were pulled, the wounds refused to heal. The frustrated dentists thought that perhaps the girls had been exposed to phosphorus, since they were showing symptoms of what was ghoulishly known as "phossy jaw," or phosphorus poisoning. It took years before the various doctors, dentists, scientists, and other professionals, pushed along by lawyers, the New Jersey chapter of the National Consumer's League, and the girls themselves figured out that "phossy jaw" is just very similar to "radium jaw," or the hitherto unknown condition of radium necrosis. While doctors and lawyers fought with the company's doctors and lawyers to try to test the paint, to conduct medical tests on the remaining workers, to reexamine the scientific literature on radium and conduct further experiments on it, more and more girls were getting sick and dying. A constellation of symptoms appeared, many of which nobody initially suspected were related: while some girls had tooth issues, others developed arthritis-like conditions, with their legs shortening and joints stiffening. After a few more years, after the first lawsuits had been filed and the legal and scientific fighting was in full swing, the doctors started to see a new symptom—giant, fast-growing, lethal sarcomas, a type of bone cancer, that appeared on jaws or knees or elbows or wherever it wanted to show up. This is because radium is chemically similar to calcium, and when ingested, it does the same thing calcium does and settles into the bones.
The Radium Girls, and the tight social networks they had developed while working at the studio, weren't just victims here, although obviously holy God were they victims here; the book has pictures and they're pretty disturbing. But they also were extremely persistent about seeking and demanding help in order to cover their medical bills and let the world know what was happening. The girls and their lawyer worked the media wonderfully, giving lengthy interviews about all the ways the company had evaded responsibility and blamed the girls for their own health problems (the first girl to die of radium necrosis was posthumously said to have died of syphilis; part of the case involved exhuming her and testing her remains for both syphilis and radioactivity); they also gave the press periodic tearjerker updates about how they were doing and what they wanted from the case and for their own lives. When they gave testimony in court, the reporters covering the hearings reported that the girls were brave and stoic, but the reporters themselves cried. Ultimately, the New Jersey case was settled in 1928 for what at the time was many buckets of money, which helped the five women in the lawsuit--or their families, in the cases of the ones who had died over the course of the legal proceedings—pay their medical bills and provided them pensions since they could no longer work. In one of the most infuriating legal decisions I have ever read, the company managed to get it into the settlement terms of their payout to Mae Canfield that the Radium Girls' lawyer, Raymond Berry, could no longer take any action against the U.S. Radium Corporation.
This case, understandably, scared the crap out of the dial-painters in Ottawa when it got big enough to start making national newspaper headlines. The studio in Ottawa, run by the Radium Dial Company, assured the girls that they were fine, since the paint used in NJ had mesothelium in it and theirs didn't. Nevertheless, RDC started regularly giving medical tests to all its workers, although it never told them the results. When the girls began to fall sick, they demanded money from the company to cover their medical bills; the company refused to pay and fired several sick workers. The company had basically gone under by the time the workers were able to retain a lawyer who would take their case with the Illinois Industrial Commission; the judges repeatedly found for the women through a humiliating series of appeals, which seemed designed to run out the clock on the women in the hopes that they would die before the company had to pay out any money from the small pot of assets it had left (about $10,000). This case got even more dramatic than the New Jersey one, with one very sick Radium Girl, Katherine--now in her thirties, married with two children, and wasting away before everyone's eyes—giving testimony from the couch in her living room because she was too fragile to be brought into court.
The Radium Girls has everything as a drama—legal intrigue, unscrupulous businessmen, plucky underdog heroines, scientific hubris, body horror—it works perfectly as a cautionary fable against scientific hubris and the inhumane incentives of business. But it's all true. I cried on numerous occasions reading it, because I am a sappy old lady now; because I grew up so close to Orange and Newark; because I too almost died once in Waterbury, Connecticut; because my people were also working-class Irish and Italian immigrants crammed into the greater New York metro area around the time of the world wars; because I've had a lot of teeth pulled and had a lot of dreams about them falling out and my whole face splintering apart. Basically, it hit home in a lot of half-assed-but-unexpectedly-powerful-
when-all-happening-at-the-same-time ways, and reading it made all the bones in my hands and feet and face hurt.