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The incredible true story of the women who fought America's Undark danger
The Curies' newly discovered element of radium makes gleaming headlines across the nation as the fresh face of beauty, and wonder drug of the medical community. From body lotion to tonic water, the popular new element shines bright in the otherwise dark years of the First World War.
Meanwhile, hundreds of girls toil amidst the glowing dust of the radium-dial factories. The glittering chemical covers their bodies from head to toe; they light up the night like industrious fireflies. With such a coveted job, these "shining girls" are the luckiest alive—until they begin to fall mysteriously ill.
But the factories that once offered golden opportunities are now ignoring all claims of the gruesome side effects, and the women's cries of corruption. And as the fatal poison of the radium takes hold, the brave shining girls find themselves embroiled in one of the biggest scandals of America's early 20th century, and in a groundbreaking battle for workers' rights that will echo for centuries to come.
Written with a sparkling voice and breakneck pace, The Radium Girls fully illuminates the inspiring young women exposed to the "wonder" substance of radium, and their awe-inspiring strength in the face of almost impossible circumstances. Their courage and tenacity led to life-changing regulations, research into nuclear bombing, and ultimately saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
479 pages, Hardcover
First published April 18, 2017
[Katherine Schaub] was an attractive girl of just fourteen; her fifteenth birthday was in five weeks’ time. Standing just under five foot four, she was “a very pretty little blonde” with twinkling blue eyes, fashionably bobbed hair, and delicate features.
As time went on, she got to know her colleagues better. One was Josephine Smith, a sixteen-year-old girl with a round face, brown bobbed hair, and a snub nose.
[Grace Fryer] was an exceptionally bright and exceptionally pretty girl, with curly chestnut hair, hazel eyes, and clear-cut features. Many called her striking, but her looks weren’t of much interest to Grace.
[Edna Bolz] was nicknamed the “Dresden Doll” because of her beautiful golden hair and fair coloring; she also had perfect teeth and, perhaps as a result, a beaming smile.
[Hazel Vincent] had an oval face with a button nose and fair hair that she set in the latest styles.
[Albina Maggia] was a somewhat round and diminutive woman of only four foot eight, with classic Italian dark hair and eyes.
[Mollie Maggia] was a sociable nineteen-year-old with a broad face and bouffant brown hair.
Ella [Eckert] was popular and good-looking, with blond, slightly frizzy hair and a wide smile.
[Quinta Maggia] was an extremely attractive woman with large gray eyes and long dark hair; she considered her pretty teeth her best feature.
But it was the same thing affecting all the girls. It was radium, heading straight for their bones—yet, on its way, seeming to decide, almost on a whim, where to settle in the greatest degree. And so some women felt the pain first in their feet; in others, it was in their jaw; in others still their spine. It had totally foxed their doctors. But it was the same cause in all of them. In all of them, it was the radium.
As Catherine set Tommy down on a rug and watched him play, her mind went over her appointment.
Pearl started bleeding continuously, down below.
Tom was now in the hands of State Attorney Elmer Mohn, facing two criminal charges.
He told one worker, Katherine Moore, on eight separate occasions that there was not a single trace of radium in her body. She later died from radium poisoning.
“[ I] understood,” said Grace’s physician Dr. McCaffrey, who’d arranged her examination with Flinn, “that Dr. Flinn was an MD.”
But now, when Berry asked the authorities to look into exactly who Flinn was, he received the following letter from the New Jersey Board of Medical Examiners: “Our records do not show the issuance of a license to practice medicine and surgery or any branch of medicine and surgery to Frederick B. Flinn.”
Flinn was not a medical doctor. His degree was in philosophy. He was, as the Consumers League put it, “a fraud of frauds.”
“I can’t laugh about those poor women who painted the clocks,” said Sarah. “That’s one thing I can’t laugh about.”
“Nobody wants you to.” said her grandmother. “You run along now.”
Sarah was referring to an industrial tragedy that was notorious at the time. Sarah’s family was in the middle of it, and sick about it. Sarah had already told me that she was sick about it, and so had her brother, my roommate, and so had their father and mother. The tragedy was a slow one that could not be stopped once it had begun, and it began in the family’s clock company, the Wyatt Clock Company, one of the oldest companies in the United States, in Brockton, Massachusetts. It was an avoidable tragedy. The Wyatts never tried to justify it, and would not hire lawyers to justify it. It could not be justified.
It went like this: In the nineteen twenties the United States Navy awarded Wyatt Clock a contract to produce several thousand standardized ships’ clocks that could be easily read in the dark. The dials were to be black. The hands and the numerals were to be hand-painted with white paint containing the radioactive element radium. About half a hundred Brockton women, most of them relatives of regular Wyatt Clock Company employees, were hired to paint the hands and numerals. It was a way to make pin money. Several of the women who had young children to look after were allowed to do the work at home.
Now all those women had died or were about to die most horribly with their bones crumbling, with their heads rotting off. The cause was radium poisoning. Every one of them had been told by a foreman, it had since come out in court, that she should keep a fine point on her brush by moistening it and shaping it with her lips from time to time.
Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut (1979)
We start with a short eerie prologue from 1901, and soon see the chilling....never to be forgotten phrase: Lip...Dip...Paint - - - Such frightening words!
THE RADIUM GIRLS is a truly shocking non-fiction read about women in the 1920's who were hired to paint watch dials with a luminous and deadly substance. Young, naive and conscientious, the shining girls kept lip-dipping and painting to achieve that precise point even when symptoms of tooth and jawbone loss became the norm....even when mouth sores would not heal....they needed to support their families....they trusted their employer.
The gleaming substance was safe after-all, "the local paper had declared: Radium may be eaten, it seems that in years to come we shall be able to buy radium tablets---and add years to our lives!" But that was not so....as one wealthy man discovered...."The radium water worked fine until his jaw came off."
One agonizing death after another is described here...right along with a multitude of corporate lies, cover-ups and acts of medical fraud, but...finally...after long fought court battles, painful deaths and body exhumations, safety standards resulted that saved future generations of workers....even the deceased contributed to science.
Historically informative and unsettling read. Recommend checking out some of the old "glowing" advertisements, and the story behind THE RADIUM GIRLS bronze statue erected in Ottawa, Illinois. Interesting stuff!
Many thanks to NetGalley and SOURCEBOOKS for the free ebook in exchange for an unbiased review.