In the early 1900s, the luminescent properties of radium – a highly radioactive metal – had just been discovered, and entrepreneurs were quick to identify its marketing potential. They hailed the radioactive substance as ‘liquid sunshine’, flooding supermarket shelves with radium-based products and selling radium water as a health tonic. Thousands of young women in North America were hired to paint clock dials with ‘Undark’, as the luminous paint that contained radium was called. The girls would go home with their hands aglow, oblivious to the bone-corroding radiation they had been exposed to. We spoke with London-based author Kate Moore (former Editorial Director of Penguin Random House) about these workers’ stories, which appear in her new book, The Radium Girls.
How did you first learn about the radium girls?
I discovered the their story through the play These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich, which I directed in spring 2015. As I researched the shocking true events and the courageous responses that inspired the play, I realised that there wasn’t a book that placed the radium girls at the forefront and that focused on how they – the real women – responded to what happened to them. A desire to bring their story to the world, using their own words as much as possible, was what motivated me to write this book.
You outline in the book how entrepreneurs leaped to exploit the luminescent properties of radium and spruiked its alleged health benefits. What were some of the more bizarre or dangerous uses for radium in the early 1900s?
There were hundreds! You could buy radium chocolate, butter, milk, toothpaste and cosmetics. It was actively promoted as a cure-all for everyday ailments such as constipation and hay fever. People drank radium water as a tonic; it was believed it would extend people’s lives and restore vitality to the middle-aged.
Luminous radium paint, which would remain radioactive for thousands of years, was applied to everyday items such as dolls (to make their eyes glow), fish bait, lamp pulls and – strangely – warning signs on bottles of poison. It was also marketed as a cleaning product and as an insect repellent – but with the assurance that it was ‘harmless to humans’.
Are there any everyday products that still contain radium?
No. But a particular radium isotope – with a half-life of 11 days rather than 1600 years, which means it’s safe to use – is still employed to treat cancer.
What adverse health effects did the girls suffer as a result of their exposure to radium?
The first problem for many dial painters was with their teeth. They started falling out and took on a ‘moth-eaten’ appearance, because the radium had rotted holes in them. Most dial painters lost all their teeth. It also attacked their gums, too, so that the women endured painful abscesses that spread across their entire mouths and constantly oozed pus. Their jawbones were also affected; the women would pull bone fragments from their mouths as their jawbones crumbled and fell out. One woman’s jaw was eaten away to a mere stump.
Yet the radium affected not only their teeth and mouths, but also the bones throughout their bodies. The limbs of the dial painters fractured at the slightest touch. Some of them suffered crushed spines and had to wear steel back braces. They also endured severe and often fatal anaemia because the radium destroyed their red blood cells. Later, if they survived these ordeals, they often suffered from grotesque bone tumours – massive growths that were either fatal or required the amputation of the affected limb. Some dial painters reported miscarriages or being unable to conceive children. It was a horrific, agonising, disfiguring and dehumanising poison.
Were any or your research interviews particularly memorable?
I interviewed the niece of Catherine Wolfe Donohue – a remarkable woman in her 90s with impeccable recall. She could remember so much of Catherine’s suffering, as well as the finer details of Catherine’s sick room, such as the crucifix Catherine kept on the wall above her bed. She often closed her eyes as she was talking, and you could see that she was focusing on her very powerful memories of Catherine’s illness. She said one thing that made me tear up in the interview. I asked her if she had ever heard Catherine cry out from the intense pain. And Catherine’s niece said, ‘No, she just kind of moaned. You knew that she was in pain. But she didn’t have the energy to scream. Moaning was about the best she could do. I think she just didn’t have the energy to cry or cry out.’
Did you find, while researching and writing The Radium Girls, that many people knew about the plight of these workers?
No, very few people know about it, and of those who did, they had very little detail. Sometimes the story rang a vague bell – the women who painted watches and got poisoned – but that tends to be the extent of their knowledge. I feel very strongly that these women deserve to be known by everybody, not just because of the courageous way they responded to their industrial poisoning – courage which ensured safer working conditions for all workers – but because of their legacy to science and because they were ordinary people who achieved extraordinary things. Those vague ‘women who painted watches’ had names, faces, feelings and dreams, and my book aims to bring them to life so that readers can learn about them and remember them. It’s the least the women deserve.
Who is to blame for their exploitation?
The radium companies. They behaved appallingly. Everyone thought that radium was beneficial to health because the radium companies conducted research to ‘prove’ that claim, and they dismissed all evidence to the contrary. People died of radium poisoning years before the first dial painter picked up her brush, but the radium firms decided not to accept that radium was harmful. The most shocking thing about the companies’ behaviour is not that the firms dismissed the early evidence that demonstrated radium’s danger, but that they continued to perpetuate the myth of its safety even in the face of increasing and incontrovertible evidence that belied that claim.
And they didn’t just push their own version of events: they covered up the truth, stopped the dial painters getting access to it, lied to them, employed ‘expert’ doctors to convince them that the firms were not at fault, hired lawyers to fight the women and often used underhand tactics. Catherine Donohue’s lawyer, Leonard Grossman, called their actions ‘cold, calculating, money-making murder’.
Is the story of the radium girls still relevant?
Yes. Companies still put profits before people and cover up the truth. Though the radium girls’ case transformed workers’ rights in the US, ushering in legislation to ensure safe working conditions, companies still try to circumvent such legislation in the pursuit of profit. Just look at the Volkswagen emissions scandal, or the working conditions of those building the football stadiums for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar: even modest figures put the employee death rate there at one worker every two days. Employees in the Indian tannery industry are also dying from the chemicals involved in leather production. More could be done internationally to protect workers so they don’t suffer fates similar to those of the radium girls.
And even in countries where workplace safety standards are better, we can’t rest on our laurels. In the UK, the government’s austerity cuts have led to a 93 per cent reduction in workplace inspections, meaning any companies willing to circumvent protective legislation are more likely to get away with putting workers’ lives at risk.
I hope the girls’ powerful story might cause people to think twice about these issues – and realise that they can fight back.
This story of a group of seemingly powerless people standing up for themselves against all the odds is timeless. I hope the radium girls’ story will always be relevant because of their courage and sacrifice, and that they will always be remembered.
The Radium Girls by Kate Moore is published by Simon & Schuster, rrp $32.99.