“The Radium Girls” is the true story of the young woman who used radium to paint clock hands and faces to “light up” in the dark. Radium was a new element discovered by the Curie’s that was touted as a miracle drug. It was also industrialized, during WWI and WWII, for soldiers to use on their instruments and watches to keep time and data during darkness. What soon became apparent was that radium was not as safe as the young women were told. Beginning in New Jersey and then moving to Ottawa, Illinois, readers are taken to the two epicenters of the radium poisoning crises. The young women who worked at these factories began experiencing graphic health issues that were ignored or hushed up by the factory owners. The women who were healthy enough fought for their right to be compensated for medical costs due to an unsafe work environment. In fact, the environment itself was impacted by the use of radium and continues today near the sites of these clock factories.
I first heard of the radium girls in an episode of PBS’ “American Experience” entitled “The Poisoner’s Handbook”. My library book club picked this as one of our most recent reads, so I was excited to dig deeper into this story. I was shocked that the Illinois incident occurred so close to the Chicago land area. It’s within a days drive. Due to the women’s tenacity, their lawsuits were the impetus for the start of Argonne laboratory, workman’s compensation, and OSHA. Why was this never discussed in my history classes? The medical crises these women faced is horrific. The author shares graphic details that are given in an honest, not gratuitous, context that makes it hard to believe that many industrial barons could turn their back on the women.