March 15 2018 10:39 AM

How thousands of young women were inflicted with radium poisoning


“The Radium Girls” sounds like the name of a 50s sci-fi horror movie, and the similarities extend beyond the title. Characters in the book have radium poisoning and suffer true horror — so yes, the 2016 book by U.K. writer Kate Moore would make a great movie.

Moore’s tome, however, is not science fiction. Rather it’s a true mid- 20th century story about a group of young women that receive radium poisoning after painting watch and instrument dials with a special type of paint.

To paint the delicate dials, the young women would “lip point” by putting the point of the brush in their mouth and twirling their tongues to create a fine tip. They would then dip the point in the radium paint before painting, sometimes repeating the process up to 600 times a day for watches. The workers called it “lip, dip, paint.” Most who contract radium poisoning die excruciating deaths and exhibit physical deformities. Cancer and bone deterioration can rot their insides until the point their jawbones literally disintegrate.

The women in “The Radium Girls” are told by their employers that there is no danger in using radium, in fact, they are told radium is a health aid.

Moore, who formerly worked as a ghost writer and editor in the United Kingdom, has written a formidable creative nonfiction look at the women’s private lives as they are slowly dying.

“The book tells precisely why we need regulation for health and safety on the job and why it’s important we fight for our rights,” Moore said.

Moore said she discovered the amazing story of the radium girls while searching for a play to produce for women. “I Googled and found the play “These Shining Girls,” about the Ottawa, Illinois, radium girls,” she said.

“I wasn’t a serious historian, so I never expected to write a book people would take seriously,” she said. The book turned out to be a New York Times nonfiction best-seller.

“I wanted to bring the women-ordinary women-out,” Moore said.

Moore spent a month in the United States visiting archives, libraries and the hometowns of the women who either worked for the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation in Orange, New Jersey, or at Luminous Processes Plant in Ottawa, Illinois.

“I needed to visit the places where the women worked, lived and died. I am so thankful to their families. I didn’t know how they would feel,” she said.

Her apprehension was not warranted. The survivor families welcomed her in with open arms and opened diaries, scrapbooks and photobooks for her research.

“They were amazed I was British and I had come all this way to interview them,” Moore said.

Moore found all the women who defied the corporations by pursuing legal action remarkable, but Catherine Donohue especially so.

“Her niece, Mary, took me into her Aunt’s sick room and told me how Catherine had never cried out,” she said.

“She told me Catherine didn’t have the energy to scream. All she could do was moan. She couldn’t eat, had a tumor the size of a grapefruit and the radium was boring holes in her bones,” Moore said.

The author also follows the women’s legal challenges and the work of one of their attorney’s Len Grossman.

Although Grossman wins their cases with Donohue testifying on her deathbed, the women receive paltry monetary rewards. Some as low as $50. At that point, Moore relates, money was not the issue — justice was. Amazingly, an audio tape of Grossman discussing the cases still exists.

During the trial, the women learn that one company “doctor,” who told them not only that radium was safe, but also examined them and testified against them, was not a medical doctor. He was actually a doctor of philosophy.

The radium girls, thinking the radium was harmless, would paint their lips, eyebrows and mouths and “take their work home” — sometimes with deadly results. One radium girl’s sister died after sharing a bed with her. Before radium is was mixed with water, it’s an extremely fine compound and its dust particles cover the body. One radium girl entertained her sisters by playing what she called “let’s play in the dark.”

Most of the girls died young, but many lived for years with debilitating infirmities. Moore said there have been several books written about the radium girls, but they were only technical in nature. One of these books was written by Central Michigan University History Professor Dr. Claudia Clark. In her book, she estimated there were 4,000 women in the United States painting luminous dials.

Even with the egregious medical problems, the plight of the radium girls may have gone unnoticed if the Cold War hadn’t spurred research into the results of radium exposure. The radium girls and their cases were studied for decades in an effort to learn what happens when humans were exposed to radium.

Kate Moore Book Signing

March 20 7 p.m. Schuler Books 1882 W. Grand River Ave., Okemos www.schulerbooks.com

Book Club News The City Pulse Book Club selection for April is “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63,” by Taylor Branch. The book is the first of a three-part series on the Civil Rights Movement. The City Pulse Book Club is looking back on the tumultuous events of the year 1968, which is often referred to as the year that left an indelible mark on America’s psyche. In addition to discussing the book, club members will be asked to recall where they were and what their reactions were when on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Upcoming books include “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” by Joan Di- dion (May) and “Bobby Kennedy,” by Chris Matthews (June).