The Forgotten History of the Radium Girls
By Samantha Wilcoxson
June 7, 2020 – Luminous Blog Tour
I have loved reading about history for as long as I can remember. On more than one occasion, I was asked what class I was reading a book for and I had to admit that it was something I had selected to read for enjoyment. Yet, I was not familiar with the story of the “radium girls” until I listened to Kate Moore’s excellent book.
It was one of those snippets of history that seems unbelievable. When you think things are changing for the better, something happens and everything gets worse. Then you realize that events just like it continue to occur to this very day.
Called radium girls because of the luminescent paint they used to make watch and instrument dials glow in the dark, the young working-class women who were exposed to radium on a daily bases began sickening and dying in the years immediately following World War I. The companies they worked for denied liability, rejected the idea that radium was the cause of the women’s problems, and made any excuse at their disposal to avoid a decrease in profits.
The women had little help from the outside. Doctors, who had been using radium as a sort of miracle cure, were reluctant to admit that it might be dangerous. Most lawyers had no interest in taking on the case of women with little ability to pay fees and insufficient support to win their case. Worker’s compensation laws varied by state and often didn’t include the women’s situation. They were left at the mercy of the corporations that had caused their health to fail and then often fired them when they were unable to work.
When women began to die of radium poisoning, the symptoms were attributed to all manner of diseases. Diphtheria, tuberculosis, and even syphilis were documented causes of death for some of the poor girls. Some of the results of radium poisoning, such as sarcoma and infections, were listed as cause of death without an understanding of the underlying cause. Some doctors were in the pocket of the radium industry. Others simply didn’t know any better.
In Luminous, I have focused on the story of Catherine Donohue, an employee of Radium Dial in Ottawa, Illinois. Catherine was a typical small town girl, who counted herself lucky to obtain a good-paying position at the dial studio, until she developed a limp that never healed. Then she watched one of her friends collapse at work and another die of an infection that spread like wildfire. Catherine stood up for the Ottawa dial painters, even as her own health failed. Luminous is her story, and I hope that it is one that inspires curiosity about the past as well as a hunger for justice in the present.
Samantha Wilcoxson is a history enthusiast and avid traveler. Her published works include the Plantagenet Embers series with novels and novellas that explore the Wars of the Roses and early Tudor era. Luminous is her first foray into 20th century American history, but she suspects that it will not be her last. Samantha enjoys exploring the personal side of historic events and creating emotive, inspiring stories.
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