The Radium Girls

Be forewarned. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore is both repulsive and compelling – like a scab not quite ready to come off. Once started, the reader is drawn back again and again to read what she’d rather not know. The publisher fittingly describes it as “The dark story of America’s Shining Women.” Unfortunately, it is nonfiction.

Set during the time of World War I, young women get a dream job of painting numbers on clock faces with radium to make them glow in the dark, first for the military and later for public use. As early as 1901, scientists knew the dangers inherent in radium. This account begins in 1917 when those dangers were being ignored and denied. To make their brushes produce exact tiny lines, the “Radium Girls” dipped the brushes into their mouths to make the points sharper. Bits and pieces of the substance fell onto their clothes or parts of their body, making them glow eerily and beautifully in the dark. For a time, the ingredient enhanced the girls’ beauty for party going as they sometimes added extra touches of leftovers here and there. All was well until, one by one they began to get sick.

The radium attacked their bones and teeth. The company denied all charges that radium was the cause. Intrigue, lawsuits, and lies filled the days as the young women sought justice. In a saga that stretched to 1938 with one step forward followed by two steps backward, the Radium Girls pursued the truth. The impact of their battle reaches forward into safety procedures that protect our world today.

I highly recommend this book and think I see the prospects of a movie inherent in its story.