Author: Kate Moore

Title: "The Radium Girls – The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women"

Publisher: Sourcebooks, Inc. 2017, 404 pages of text

“Lip – Dip – Paint …. Lip – Dip – Paint ….” These are the instructions, the mantra, girls and young women followed day after day as they painted the luminous numbers on watch dials and aircraft instruments.

The main ingredient of the paint they used was mesothorium, an isotope of radium. Radium has a half-life of 1,600 years, while mesothelium has a half-life of 6.7 years. This paint emitted alpha, beta and gamma rays. Alpha rays have little penetrating power; beta rays can be stopped by a sheet of aluminum; while gamma rays have immense penetrating power.

As they “Lip – Dip – Paint” these girls ingested infinitesimal amounts of radium poisoning which settled throughout their bodies, most often in their bones where the alpha rays could do deadly work.

English author Kate Moore has written a gripping page turner about the tragedy inflicted on these young women by the managers, directors and corporate officers, who knowing of the dangers of radiation, lied about it to the employees, covered up, stalled, used fake expert medical testimony, litigated, appealed, paid small settlements and judgments, and then walked away from cleaning up the mess they left behind.

The central time frame is the World War I years and the Roaring Twenties. For the time, these were good paying jobs with the luminous watch and instrument dials being in demand.

The United States Radium Corp. in Newark, N.J., and the Radium Dial Co. in Ottawa, Ill., were the main businesses manufacturing radioactive luminous dials. The radium girls had no clue how deadly their jobs were. They liked their work and the social atmosphere, and they liked the glowing look the luminous paint gave them.

“The luminous glow of the radium on their hair and undulating dresses made those parties even more special. ‘Many of the girls,’ Catherine Wolfe recalled, ‘used to wear their good dresses to the plant so that they would become luminous when they went out to parties later.’ … In their lunch hour, the girls would go into the darkroom with the leftover radium paint: they’d had a swell idea for a new game. … ‘We used to paint our eyebrows, our lips, and our eyelashes (with the radium paint), and then look at ourselves in the darkroom,’ recalled Marie. … They thought it was hilarious.”

The problems started with aches and pains, with increasingly worse symptoms. Teeth started falling out with pieces of their jawbone. Dentists and doctors could not figure it out, as little was known in their professions about radiation poisoning. While the symptoms and the length of their survival varied, they all suffered and most of them died. It is depressing to read all of the conditions they suffered, but you will be drawn page after page as the various women lose weight, teeth, pieces of jawbones and limbs.

As all of this happens, they gradually become aware of the radium poisoning, and they start to demand modest compensation, which was denied. Left no choice, they had to litigate, but they had a hard time finding lawyers and supportive medical experts.

Their first success came when they found lawyer Raymond Berry, who took the cases of several of the Newark girls. He ultimately got the United States Radium Corp. to settle five cases before trial, but, when forced into other settlements, they attached a provision that Berry, as part of the settlement, agreed he would take no more such cases.

The Ottawa girls found Leonard Grossman, a noted Chicago lawyer, who battled the Radium Dial Co. before the Illinois Industrial Commission and won compensation for his clients with the company losing appeals all the way up to the denial of certiorari by the U.S. Supreme Court. And they were all helped by public support from journalists appalled by the treatment the girls had received.

This is an important and outstanding book dealing with the workplace poisoning of these girls and their determination to win justice. I wanted to read this book because my friend, the late Sen. Dick Brown of Fargo, had always thought the cancer that killed his father was caused by the luminous dial pocket watch his father always carried. I’m certain he was right.

Bob Wefald is a retired North Dakota State District Court judge. Wefald became a lawyer in 1970. His career included serving a year as a law clerk, four years as attorney general, more than 23 years in private practice in Bismarck and 12 years as a judge. He served as an officer in the Navy for three years of active duty plus 24 years in the Navy Reserve.

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