Written with the taut pacing of a novel, Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls tells the horrifying true story of the young women who worked in radium dial factories in the 1920s and ’30s. Using radium dusted paint to create glow-in-the-dark numbers on watch faces, the “shining girls” became luminous themselves, their clothing and hair dusted with a deadly mist of the toxic poison. Discovered in 1898 by the Curies, radium was seen in the early decades of the 20th century as a wonderful discovery. Radium was used to treat cancerous tumors, and people ingested radium pills for good health.
Hundreds of young women in New Jersey and Illinois found employment as watch dial painters in factories where they used boar bristle brushes, licked to a fine point, to coat the tiny numbers with radium paint: “Lip … Dip … Paint,” in Kate Moore’s haunting refrain. Radium’s half-life of 1600 years and its ability to mimic calcium and target bones meant that it took several years before horrific ailments snuck up on the employees. Many young women lost teeth, parts of their jawbones and their lives before anyone began to connect their illnesses with their employment.
Moore’s extensive research into the individual life stories of these doomed women brings their struggle to achieve justice heartbreakingly to life. Despite clear evidence that radium was the cause of their deaths, the corporations buried evidence and refused to pay compensation to their grieving families. It took 15 years, and the dramatic bedside testimony of a dying woman, for the “Society of the Living Dead” to win their court case and institute federal regulations for the safe handling of radium. Their incredible story, beautifully told by Kate Moore, is sure to incite equal parts compassion and horror in the reader.