Q&A with the author of ‘The Radium Girls’: A new story chronicles century-old fight for workplace safety

Author Kate Moore in conversation with cancer researcher Dr. Anne McTiernan
Photo of New Jersey's "radium girls"
New Jersey's "radium girls" led a legal battle that revamped workplace safety laws in the U.S. From left to right: Quinta McDonald, Edna Hussman, Albina Larice, Katherine Schaub and Grace Fryer on June 4, 1928. Center for Human Radiobiology, National Archives, Chicago

Nearly 100 years ago, the women began dying. Their bones literally crumbled inside them, rendering some permanently crippled, some with broken jawbones.

The women — some of them just teenage girls — were dial-painters, working in watch and clock factories around the U.S. in the 1910s and 20s. They painted the watches’ tiny hands and numbers with a glowing paint made from a special, newly discovered element. It was known as radium, and it was highly radioactive.

The women used delicate camelhair brushes to paint precisely. But even the tiny brushes did not hold a fine enough point.

So the factory workers put the radium-laden brushes to their lips, over and over again throughout their workday.

Eventually, it poisoned them. Many developed radiation sickness within a few years of starting to work. Some went on to develop rare bone cancers later in life. But it would take years, the development of new medical techniques and a protracted court battle with one of the country’s major radium producers before anyone believed their stories.  

U.K. author Kate Moore has chronicled these workers’ lives — and their fight for their illnesses to be recognized, medically and legally — in a newly published book, “The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women.” Last Friday at Seattle’s Town Hall arts hub, Moore joined Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Dr. Anne McTiernan, a cancer prevention researcher and author of a recent memoir, in a conversation about Moore's book and the women’s stories.

Below is a portion of their discussion, edited for length and clarity:

Photo of Kate Moore and Anne McTiernan
Author Kate Moore (left) in conversation with Fred Hutch cancer prevention researcher Dr. Anne McTiernan at Town Hall in Seattle on May 19, 2017. Photo courtesy of Pirate TV Seattle

McTiernan: All cancer researchers learn about the danger of radiation. It can be helpful for treatment, but other exposures can cause cancer. But we learn about numbers, the number of people exposed and the number of people that get cancer. What you’ve done is put faces and hearts and lives into this. How did you do that?

Moore: I felt these women had been whitewashed out of their own story and their own history. My primary source was the women’s first-person accounts in their court testimonies. You could very easily see, who is the feisty radium girl, who is strong in the face of the company lawyers grilling her on the stand? That’s Grace Fryer. Ironically, because the radium had crushed Grace’s vertebrae so she had to wear a steel back brace, but she had the strongest backbone of perhaps all the girls. And Katherine Schaub wrote a memoir which had an extract published in Reformers magazine, so I was able to get to know Katherine through her own account. And I had the privilege of interviewing their family members, and they of course know the individual radium girls better than anyone.

These women were so strong, that they dealt with this terrible illness and yet were able to fight for workers’ rights through their law cases. But it wasn’t accepted that they were ill. You write that one physician was convinced it was just nerves, and that this was common for women’s workplace issues.

I think the women’s gender played a huge part in their story. We can see that in the way that doctors responded to them. Even though the first radium girl died in September 1922, it’s actually not until June 1925 that they started doing autopsies. Between 1922 and 1925, a lot of women died; not one of them was autopsied. It was only when a male employee of the firm died that the doctors did an autopsy, and their first autopsy was on that man. Only after that did they start autopsying the radium girls, and they finally figured it was the radium that was killing them. And a brilliant doctor named Dr. Harrison Martland devised new tests to test the living women and measure the radium inside them.

Why were women doing these jobs? In the early 20th century, often women were expected to be at home. And these were prime jobs.

It was incredibly lucrative. The dial-painters were in the top 5 percent of female wage-earners nationally. It was generally young women who did it. Katherine Schaub was 14 when she started, and that was typical. Some were as young as 11. When you think of the tiny numbers of watches, some were only a millimeter in width. The small hands of these young women were particularly suited to this job. And when World War I started, that led to a real boom in the radium industry, because the radium girls were not just painting watches and clocks, they were painting aeronautical dials. So part of it was the war effort as well.

The book brings up so many issues. It was women’s health rights, but also workers’ rights. Now we have government organizations that help with regulations. But if our regulations are loosened, what’s going to happen with the next exposure of this type? We rely a great deal on government regulations, and your book points out what happens when they didn’t exist at all or were rudimentary.

As it happens, the publication of the book has come at a timely moment. I think the book reads as a cautionary tale of what can happen if we roll back regulations, and of what can happen if we trust companies to tell the truth and to adhere to their own regulations. But I hope it also serves as an inspirational tale, because what the radium girls did was exceptional. These girls were young, they were poor, they were working class, and they were actively silenced again and again. Yet they spoke up. I hope in these troubling times that they serve as inspiration, that no matter how small you are and no matter how powerless you feel, if you band together with like-minded people, then you can make a difference. Because these girls did.

These women were really heroes, weren’t they?

It was complete altruism. Once you have radium in your bones, there is no way of getting it out. The women took their death sentence and decided to do something about it. The fight that they embarked on changed laws, and changed workers’ rights to protect all of us. They did it all knowing there was no hope for them. These women literally used their last breaths to speak out against injustice. Catherine Donohue, one of the Illinois dial-painters, literally gave evidence against the firm on her deathbed. She was too weak to go to court, so they actually brought the court to her in her sitting room.

And this happens around the world. It’s an ongoing problem of exposures and risks in the U.S. and in many other countries. Workers’ health, workers’ rights and protections are so important. Even though you’re writing about a historic event, it’s not over. It’s still relevant.

I hope people reading it will think, let’s make sure they didn’t die in vain, let’s be vigilant about the regulation and let’s be aware about new forms of poisoning. If people blow whistles, let’s give them the time of day.

Editor’s note: Dr. Anne McTiernan is the writer Rachel Tompa’s mother.

Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.

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