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Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935 1st Edition

6 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0807846407
ISBN-10: 0807846406
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Editorial Reviews

From The New England Journal of Medicine

The story of the radium watch-dial painters is a classic case in the history of occupational disease. Attracted by easy work and high wages, these young women painted the luminous numbers on wristwatches that, designed for soldiers involved in the trench warfare of World War I, became a consumer fad in the 1920s. The women were taught to sharpen the tips of their paintbrushes between their lips and, as a result, they absorbed substantial quantities of radium. Their tragic illnesses and deaths led to crucial discoveries in radiobiology and contributed to the establishment of standards for the level of exposure to radiation in the workplace.

The basic details of this episode are well known, but the story has only now received the detailed historical analysis it deserves. In Radium Girls Claudia Clark focuses on the experiences of the painters. She integrates startling anecdotes with sophisticated analyses to explore the politics of occupational disease. For example, Clark describes the excitement of the women who worked on these "sensational" products: told that radium would "put a glow in [their] cheeks," they painted their clothing, fingernails, and even their teeth, "for a smile that glowed in the dark." How could this have happened? As Clark reminds us, these women worked at a time before the bombing of Hiroshima, when radiation was seen as the key to the future. Though some researchers had documented the dangers of radium, it was hailed as a panacea and sold for a variety of medicinal purposes. The deposition of radium in workers' bones was even seen as beneficial: their bodies were bathed in the healing power of radiation.

Clark traces how this excitement turned into fear and "furious frustration." When workers began to suffer from anemia, fractures, and necrosis of the jaw, some of them, as well as their physicians and dentists, suggested that there was a connection to the radium paint. The watch-dial companies rejected these claims. Government regulators concluded that the existing evidence did not warrant further investigation. Recognition of radium poisoning took years of effort by the women and workers' advocates. This narrative is rich in tragedy and scandal: researchers accepted companies' requests that they not release their damning data; a dentist offered his testimony to the highest bidder. Although settlements did provide some financial compensation, the companies neither admitted guilt nor submitted to formal regulation. Although the government was slow to intervene on behalf of the dial painters, it took rapid action to prevent any injuries from radium medications; it "acted with far greater alacrity to help consumers than to assist workers."

The most valuable contribution of Radium Girls lies in its ability to explode myths about the nature of scientific discovery. As Clark shows, the recognition of radium poisoning was not an event, a flash of medical insight. Instead, it was a political process, negotiated by labor, management, government, and medicine. Clark also explores a host of other important issues, providing helpful histories of industrial disease, workers' compensation, women's reform movements, and radiation medicine.

Radium Girls does have two shortcomings. First, by weaving multiple histories into her central narrative of the dial painters, Clark sacrifices a linear chronology, sometimes leaving the reader struggling to place the many details into a consistent time line. Second, Clark struggles with her self-assigned goal of analyzing "death and fairness." Her narrative clearly shows the tragedy of women who lost their lives for the sake of glow-in-the-dark watches. Who should be blamed? Clark identifies the negligence of radium companies and of researchers who could have acted earlier in defense of the dial painters' health. But Clark also suggests that the women were the canaries in the coal mine: their suffering was an inevitable step in the recognition of radium poisoning. And by raising the issue of innocent victims, Clark enters the dangerous ground of implying that other people deserve their illnesses and deaths.

Overall, Radium Girls is an important book for anyone interested in industrial health, women's health, or the history of radiation. It captures the often neglected experiences and contributions of the painters. Most important, it powerfully reminds us that it is not enough to take precautions only against known toxins. Instead, we must struggle to anticipate new risks in our changing industrial and social environments.

Reviewed by David S. Jones, M.A.
Copyright © 1998 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.


"Radium Girls" is an important book for anyone interested in industrial health, women 's health, or the history of radiation."New England Journal of Medicine"

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press; 1 edition (July 31, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807846406
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807846407
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.7 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #532,640 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Peter G. Vernig on May 17, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I hope I am savy enough to put this review in two places for this book and Deadly Glow Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy Both books are good and cover the tragedy of many young women who painted dials with radium paint on glow in the dark watches and dials and guages before there was a good appreciation of the hazards. Unfortuntately the companies involved in the producing glow in the dark watch and other faces refused to accept the hazards much like the tobacco industry refused to accept the hazards of smoking. Only in this case the effects were much more certain and lethal. This book Radium Girl... is actually adapted from a college thesis and is rigorously referenced. It is also somewhat dry as one might expect but it is worth while reading especially if one is interested in industrial health and safety at that period in time. The book, Deadly Glow... is a much easier read and enjoyable to boot. I'd have to rate it above the former for the average reader. I am a Health Physicist, a Radiation Safety Specialist that is and of course that is why I read both books.

There was information in Deadly flow which was not mentioned in Radium Girls, one specific is that apparently the practice of painting watch dials started with expensive watches in Switzerland befor it occured in this country.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 27, 1998
Format: Paperback
"The doctors tell me I will die, but I mustn't. I have too much to live for-- a husband who loves me and two children I adore. They say nothing can save me, nothing but a miracle." Ottawa native Catherine Donohue wrote those words and more from her bed to the Our Lady of Sorrows Roman Catholic Church in Chicago in the mid-1930s. She asked for a novena to bring her a miracle. She had to write the words for she could not speak them. Her teeth and a large portion of her jawbone were gone. Cancer was eating away at her bone marrow. The doomed young mother weighed only 65 pounds. Catherine Donohue was a charter member of the nonexistent organization, "The Society of the Living Dead," so called because members had two things in common: all worked at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois and all eventually suffered an agonizing death from radium radiation poison. More than 30 of these area co-workers (among others in dialpainting plants across the country), each of whom painted a radium-laced solution onto clock faces, watch dials and military equipment so they would glow in the dark, found that the simple habit of licking their brushes into a fine point eventually gave them terminal head and bone cancer. The tragedy, which became a major news story of the 1930s, evolved to a classic text book workplace hazard case that continues to generate controversy and affects city residents in the 1990s. These luminous paint workers and their struggle to have their mysterious symptoms recognized as an industrial disease is told in finely researched detail within the new book, Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935 by Central Michigan University historian Claudia Clark.Read more ›
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By M. Broderick VINE VOICE on October 10, 1997
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is fascinating--It is readable, non-technical, and covers an intriguing and little-known subject. It describes an episode of women's activism on health issues before activism was considered the proper province of women. During and after World War I, hundreds of women, mostly young and unmarried, were employed to paint the dials of watches with self-illuminating paint containing Radium. Some of the women began to fear for the job's effects on their health, but had great difficulty in getting any action taken. This book describes their efforts to have these hazards corrected, and the problems they had dealing with uncaring factory management, inept government officials, skeptical members of the medical community, and eventually with the courts. It is disturbing, yet fascinating! Highly recommended
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