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.
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