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Book of the Week: “The Radium Girls”

Dec 4, 2017 | By: Isabel Huff

Book of the Week: “The Radium Girls” thumbnail

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women

by Kate Moore

It's so easy to buy books now that we sometimes forget the wonderful power of libraries.  After checking out a zillion books about STEM and girls in STEM, the librarians at Springfield Tech Community College have gotten to know me.  So a few weeks ago, when I went in to pick up more STEM books, one of the librarians mentioned that they had a new book in that might interest me.  While it this book isn't for kids, it is an incredible STEM-themed book, worth being on our blog.  I'm grateful to the librarian who suggested it to me.

The Radium Girls is about women who used to work in factories painting the numbers on watch faces with radium paint to make them glow.  The watch face numbers were small, and so the girls used their mouths to keep their brushes pointy, thus ingesting radium every day at work.  At the time, while there was some research about radium being dangerous, it was widely throught to be quite healthy.  It was even, for example, added to children's sandboxes and prescribed to the wealthy as a healthy tonic to drink when mixed with water.  When these "radium girls"--that is, the women who painted the watch faces--got home from work, they would literally glow in the dark.  Sometimes, they would wear their party dresses to work so they could arrive at parties glowing.  Unsurprisingly, then, this was considered glamorous work, and the women were paid well.

Over time, however, many got sick--their teeth falling out, their jaws disintegrating, sarcomas developing.  Their strange conditions mystified doctors, though some eventually came to assert that the radium must be to blame.  But for a long time--even past the time they had significant evidence to the contrary--the radium companies denied any culpability.  This book profiles a number of these "radium girls"--from their struggle to figure out what was ailing them, to their fights through the courts to receive monetary recompense from the radium companies to cover their expensive medical bills.  In fact, many of these women fought incredibly hard to stay alive to testify in court cases--even though many were frail, battling excruciating pain, and knew their condition was fatal regardless of the courts' decisions.  But they kept fighting for their families and because they wanted to help other women like them who had worked in factories and who might continue to face these illnesses as the radium settled into their bones.

While the book is long, it is powerful, and it only took me a few sittings to get through it.  If an educator wanted to use this book in a high school (or college) course, excerpts could certainly be pulled for it to talk about public health, scientific ethics, the founding of OSHA (discussed in the book), radioactivity, and/or government regulation.  The book is also just a fascinating read for anyone interested in emotionally engaging nonfiction--highly recommended.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1223868 and 1223460.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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