The Radium Girls

It's been awhile since I have read a book that has left me with tears streaming down my face, my stomach in knots, and my mind unable to wrap itself around what I've just read.  There is no way this could've really happened, right?  These were human beings!  Women just trying to help out their families and their country in times of war and uncertainty and what did they get in return?  Death.  Sickness.  Ailments so unimaginable that you think as you're reading the symptoms that you're actually reading a horror novel from Steven King instead of a true story.  This is real.  It really happened, in our country, and it happened to the Radium Girls.


During World War I, many women across the United States were called to work various jobs to aid in the war effort.  One of the most coveted jobs of the time was dial painters. Women pained clock faces with a new and amazing substance called radium.  These women were paid top dollar compared to other working women during that time so this job was highly coveted.

Radium at the time was all the rage with numerous health claims, including being a cure for cancer! Companies were putting it in everything from medicine to cosmetics and everything in between.  It was a wonder substance that could do anything!  It could cure your sickness and make you shine!

Radium has a luminescent quality which was perfect for watches being used during the war because the soldiers would be able to see the time at night which was invaluable at the time.

To put the paint onto the dials of the clocks, the girls used a technique called lip pointing.  They would put the paint brushes in their mouths and twirl it with their tongue to create a fine point.  Then they would dip it in the radium paint and paint the dials.

The Dial Painters at Radium Dial
Over and over, sometimes hundreds of times a day, day by day these girls were ingesting more and more radium.  Not to mention the fine powder that covered the girls and the entire factory that gave off this eerie, luminescent glow.  The girls lived in a radium world that stayed with them even after they left work.  They would paint themselves with the radium and walk around town almost ghost-like.  It was fun and many were envied by their friends.

The girls were told that there were such minute traces of radium in the paint that it was harmless, so the girls worked away, day after day, blissfully unaware of what they were actually doing.  They were ingesting and inhaling poison, little by little, and before long a few of the women started getting sick.  That's when the fun stopped and the nightmare began.

Radium Dial workers
Kate Moore is the director of These Shining Lives which depicts the lives of the women in the radium dial factories.  Kate is actually from the United Kingdom, but after hearing the stories of the radium girls, she decided to write a story that was different than any other that has been written about the radium dial workers.  She wanted to give these victims a voice.  One that they did not have during their brief lives.  And she did.

As you read about each of the girls, and what was going on in their lives, you start to think of them as sisters.  When you read about the girls getting sick and the unimaginable things that happened to their bodies and you read about the doctor's being baffled at what's happening to them you cringe.  You know what's wrong with them, and you want to shout it out through the pages yet you can't.

Catherine Wolfe Donohue during her trail
Your anger flares as you read about the radium dial companies and their denial about radium being the reason for these girls getting sick.  These girls are dying and they don't care!  They knew it was harmful and yet they continued their practices anyway for profit, putting the mighty dollar ahead of a person's life.  Sickening.

The one girl that I identified most with was Catherine Donahue.  Her and her husband had only been married for a few years, just like me and my husband.  They had two children, just like me, and Catherine fought for justice for the "ghost girls" to the end.  I hope that if I were ever in that situation I would do the same.

As I read the depiction of her taking her last breaths, tears were streaming down my face.  My heart ached for this woman that lived so long ago.  Having fought so hard, then to die like this.  I think she really hoped she would overcome this poisoning but in the end the radium won, and she left this world literally screaming.  Tears spring to my eyes even writing this now.  It's unfathomable.  No one should ever have to go through such torture.  Now Catherine no longer is in pain and the fight that she started has had a major impact on our world today, including the creation of the EPA.

Remembering the Radium Girls
"The radium girls," the governor of Illinois announced, "deserve the utmost respect and admiration...because they battled a dishonest company, an indifferent industry, dismissive courts and the medical community in the face of certain death.  I hereby proclaim September 2, 2011, as Radium Girls Day in Illinois, in recognition of the tremendous perseverance, dedication, and sense of justice the radium girls exhibited in their fight." 

To this day, the EPA continues to clean the sites of where the radium dial factories both in New York and Illinois once stood. The radium still lingers just like the memories of these women.

I have never felt so connected to a true life story like I did with the Radium Girls.  This story could've happened to any of us.  It hit so close to home.  I HIGHLY recommend this book!  It's a hard story to hear but one we should all listen to.


If you would like to see the play in which this book was based off of check out These Shining Lives on YouTube.

*I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review

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