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

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
April 19, 2024 3:03 am

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

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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April 19, 2024 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, in 1898, the chemical element that glows in the dark was discovered. Years later, young women began working in radium factories, which was viewed as a very glamorous, upscale job. Kate Moore, author of “Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women”, shares the story of these women.

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Catherine Sharp, a 14 year old girl from New Jersey going to work on a February day in 1917, thinks she's lucky to work with this miraculous substance that is glamorous and healthful. She was a dial painter, which meant that she painted dials with radioactive luminous radium paint. Those dials were used for watches and clocks to make them glow in the dark. But the company also produced instruments for ships and warplanes.

The dashboards of these transportation vehicles that would make them light up in the dark. And because Catherine is going to work in 1917, America is on the cusp of the First World War, when demand for these glow in the dark instruments is about to boom. And so Catherine is employed to paint these dials with this luminous paint. And because the work is so detailed, the dials so small, she is taught to put her paintbrush between her lips to make this fine point. But Catherine and her colleagues, they all asked, is it safe to do this?

They didn't accept the technique with blind faith. But the company assured them it was safe. And in fact, one of the instructors who worked at these radium firms, he told the girls that the radium would put roses in their cheeks and make them beautiful. And of course, with Catherine reading her magazines and her newspapers, that was exactly what she thought would happen. If you look back through magazines and newspapers, you'll find adverts for a whole range of radium products, for cosmetics, soaps and face powders that will give you a glowing complexion.

For a radium health tonic, people recommended that you took it to ward off middle age and tiredness. So dial painting was known as the elite job for the poor working girls. Dial painters were in the top 5% of female wagers internationally. So Catherine got to work with this glowing, glamorous substance. She was well paid. And she got to work with friends.

And the studio was full of camaraderie. They were largely teenagers going out to work. Some of the radium girls were as young as 11. And this artistic nature of the work really appealed to the women. When I looked up the radium girls in their town directories, I found that next to their names, it didn't say dial painter as their occupation.

It said artist. So when the companies needed more girls, those lucky enough to already have a job promoted the vacancies to their sisters and their cousins and their friends. You ended up with whole sets of siblings painting alongside each other in the studio. They used to have a little game with each other where they'd go into the dark room and they'd paint funny faces with the radium paint.

So they'd paint a comedy mustache or a big eyebrows or a sort of goatee beard on their chin, that kind of thing, just to have a laugh. They mix their own paints. So there was like a luminous dust that they would combine with the other materials to make the paint. And that dust got everywhere. So the women would end up looking like industrious fireflies.

They'd be completely covered in this dust. So they used to wear their party frocks to work. So that when they went out dancing after work in the speakeasies and the music halls of the 1910s and the 1920s, the radium girls would be the ones on the dance floor shining and shimmering. And as they walked home at night through the dark streets, they would glow like ghosts.

And so they had this nickname, the ghost girls. Radium was very recently discovered. It was only discovered in 1898. And when scientists realized that it could destroy human tissue, that you could get a radiation burn, they thought, well, how can we exploit this power? Radium is highly radioactive.

The type of radium that the radium girls were working with has a half-life of 1,600 years, which means for centuries, it doesn't diminish in its power. And so scientists wanted to try to harness that power, that indestructible power as they thought of it. And they thought, well, if it's destroying human flesh, can we utilize this in some way? And they thought, well, let's use radium to treat cancerous tumors.

And it had remarkable results. And we still use radium today to treat certain cancers because it was remarkably effective. And because radium was used to treat cancers successfully, people thought, well, surely it must be a healthful product. And so people thought, OK, well, a large amount we know is dangerous.

That is what is giving us the radiation burns. And so they knew very early on that this substance was dangerous. But the radium girls were working with a tiny amount of radium. And people at that time thought a small amount was safe.

And that is what was put into the cosmetics. That is what was put into the radium water, even the radium chocolate that was sold. It was just a sort of smidgen of radium just to make you feel, as one advertising pamphlet said, you could feel the sparkles inside your anatomy. And people thought that it's indestructible radiation, the fact that it had this half-life of 1,600 years. They thought that perhaps there was the answer to human immortality. I found newspaper articles from the 1920s which was talking about eat radium tablets because doing so will, and I quote, add years to your life. The message was that a small amount was safe. That's what everyone thought about radium in the 1910s and 1920s. But it's one of those things that you look at it now and you think, well, how on earth could they have thought that when it's so destructible in large quantities, and as we now know, it's so destructible even in small amounts. One of the mysteries of radium poisoning is that it's very insidious.

It takes years to show itself and so it wasn't for many years until the girls started suffering. Radium is a bone seeker, so it's very similar biomedically to calcium. We're advised to drink milk because the calcium in the milk makes our bones strong.

So you drink milk, the human body identifies it, it deposits it in the skeletons and it strengthens the bones. They swallowed the radium and their bodies deposited it in their skeletons and there it emanated its immense radioactive power. It varied with each woman when she would begin to get sick, but the first women began to suffer after about five years.

So in that time, the war is over now and many of them have moved on to other jobs and other people have left to marry and have children. The symptoms showed themselves in quite an innocuous way to begin with. It might just be an aching tooth or a sore arm or a sore leg, maybe a bit of foot pain that you thought, oh, walking on that a bit funny. And they didn't think it was that serious at first. You know, they'd go to the dentist. Catherine Sharp, for example, went to the dentist, said to the dentist, it's this tooth that is hurting and he pulled it. But then she found the next tooth started to hurt and then the next tooth and then the next tooth until Catherine didn't have to go to the dentist anymore to have her teeth pulled because they simply fell out.

And women who found that their legs or their arms were hurting found that that pain got worse and worse until they noticed that their legs began shortening so that one would end up shorter than the other. And they found too that their limbs spontaneously fractured because the radium had settled in their skeletons. The doctors didn't know what to do because these women work with radium, the wonder element, this healthful element, surely it couldn't be their work making them sick. And you're listening to Kate Moore, author of Radium Girls, the dark story of America's shining women. And my goodness, these young ladies, well, they were doing something they thought was glamorous and fun. They were getting paid well.

Heck, walking home at night, they shown and got the nickname ghost girls, but lurking, lurking inside them was a poison. And when we come back, more of author Kate Moore and the book is Radium Girls, the dark story of America's shining women here on Our American Stories. This show is sponsored by BetterHelp.

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Follow Impromptu now, wherever you listen. And we return to our American stories and to Kate Moore with the story of the radium girls. When we left off last, the radium girls had begun feeling ill and were experiencing all sorts of symptoms. The doctors were confused about what was causing these women to become sick.

Let's pick up where we last left off. It was the women in the early days that connected the dots because those family relationships, of course, those sisters and those cousins and their friends, even though they weren't necessarily still working together, they were still connected. They were still seeing each other. And so as they talked about their symptoms and they realised that they were all suffering, even if they were suffering in different ways, they realised that there was something going on. And so it was the women initially trying to appeal to the authorities to investigate. The girls fought and fought to even find a lawyer who would take their case. Radium at that time was the most expensive substance on earth for a single gram.

It retailed for the equivalent today of two point two million dollars. So the companies had a lot of money at their disposal and they had a lot of contacts in high places. And of course, they fought back because if people believed the women that it was the radium that had hurt them, all those lucrative industries would come crashing down. So the companies fought back with everything they had.

They tried to cover up what was happening. For me, what is so remarkable about the girls is that they were motivated by altruism, by the desire to ensure that no one else would suffer as they were suffering in the future. And one of my very favourite quotations from the story comes from Grace Fryer, who's one of the New Jersey dial painters. And she's asked when she's finding suit, why are you doing it? And she says, it is not for myself that I care. I am thinking more of the hundreds of other girls to whom this may serve as an example. These women were in such incredible pain. They were poor, they were disadvantaged, they were silenced and discredited, called liars and cheats and frauds by the companies. And yet they used everything they had to fight back against this powerful company that was still putting workers at risk. And so these women gave evidence while they were in pain, while they're wearing steel back braces to keep them erect, having to limp to the stand to give their evidence. Literally, Catherine Donahue, an Illinois dial painter, gave evidence at home because she was too sick to get to court.

And she's literally using her last breath to speak out, because she's so determined that the world should know that radian is dangerous. And Catherine and all the other women just fought back and they made a difference. Eventually, they were believed. Even though they may not have got large settlements, these women were proved right. They had their day in court and they won.

This groundbreaking legal battle to try and hold their employer to account was one of the first such cases in America. And the girls stand through history as a shining example of courage and of what you can achieve if you fight for what you believe in. These women thought they were lucky to be dial painters. They thought it was a fun job. They thought it was a great job. It was just so glamorous. You know, the wages enabled them to buy silks and furs. And so they were the best rust girls in town. They were so lucky. And yet all the time they were unwittingly poisoning themselves with every single dial that they painted. Every time they put that paintbrush between their lips. And for me, what is so heartbreaking is not only that these women enticed their loved ones into this environment, believing they were doing them a favour, but when the radium girls story develops and time moves on and the tragedy hits, it's a tragedy that is not just affecting one woman in a family.

It's two or three or four or five. And, you know, the parents of these girls are having to see their daughters suffer before them. The women themselves are having to see their loved ones pass away, to see their own fate played out before them. And for me, I think that suffering, that empathy, the fact that this tragedy was so widespread amongst communities and amongst families is partly what encouraged the women to become as inspirational as they became. I went to America to follow in their footsteps, to go to their homes, to their graves, to the sites of the dial painting studios.

But the primary thing that I really wanted to do on my research trip as well was to connect with the families. They were able to share with me the personal details, to learn from Charlotte Purcell's granddaughter that after her grandma had had her arm amputated because of the radium poisoning, she wanted her grandma to teach her how to skip rope. And so her grandma figured out a way to tie rope to a chain-link fence so she could skip rope with just one hand. They described Charlotte washing up and saying she used to wash the frying pan by putting the handle underneath her chin and then scrubbing it as it sort of rested on her chest. That was how she would do the washing up.

And so she was able to do the washing up. One of the most moving interviews for me with the families was speaking to Catherine Dunahue's niece and nephew and they were able to describe Catherine and her life towards the end of her sickness. And they took me into her sick room and they described the way Catherine liked to keep the shades drawn so the room was dark. But her nephew said that even though the room was dark, there was a light inside it from Catherine herself.

The radium that had once made her paintbrush and those dials glow was now in her bones and in her skeleton. And her nephew said as she lay there on the bed in the darkened room, you could see every bone in her body. And I wanted to look not only at the women but about their husbands who had to bury their wives, to look at the parents who loved these girls. All these sets of siblings that ended up painting at the studio and these parents having to bury not just one child, not just one daughter, but several. And the children as well of these women having to say goodbye to them knowing that they were going to die, the children having to grow up without their mothers.

There is so much tragedy in this story and of course the biggest tragedy of all is that it was avoidable. The only way you can take sort of hope from it is to ensure that they're not forgotten and to try and ensure that the lessons we can learn from their history are not forgotten. The need for workers' rights, let their sacrifice mean something. Even in their own lifetimes they were bringing about these legislative changes that could help other workers. Safety standards were put in place that protected not only radium workers which were very necessary because by the time the women win their case the Second World War is about to start and a new generation of dial painters is about to be put at risk. But these women brought about safety standards in that field and in all the atomic industries and people working today in those industries are protected because of the radium girls and for me they inspire me endlessly. I just became so passionate about their story. I felt this connection with the women even though I'm from England and this was sort of a story that had happened all the way across the nation 4,000 miles away in 100 years in the past. The fact that people all across the world are now learning about Catherine Sharpe and Grace Ryer and Catherine Donahue and all the women that I write about in the book just feels extraordinary and I'm glad they got their story in the end. And great production and teamwork by our own Robbie and Madison on the piece and a special thanks to Kate Moore author of radium girls the dark story of America's shining women and the one enduring scene etched in my mind of one of the radium girls watching her lay on her bed at night you could see every bone in her body her body blowed again the story of the radium girls here on our American Stories. Hey guys it is Ryan I'm not sure if you know this about me but I'm a bit of a fun fanatic when I can I like to work but I like fun too it's a thing and now the truth is out there I can tell you about my favorite place to have fun Chumba casino they have hundreds of social casino style games to choose from with new games released each week you can play for free anytime anywhere and each day brings a new chance to collect daily bonuses so join me in the fun sign up now at Chumba casino.com With dozens of streaming services box office films and content to choose from people are spending over two and a half years of their lives searching for what to watch but the Hollywood Reporter brings you THR charts one place for you your family and friends to find the most watched TV shows and movies every week THR charts is a guide to help you spend less time scrolling through platforms so that you can spend more time watching and binging the content everyone is talking about all supported by data and trusted sources like Nielsen comScore and paired analytics check out THR charts on hollywoodreporter.com this is Malcolm Gladwell from Revisionist History eBay Motors is here for the ride with some elbow grease fresh installs and a whole lot of love you transformed 100,000 miles and a body full of rust into a drive that's all your own brake kits LED headlights whatever you need eBay Motors has it and with eBay Guaranteed Fit it's guaranteed to fit your ride the first time every time or your money back plus at these prices you're burning rubber not cash keep your ride or die alive at ebaymotors.com eligible items only exclusion supply
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-04-19 04:38:52 / 2024-04-19 04:47:48 / 9

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