An element of mystery

At the beginning of the 20th century, the newly discovered element, radium, was used in everything from body lotion to tonic water. But when the poisonous side effects of radium took hold, a group of working-class women launched a groundbreaking battle that influenced the future of scientific discovery and workers’ rights. Kate Moore, the Author of The Radium Girls joins us to discuss.


At the beginning of the 20th century, the newly discovered element radium was used in everything from body lotion to tonic water.

But when the poisonous side effects of radium took hold, a group of working-class women launched a groundbreaking battle that influenced the future of scientific discovery and workers' rights.

Here to tell their story is Kate Moore, the author of 'The Radium Girls.'

Thanks for joining us.

So who are the Radium Girls?

They are perhaps the most courageous women I've ever had the privilege of discovering, frankly.

In short, they were, as you say, poor, working-class women who worked in watch-painting factories during the First World War and the roaring '20s.

They worked with a luminous radioactive paint, and they were taught to lick point, which means they were taught to put their paintbrushes between their lips to make a fine point on the brush for the delicate handiwork they were doing.

And in so doing, they ingested radioactive paint, and this resulted in radiation poisoning that had never been seen in human beings before, and the reason these girls are so extraordinary is because of how they dealt with that situation.

So they had to fight against the received wisdom of the age that radium was safe.

They had to fight against very powerful corporations, who didn't want to admit responsibility for what they'd done to the women, and in so doing, they've left us this extraordinary legacy of workers' rights and scientific knowledge.

They're amazing.

Why was radium so widely used as the time?

It was seen as a wonder element.

I mean, I think in the same way that today, we're always looking for, you know, what's the new big thing that's either going to make us younger or, you know, make us live longer.

Radium was the thing that people thought was an elixir of youth that would make, as one advertising slogan put it, 'old men young.'

Tell me about the side effects.

Tell me about what these women lived through and experienced.

Well, I mean, it is really horrifying -- there's no other way to put it -- how the radium was kind of treated in the women's bodies.

Essentially, it's sort of chemically similar to calcium, and we all know if we drink a nice glass of milk, the calcium goes straight to our bones and makes them strong.

Now, when the women ingested the radium, the human body was sort of fooled into thinking it was calcium.

So it went to the women's bones, and there emanated its radioactive power.

So the symptoms that the Radium Girls suffered was their teeth falling out, their bones fracturing spontaneously, their legs shortening.

And this was a kind of poisoning that was also incredibly insidious.

It took years to show itself.

Later, it started developing sarcomas, cancerous tumors, in the women, and they were like a ticking time bomb, so some women didn't get sick for decades, but the radium inside their bodies always came calling in the end.

So I'm assuming the companies that might have been responsible for all this said, 'Hey, you can't prove this.

This woman hasn't worked for us for 10 years.

This is a cancer that she got from somewhere else.'

You're absolutely right.

There was a real shirking of the responsibility, and, you know, make no mistake.

I've read the company memos.

That was motivated by a desire that their lucrative industry, you know, the products you talked about at the top of this piece, you know, this radium industry that included radium therapeutics, radium cosmetics, radium chocolates, you know, radium water that people drank as a kind of health tonic, this was big money.

It was big business, and the Radium Girls, in bringing their unique and never-before-seen radium poisoning to light, threatened the bottom line.

So tell me.

What are the consequences?

I mean, they... What was their fight like, and then what did they get accomplished?

Grace Fryer, who's one of the lead litigants in the lawsuit that these women launched to try and protect other workers and sort of bring this to public attention, you know, she's suing her company and giving evidence with a steel back brace on her back, you know, to keep her erect.

Catherine Donahue, another of the Radium Girls, gave evidence on her deathbed, and so this really was a fight to the death and an altruistic fight because radium poisoning is fatal, and as the Radium Girls are fighting for justice, they are not doing it for themselves.

They're doing it to protect other workers.

So were there laws that were changed?

Was there scientific practice that was changed?

And then did we come to the conclusion that radium, in fact, is dangerous?

Yes, absolutely.

All the things you've mentioned.

So it was a very long legal battle that the women fought.

You know, they, you know, as I say, they were trying to overturn the received wisdom of the age, so all the big business was against them.

They struggled to find a lawyer.

They struggled to find doctors who would believe them, and that court case that they embarked on did change laws.

New, you know, laws were written.

They overturned the legal wisdom of the time because people were up in arms saying this is an outrage, and they also changed safety standards not only for people working in radioactive industries that last to this day, also in historic contexts, so workers on the Manhattan Project are protected because of the Radium Girls.

And I think the other thing is the scientific knowledge they've left us.

As I say, this was a type of poisoning never before seen.

People didn't understand what internal radiation did to the human body.

The book is called 'The Radium Girls.'

Author Kate Moore, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to people.

Thank you.