The Girls With Radioactive Bones

How the “radium girls” revealed the danger of radiation, and fought for safety standards

Women sitting at desks with trays
Young women painting at a factory of the United States Radium Corporation. (Wikimedia Commons)

They would, quite literally, glow. During World War I and the years thereafter, dozens of teenage girls and young women worked in radium-dial factories, painting glow-in-the-dark numbers onto watches and airplane instruments. The paint got onto their hands, into their hair, and settled on their clothes. And so, they glowed.

The young women had no reason to worry about radium then. The factories assured them it was safe. They were even taught to paint tiny numbers on the dials by licking their paintbrushes to a fine point. Plus, radium was supposed to be good for you. You could buy radium water, radium face cream, radium toothpaste, and even Radium Brand Creamery Butter. These products didn’t actually all contain the expensive and precious element, but the evocation of radium gave them a healthful glow.

Then years later, after they stopped working the factories, the women started getting mysteriously ill. Their teeth started to fall out. Their jaw bones—brittle and degraded—broke at a light touch. Their hips locked into place. Their skin wouldn’t heal.

The human body, it turns out, easily mistakes radium for calcium. So all that radium the women licked off of their paintbrushes actually ended up in their bones, like calcium would have. Their radium-filled bones were being bombarded with radiation from the inside.

In the a new book titled The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, Kate Moore tells the story of how these dial painters took on the radium companies that made them sick—as they were dying of radium poisoning. Their lawsuits were key to reinforcing the U.S.’s nascent workplace safety standards. With their cautionary tales in mind, scientists on the Manhattan Project learned to protect themselves from radiation. A free ebook excerpt is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Google Play, and the book comes out in the U.S. in May.

I spoke to Moore about her book and the legacy of the dial painters. Our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity, is below.

Sarah Zhang: Even a century later, reading about how radium glows in the dark sounds kind of magical. You write about these women coming home from the factory, covered in radium and glowing in the dark.

Kate Moore: They were just entranced by it! It was luminous. It was emitting radioactivity. They thought of it as magical. In the book, I quote the husband of one of the girls who was a dial painter. He writes about seeing her smock from work hanging up in the bedroom and and it gives him the feeling of “a ghost bouncing around on the wall.” It's haunting that they were later nicknamed the “ghost girls” because of what happened.

Charlotte Purcell, one of the painters, demonstrates the lip-pointing technique that they used to get the brushes to a fine point. Chicago Daily Times

Zhang: But not everyone thought that radium was harmless, right? The dial painters were taught to lick their brushes, but the male lab technicians working for the very same company took precautions around radium. Was there a gender or class division at play?

Moore: I absolutely think that’s right. I think they did think the girls were expendable and disposable. The thing that got me was when Arthur Roeder, the president of the United States Radium Corporation, was on the stand, he was asked, “What was the first case that you knew of?” He says, “I don't remember the name.” Essentially, you've killed these people and you can't remember their name. That for me was stunning.

Zhang: You’ve said you first came across this story through These Shining Lives, a play about the dial painters, of which you ended up directing a production. Why did you then decide to write a nonfiction book?

Moore: I read other books about the girls, and I thought: “Why is there no book that tells the women’s story, that focuses on their journey?” What were they were like? A play, of course, intimately delves into their lives, like the dynamic between Catherine—one of the dial painters who sued—and Tom Donohue, between husband and wife. What is like when a husband knows his wife is going to die and he has to look after the children?

The other books describe the story and what happened to them, but you don't know that Grace worked in a bank and was very intelligent. You don't know that Albina grieved because she lost all of her children and wasn't able to have the family she wanted. You don't know that Edna had a little terrier dog.

Zhang: You also made a point to literally walk in their footsteps.

Moore: What I really wanted to do was bring them to life. It's telling the story from their perspective. I went to the towns. I stood in front of Catherine Donohue's house. I walked to where the studio was to do her commute, as it were.

And in Orange, New Jersey, I started at Quinta McDonald's house because I had their addresses from the court documents and walked to her sister Albina's house. It's steep slope on the way. It's obviously not hard to walk when you're healthy, but I just thought it would have been really hard when Quinta's leg was shorter than the other in the end, due to side effects from radium poisoning. She would have never been able to manage doing that.

Zhang: All of the women you write about died years ago, but you quote them directly through their court testimonies, newspapers interviews, and letters. How did you find their personal letters?

Moore: One of these was real discovery moment. Catherine Donohue’s letters I found in the LaSalle County Historical Museum, which is out in Utica, near Ottawa, Illinois, where one of the radium-dial factories was.

I went to the museum and said I was here to research the radium girls. The exhibit was basically a picture of the girls at their desks and a copy of Claudia Clark’s book. I asked, “Are you sure there's not like something else?” The woman working there said, “I don't think so, but let me ask my boss.” Her boss said, “Oh yeah yeah, there's a file in the backroom if you care to have a look through.

After Catherine Donohue (lying down) collapsed in the court room, the lawyers went to her house for a bedside hearing. Chicago Daily Times

I got this file out that was just in the back office. There's a whole mix of stuff in there. I went further through, and I was going back in time. I pulled these things from a plastic wallet, and it's Catherine's real letters that had just been shut in the back room. I don't think anybody's really read them. I was recording myself reading the letters out loud, and I turned around and the woman working at the museum was transfixed. She said, “My god I had no idea this was here.”

That was a really spine tingling moment, to be sitting with her real letters, seeing the imprint of the pencil in the paper. Because it isn't a proper archive like the National Archive. There's no white gloves or anything like that. I was literally holding the paper that Catherine Donohue touched.

Zhang: In some ways these dial painters were unwitting subjects in an unwitting experiment. How did the data collected from their bodies end up contributing to our understanding of radiation?

Moore: It was massive national news. So when the Manhattan Project got started, Glenn Seaborg, who was on the project, he wrote in his diary that he thought of the radium girls as he was walking through his laboratory with all its radioactive plutonium, and he didn't want the same thing to happen. He first had to find out if plutonium was similar to radium. Obviously, it did turn out that plutonium  is biomedically very similar to radium.

If the radium girls hadn't made their case so iconic, so demanding of attention from people, I'm sure, they wouldn’t have put safety standards in place for the Manhattan project. Because of the radium girls, they were happy for the safety standards to be in place, and they insisted that workers did follow them. I presume the workers themselves, they were probably aware of the potential dangers because of the girls and therefore did follow the procedures.

Zhang: I hadn’t realized much resistance the dial painters faced when they sued the companies—not just from the companies but from the towns where they lived.

Moore: That's right because now, we're like, “Go, the radium girls! They’re doing exactly the right thing in standing up for justice.” But at the time, they were shunned.

The thing that really got me was reading about the post-war studies of the dial painters. Scientists at Argonne National Laboratory in the Center for Human Radiobiology interviewed a lot of the former workers. There are some quotes from the 1970s, saying “I think the girls were making it up.” “Peg Looney, she was sick to begin with. She was never in the best of health.” That really shocked me. In the 1970s they're still denying what happened? The girls won their case in the 1930s. The quote was from a man who worked at the company with them, and he still believed in 1970s that they were lying about it. I think the community shunning them shows just how brave they were because they flew in the face of what everyone was telling them to do. They refused to stay silent.