The long, sad history of Ottawa’s infamous clock dial factories — along with the personal stories of women workers poisoned by radium — are examined in detail in Kate Moore’s “The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women.”
Post-nuclear generations need no reminder that radioactive materials such as pure radium are highly hazardous. However, there was a time when many leading doctors and scientists presented a vastly different view of the enigmatic element.
Isolated from uranium by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898, radium, a naturally occurring metal, was initially heralded as a wonder drug by the scientific community in the first decades following its discovery.
Moore, 37, who grew up in the United Kingdom (London), is a best-selling author, director and editor who lives in London. She made appearances in Starved Rock Country last May during her nation-wide book promotion tour.
The non-fictional book explains how the women workers, using luminous radium paint on clock faces and watch dials, had no knowledge of the health dangers of radioactivity while working in the United States Radium Company in New Jersey and Radium Dial in Illinois.
“Radium Girls” highlights the workers’ suffering, though at times the foreshadowing narrative reads more like a non-fiction crime story. Moore presents evidence these young innocent women were sacrificed for corporate greed while tracing their legal fight to get their health problems recognized by doctors and employers.
Q. How did you become interested in this story?
Moore: I discovered the girls’ story through directing a play about them, “These Shining Lives,” by Melanie Marnich. I conducted lots of background research to make my production as authentic as it could be and in the course of that research realized no narrative non-fiction account of the women’s story existed, which described their experiences from their perspective and put them center stage. I determined to correct that omission by writing that very book.
Q. How long did it take to write it? Where did you do your research?
Moore: It took about four months to research and a month to write. I researched in America, largely in local and university libraries that held collections relevant to the women — including the Harold Washington Library in Chicago, Rutgers Uni in Newark, the Reddick Library in Ottawa and Northwestern University — and also at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. I also spent time in the towns I was writing about, visiting the women’s homes, graves and churches and retracing their footsteps. The final element of my research was interviewing the women’s families.
Q. What was the most surprising fact that you learned from your research?
Moore: Probably that not ALL the women died *young* from their poisoning (though many did). Tragically, radium poisoning is so insidious that some women managed to survive but with a horrific legacy — broken backs, amputated limbs, loss of teeth and so on. One woman was bed bound for 50 years. It truly was the ‘Society of the Living Dead,’ as the radium girls were nicknamed in the 1930s, as their bodies were destroyed from the inside out.
Q. What has been the reaction to your publication?
Moore: I’ve been overwhelmed by the response and am so grateful to readers for embracing the girls. I’ve had lots of wonderful emails from readers saying how they feel they really know the women having read the book, which is incredible for me to hear, as what I wanted to do in writing the book was give the radium girls a platform for their voices to be heard — and people are listening. Many people, especially relatives of the dial-painters, are thankful the story has been told in this way at last, as the scandal was hushed up over the decades. The book made the New York Times bestseller list over the summer and I am so proud that the radium girls have been nationally celebrated in this way — they deserve it. Closer to home, the book was also a Great Lakes, Great Reads award winner.Moore said she currently is working on ghostwriting projects and other writings.
“I’m working with a young woman who managed to escape from a cult having lived her whole life in captivity, which is an extraordinary true story,” she explained. “I’d love to write another historical book like “The Radium Girls,” but for me I really have to connect with the subject, so it’s about finding the right topic.”
“The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women,” is available at The Prairie Fox Books in downtown Ottawa and from various online booksellers.