The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women Summary & Study Guide

Kate Moore
This Study Guide consists of approximately 71 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of The Radium Girls.
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The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women Summary & Study Guide Description

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion on The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore.

The following version of this book was used to create the guide: Moore, Kate. The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women. Sourcebooks, 2017.

The book began with a prologue that discussed the discovery of radium and its dangerous effects on the body over time, such as an intense burn. Next, the story followed Katherine Schaub, a young teenager, who had just been hired at Radium Luminous Materials Corporation in Newark New Jersey. She and many other young, poor girls from immigrant families had been recruited to paint the dials of watches with radium paint, and those employed secured positions for their sisters as well. They were taught to lip-point, a technique that required pointing the tip of their brush with their mouths, which the company favored because of its conservation of paint. The women became fast friends, and they enjoyed working together, especially as they contributed their own efforts to World War I by supplying well-painted watch faces for soldiers.

After the war, many women exchanged their jobs for husbands and families of their own. von Sochocky was ousted from the company and replaced by Arthur Roeder, who renamed it United States Radium Corporation (USRC). Those who continued dial-painting for the USRC, however, began experiencing physical pain. Amelia (Mollie) Maggia was the first to show serious signs of radium poisoning when a rotten tooth was pulled to reveal an open sore that would never heal. As time went on, her dentist, Dr. Knef, became more perplexed by her condition that could not be treated. He continued to pull teeth, but her jawbone only weakened until she hemorrhaged and was suffocated by her gushing blood. Meanwhile, Radium Dial opened its doors in Ottawa, Illinois, and was recruited young, poor, female dial-painters.

Dentists Drs. Barry and Davidson in New Jersey were stumped by the various dial-painters that entered their office. The dentists repeated the same mistakes attempting to treat phosphorus poisoning in various dial-painters before realizing they were not helping. The news of the dial-painters’ poor health was sweeping through the community, and the Industrial Hygiene Division visited the USRC per Irene’s hospital’s request. A paint sample was sent off, and despite Dr. Martin Szamatolski’s expert opinion that the radium was causing their problems, the company did nothing. In Ottawa, the dial-painters enjoyed their new prominence and financial status in society and also made lasting friendships.

Some doctors were aware that the dial-painters’ employment could potentially be a factor in their conditions. Despite more deaths, the Department of Labor did nothing per Katherine’s request. Uneasy, Young, the woman on the case, reached out to Catherine Wiley, executive secretary of the Consumers League New Jersey branch, who then reached out to Dr. Alice Hamilton, employed at Harvard, to investigate the situation. Wiley brought the issue to the U.S. Department of Health as the USRC recruited Dr. Cecil Drinker, also of Harvard, and his wife and colleague to conduct a study on the dial-painters and their paint. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics launched a federal study of phosphorus in the paint, after which agent Swen Kjaer declared the paint dangerous because of radium. When Roeder received the Drinker’s report that also deemed the paint dangerous, he had an edited copy sent to the Department of Labor.

Marguerite Carlough’s health was rapidly declining, and her case generated the sympathy of Frederick Hoffman and others who were willing to help. As Frederick Flinn was hired to conduct studies for the USRC, Dr. Harrison Martland took the position of Chief Medical Examiner. He and others performed the autopsy on Dr. Leman, the first male employee of the USRC to die of radium poisoning, by burning his bones to ash and testing their radioactivity. After, he took on Marguerite’s and her sister, Sarah Maillefer’s, cases. He and von Sochocky invented a device to test radioactivity in living humans with an electrometer. They formally diagnosed the two with radium poisoning, and he later performed an official autopsy on Sarah’s body, who was the first dial-painter to be analyzed postmortem. Once Drinker discovered Roeder would not cooperate, he published his original study.

Katherine, Quinta, and Grace were given accurate diagnoses from Martland and von Sochocky, but when they searched for a lawyer to take legal action against the company, no one was willing to help. More women were falling ill, and conflicting studies were published by doctors affiliated with and independent from the company. Grace was adamant about seeking justice, and male allies recommended her to Raymond Berry, who took on her, Quinta’s, Albina’s, Edna’s, and Katherine’s cases. During his studies, he found that Flinn was not only lying to the women by giving them false clean bills of health, but he was also lying about being a qualified medical doctor.

Women began to die in Ottawa, Illinois as the five former dial-painters took their cases to court. This prompted the exhumation and analysis of Mollie’s bones, which were finally determined to be radioactive. The company’s lawyer was hostile and uncooperative, and eventually Berry and the women agreed to settle to receive their money before their deaths. The USRC and their appointed committee of doctors attempted to get results that would prove the women were not radioactive and thus cease their medical payments. News of their lawsuits reached Ottawa, where Radium Dial performed tests and published false results and information to calm their dial-painters. Soon Peg Looney fell ill, dying shortly after, and she was detained by the company to conceal her true cause of death. Dr. Martland discovered in New Jersey after the similar deaths of Ella Eckert and Quinta that sarcomas were the final stage of radium poisoning, and that any additional radioactivity in the human body was dangerous.

Catherine was fired from Radium Dial for her poor health, and as poisoned dial-painters continued to die in both states, wealthy and famous consumer Eben Byers also died of radium poisoning. His death immediately prompted reform by many formerly reluctant institutions to protect consumers, but this did not reach the current dial-painters. At this point, Radium Dial had been concealing radioactivity in dial-painters for over eight years and were especially reluctant to share information, but more women were suffering. Kelly and Fordyce were ousted from Radium Dial as Irene La Porte’s case was dismissed in New Jersey.

Catherine, Charlotte, Pearl, Marie, other former Radium Dial dial-painters, and their male supporters begged for help, participating in interviews and reaching out to lawyers and officials. Leonard Grossman finally agreed to take their cases, and Catherine broke down at her first hearing from loss of hope for a cure. Her weakness prompted them to hold the next hearing at her home, after which Radium Dial was found guilty. Upon their appeal, the women hosted more interviews, fundraisers, and solicited the help of a nationally-known priest for moral support. Catherine died from the stress of the second appeal, but her death was attributed her occupation, and after seven appeals, the Supreme Court Radium Dial guilty for the eighth time.

The epilogue highlighted that none of the dial-painters died without contributing to research into radioactive substances and their effects on the human body, saving countless lives after them. The radium emanating from the work sites, however, was still wreaking havoc on the health of the respective town residents. The postscript revealed that Luminous Processes, founded by Kelly, continued to use radium in their work environments and was only shut down after countless women contracted breast cancer in 1978.

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