One of my clients is an employment attorney so I’ve written a lot of blog posts over the years about class action employment lawsuits. So when I saw this book by Kate Moore, I decided I needed to buy it because it counts as research for my job, right? It sat on my shelf for more than a year before my book club elected to read it, forcing me to finally crack it open.
I really enjoyed it. Between getting sick over the weekend, a readathon in which I participated and how readable this book is, I breezed through it in about 4 days (which is impressive, considering it’s more than 400 pages long).
I found the topic fascinating, even if the writing was only OK.
The book starts just a few years after radium has been discovered with a scientist traveling across the Atlantic ocean by steamer with a small amount of radium in his pocket. He forgets about it, leaves it in his pocket for a few days, and it starts to burn a hole in his chest before he remembers about the radium sitting in his pocket.
New York, New York
10 years later, radium is everywhere, being marketed as a health product, despite scientist’s early knowledge of the damage it could do. Because it glows in the dark, it’s mixed into paint, which gets used to make glow-in-the-dark clock faces and guess who gets to paint these clock faces?
Young women in their teens and early 20s. This was the era of women quitting their jobs once they got married, so few women held the job for more than a few years, but apparently that’s all it took for them to get radium poisoning.
Because the tiny numbers on the clock faces required a very fine point on the paintbrush, the women were instructed to dip the brush into the paint, then use their lips to twist it into a point. They did this over and over in the course of their shifts and often went home glowing because the tiny particles of radium stuck to them and their clothes, hence the book’s subtitle: “The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women.”
They were told this was not only safe, but even beneficial, while the men working with larger amounts of radium were given full suits to protect them at all times when they were working with the radium. One guy accidentally got a piece of radium embedded in his thumb and he amputated the digit to avoid further harm.
The women were left to fend for themselves, but because radium poisoning takes years before any symptoms manifest, it was hard to make the connection between the strange symptoms these women started experiencing and a job they hadn’t held in years. For that reason, some of the first women to get sick had other illnesses listed on their death certificates, including STDs.
The symptoms they suffered were awful. Teeth falling out, strange growths on their body, misshapen limbs, weakness. These women suffered extreme amounts of pain and many of them reached a point where they couldn’t even walk, at least not for long periods.
And yet it was all too difficult to sue their former employer once the connection was made between their symptoms and their work with radium. No lawyer wanted to take the case and no doctor had a system for diagnosing live patients with radium poisoning (they had a system for finding it by incinerating the bones of those already deceased, but that didn’t help those who were still alive and suffering).
Once the women finally found a doctor who could diagnose them and an attorney to take their case, the problems didn’t stop, even after he won settlements for them. In typical corporate fashion, they included in the settlement agreement a clause stating that the attorney agreed to not bring any other lawsuits against the company.
But that was just the beginning. Someone from that company started another company that also made iridescent clocks, put up a factory in Oswego, Illinois (a town I’ve been to, as it’s not far from my own home town), hired young women to paint radium on their clock faces, and taught them to use their lips to get a fine point on their brushes. Unlike in New York, this company was not as stingy with its radium, and even encouraged the women to take it home and play with it. They’d paint themselves and each other with it for fun and before going on dates.
You might be wondering how this could happen after the lawsuits in New York, but it just goes to show how little corporations care for their employers. They knew they could get more women to paint their clocks whenever they wanted (this was during the Great Depression, so jobs were scarce and jobs that paid as well as this one were even more scarce), so they didn’t care about those who got sick and died from the effects of the paint they worked with.
Once the connection was made between working with radium and their illnesses, the women faced the same problem of finding a doctor who could diagnose them and an attorney who would take their case. One of the things that surprised me most was the idea that a doctor wouldn’t even tell his patient she was dying – she had to find out when he gave his testimony in court.
They did eventually get a nice settlement, which was necessary to support their families after they were gone, even if it couldn’t save the women from death. Some of them did go on to live for decades, although they suffered extreme pain and many remained physically disabled for the rest of their lives.
Like I said, I enjoyed this book and found it to be very readable. Some people have criticized it for taking liberties and relying more on speculation than facts. They’re not wrong and I agree with those who say this might have worked better as an historical fiction novel than a nonfiction book.
That said, I still learned a lot and would highly recommend this book. Especially the physical book because it has pictures of the various women involved in these lawsuits, both before and after they got sick.
What did you guys read this week? Anything else that taught you a lot while entertaining you (and maybe grossing you out)?