Friday, March 9, 2018

Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935, by Claudia Clark

University of North Carolina Press, 1997
289 pp

After finishing Kate Moore's Radium Girls, which was okay and did the job the author meant it to do, I wanted to read an historical account of this story.  Where Moore's account is more firmly focused on providing the human face of this tragedy, here we get down to the forces that allowed it to happen in the first place and the attempts made toward reform so that it could never happen again.

As is made clear both in Moore's book and here, the young women who worked painting luminous dials on watches did so by means of lip pointing.  As they put the brushes into their mouths to make them sharper, they were also putting quantities of radium directly into their bodies.  No one at the time could have predicted what would happen next; radium was thought to provide wonder cures, was being sold on the open market;  the dial painters even had fun putting the substance on their teeth, hair, nails, and clothing. 

from Furatermek
However,  dial painters began to show up at their dentists and doctors offices with varying illnesses, including necrosis of the jaw, strange fractures and anemia.  Some of the women and their physicians or dentists began to wonder if their horrific symptoms were related to the radium paint or the factories in which they worked; investigations were made but the powers that be at the dial-painting facilities rejected the idea that the women's troubles had anything to do with the workplace or with their occupation.  In New Jersey, for example, the case of Irene Rudolph led her doctor to make a report to the state Department of Labor, but they found nothing "that conflicted with state factory laws."  Even though one consultant issued a warning that "radium might be behind the illness of the dialpainters," and that "every dialpainter should be warned," no action was taken. Another case came to light in January 1924; by February three of the women were dead, but at every official level where people may have made a difference, nothing was done.  Enter the women of the Consumers' League, committed reformers who worked tirelessly to not only bring these cases into the realm of public knowledge, but to take steps to have radium poisoning defined as an occupational illness, so that the women would have access to compensation.  Without the intervention of the Consumers' League, as the author notes, "the dialpainters would never have established the cause of their illnesses and deaths."

The women's fight to gain recognition for illnesses associated with the industry in which they worked was a long one, and despite the reformers' actions, was often impeded on several fronts. Clark discusses how the factory owners knew about the dangers of radium yet continued to not only deceive these women as to their safety, but it doesn't stop there. Self interest was another factor, in which scientists and physicians who received funding from these companies refused to divulge what they knew so as not to alienate those who funded their work. As she notes, the book traces "the failures of industrial health reform to a faith in the autonomy of 'experts' in both government and medicine."   There's much more here, as she examines the "social and political factors that influenced the responses" of everyone involved.

Clark's Radium Girls manages to give the women in her study a great deal of consideration without all of the litany of suffering that appears in Kate Moore's account, which was one of my big issues with that book. Unlike my experience with Moore's book, in this one  I came away with a better understanding of the historical, social, and legal milieu in which these battles were being fought. And while I was completely absorbed in this book, it wasn' t perfect -- as just one example, as various topics are introduced into the narrative the author ends up having to provide a brief background  so that the book becomes a bit overwhelming in terms of many histories going on at the same time which sort of pulls attention away from the real focus of her work. 

Many readers found this book to be "dry" or lacking sympathy for the dial painters themselves, but I didn't get those vibes at all. Then again, as I told someone recently, I'll probably die with a nonfiction book in my hand because I love getting down to not only the whys and hows of events of the past, but how those past events reflect or have had an effect on the present.  In that sense, I was not at all disappointed with this book, and frankly as someone who knows very little about the history of industrial health,  I found it quite fascinating. 

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