Over the last two weeks I’ve been listening to The Radium Girls by Kate Moore, a fascinating story about a relatively unknown group of women who stood up for their rights in the 1920s and 30s. This book was captivating, and it was a great book to listen to on Audible. For the past few years now, I’ve really been enjoying nonfiction books. I’m not sure if they’re getting more interesting or if I’m just growing up, but this nonfiction read is definitely worth the investment. It was also published just this year, so if you’re looking for a “Book Published in 2017” for your Book 50 Reading Challenge, this will fit the bill!
The book follows the story of several women who worked in two different radium dial painting plants around the time of WWI. Radium, which had been newly discovered by the Curies, was being hailed everywhere as a miracle-working cure-all. The glowing element was used in minuscule amounts to create a luminescent paint for the dials of watches and instrument panels.
The teenage girls hired to paint the dials were taught to use their lips to mold their paintbrushes into a point. Unaware that the paint they were using was radioactive, they ingested it. As they matured, they began to suffer the incredibly gruesome side-effects of radium poisoning, but their employers refused to acknowledge any responsibility. This was partly because radium poisoning was an unknown concept, but it was also decidedly in the best interest of the company to deny any wrongdoing. One company even willfully hid the truth from their employees when it was discovered that the girls were, in effect, radioactive. The girls, while they worked at the plants, glowed from the radium dust that coated them. Later, when they were ill, their very bones glowed in their graves from the radioactivity inside them.
The closest book I can compare this to is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Both of these books deal with medical ethics, but The Radium Girls focuses on the responsibility of employers for the health of their employees. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks focuses on the ethics of taking and using human tissue samples without a patient’s permission.
I was amazed by the strength and courage of these women, whose contributions to science still have lasting impacts. When I say that their symptoms were gruesome, however, I really mean gruesome. There would be moments when I was walking around the neighborhood listening to this book that I would respond out loud to the descriptions of what these women went through. Because radium (as I learned from this book) acts like calcium, it settles in the bones. For many of the women it settled in their jawbones, making them fragile and subject to rotting away while they were still alive.
I also didn’t love the narrator of this book. She read extremely slowly, so while I can usually listen to a book at 1.5x the speed and still understand it, I could listen to this one at 2.0 or 2.5x the speed and not miss a thing. She also took weird pauses and emphasized strange words.
Other than that, I’d highly recommend this book if you’re looking for an intriguing nonfiction book to take with you on vacation. I was impressed by the strength of will these “ghost girls” had, and I’m not likely to forget their stories any time soon.
Do you have any recommendations for inspiring nonfiction? I’d love to hear!