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

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

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

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


"A first rate book that .... should be read by social and labor historians as well as policy makers concerned with contemporary issues in occupational disease regulation". David Rosner, Author of Deadly Dust: Silicosis and the Politics of Occupational Disease

A chilling story of industrial disease and the early struggle for workplace safety

In the early twentieth century, a group of women workers hired to apply luminous paint to watch faces and instrument dials found themselves among the first victims of radium poisoning. Claudia Clark's book tells the compelling story of these women, who at first had no idea that the tedious task of dialpainting was any different from the other factory jobs available to them. But after repeated exposure to the radium-laced paint, they began to develop mysterious, often fatal illnesses that they traced to conditions in the workplace. Their fight to have their symptoms recognized as an industrial disease represents an important chapter in the history of modernhealth and,labor policy.

Clark's account emphasizes the social and political factors that influenced the responses of the workers, managers, government officials, medical specialists, and legal authorities involved in the case. She enriches the story by exploring contemporary disputes over workplace control, government intervention, and industry-backed medical research. Finally, in appraising the dialpainters' campaign to secure compensation and prevention of further incidents -- efforts launched with the help of the reform-minded, middle-class women of the Consumers' League -- Clark is able to evaluate the achievements and shortcomings of the industrial health movement as a whole.


This is a story about illness and death and fairness. How is it that some deaths seem fair and some unfair? From one perspective, death is meted out one to each of us, inevitable and equitable, and thus indistinguishable and unremarkable. Yet some deaths seem "untimely," whereas others come "in the fullness of time." The issue here, however, is not just age of death. Although death by violence or accident is felt to be somehow more unfair the younger the victim is, still, violent deaths to elderly persons are thought to have unfairly deprived them of some of their allotted lifespans. Of American workers whose deaths in the early twentieth century were caused by radium, some died young, in their early twenties, whereas others succumbed to radiuminduced diseases decades later, in their eighties. The early deaths seem perhaps the more deplorable, but we still sense something unfair about the later deaths, even if they occurred beyond the average lifespan.

Some deaths seem "senseless" and others "meaningful." A meaningful death might be one in the service of some ideal or some goal. Marie Curie discovered radium. She died from leukemia, likely caused by her long exposure to radium. She may be considered a martyr to science, and her death has meaning in the context of her remarkable scientific contributions. Sabin von Sochocky discovered a luminous paint formula that included radium and founded a company that sold luminous watch and clock dials. He died from aplastic anemia, also likely caused by radium exposure. He was perhaps a martyr to creative entrepreneurship as well as to science, and in both ways his death might seem meaningful. Some of the women who painted luminous numbers on watch dials died as a result of their work. What meaning do the deaths of the dialpainters hold for us? They seem senseless, unfair.

Marie Curie and Sabin von Sochocky were willing to risk the unknown to gain such things as knowledge, renown, financial profit. One way we might think about the fairness and meaning of death is by risk-benefit analysis. When people choose to face possible risks to gain possible benefits, often we admire their courage, and any harm to them seems meaningful in the context of their goals. It might be argued that the dialpainters stood to gain from their work, if in a small way, through their wages. In the nineteenth century, it was assumed that workers invested their good health in their jobs and stood to lose it in pursuit of an income. In the twentieth century, the "assumed risk" doctrine was overthrown in the courts in favor of employers' liability for the health of their employees. In part, this was because the size of the re-

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