The Radium Girls 😖 Book Review

Written by Thelonia

You’ve likely never heard of the Radium Girls, but their cases weren't just the foundation for worker's safety laws, they were also at the heart one of the biggest industrial scandals of the early 20th century.

Factory workers who painted the numbers onto clocks with Radium (an element which Marie Curie had only recently discovered), the Radium Girls were instructed to wet their brushes with their mouths, unknowingly poisoned themselves with the radioactive substance each time they brought their brushes to their lips. The Radiation poisoning took years to appear, but sooner or later, the Radium took its toll on all who'd crossed its path.

I knew a bit about the Radium Girls’ case before going into it. One of the real surprises to me of the entire story is the culture surrounding the girls’ case, particularly in the early days of their work. I had no idea that not only were the dangers of Radium ignored, it was actually being sold as a health product in make-up, toiletries, basically anything you can possibly sell.

Because why wouldn’t radioactivity keep your hair from turning grey? Riddle me that, science.

If there’s ever a book that’ll make you curse the behemoth of Capitalism™, it is Radium Girls. Like the “Marlboro hiding evidence about lung cancer” debacle, so does the United States Radium Corporation’s hiding about the dangers of radioactive materials become disgusting as the women, as they fight tooth and nail in court against the women who they directly harmed by hiding evidence of danger (dangers which were very clearly discovered earlier than anyone else knew because hey, you tell people your radioactive face powder will kill them, and they stop buying them, AMAZING!!!).
Moore’s book follows the women, and there are many of them, as they start working, leave and get sick, or stay and get sick, and take the United States Radium Corporation to court.

At times, the story seems to drag: the numerous women who were afflicted are all named and their situations expanded upon, which does make the action halt a few times. And yet, from the first description of the degeneration of the body caused by radium poisoning, you will read in rapt attention as each woman’s symptoms appear, some similar, some all new. It does occasionally become a bit of a chore to read, particularly because whenever you find yourself chastising yourself for wanting the narrative to speed up, you feel horrible about yourself.

Another factor in this exhaustion is that the story just never seems to end. This is however, more of a side-factor of the history of the Radium cases, which lasted over a decade. The Radium Girls got sick in different batches, as the company opened new factories in new locations to avoid the sick women being localized in one area, which means that as the book follows history, it keeps ending and starting new chapters. The women you are introduced to first, who first worked at the United States Radium Corporation’s Factory in New Jersey, as the United States got involved in World War One, do not make it past the first third of the book. They are replaced by the women in Connecticut, the women in New York, and the women in Ottawa, none of whom manage to live long enough in the book’s narrative to become a real single protagonist. Instead it is the amalgamation of these dying women, the Radium Girls Proper, that become the focus.

It might make you flinch with its descriptions of jaws literally falling out and what feels like a revolving door of dying women, but Radium Girls is an important look at an often ignored section of American History, as well as a reminder of what happens when we let corporations get away with murder.

Radium Girls will publish May 1st 2017.


  1. Nice review! I've never heard of these gals but it's fascinating, horrible history. This sounds like a movie (or an Amazon original) that needs to be made :)