Book Review: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

RadiumGirlsCoverOfficial Synopsis from Goodreads: The incredible true story of the young women exposed to the “wonder” substance of radium and their brave struggle for justice…As World War I raged across the globe, hundreds of young women toiled away at the radium-dial factories, where they painted clock faces with a mysterious new substance called radium. Assured by their bosses that the luminous material was safe, the women themselves shone brightly in the dark, covered from head to toe with the glowing dust. With such a coveted job, these “shining girls” were considered the luckiest alive—until they began to fall mysteriously ill. As the fatal poison of the radium took hold, they found themselves embroiled in one of America’s biggest scandals and a groundbreaking battle for workers’ rights.

A rich, historical narrative written in a sparkling voice, The Radium Girls is the first book that fully explores the strength of extraordinary women in the face of almost impossible circumstances and the astonishing legacy they left behind.

Genre: Nonfiction
Setting: New Jersey and Illinois 1917-1939
My copy came from: I borrowed the hardback from my mom.

*** this post contains affiliate links ***

Review: Disturbing, horrifying, and enthralling. I couldn’t put this down despite all of the highly disturbing images. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore tells the stories of the women who worked in the radium companies painting dials with radium paint. The paint wasn’t just made of radium, but rather radium was an ingredient in the paint to make it “glow”. In order to get the paintbrush to have the right point for painting, the girls would put the paintbrush in their mouth to shape the brush. So, in the course of their job they were actually ingesting radium.

This was radium, the wonder drug, they were using. They were lucky, they thought, as they laughed among themselves and bent their heads to their intricate work. Grace and Irene. Mollie and Ella. Albina and Edna. Hazel and Katherine and Mae.

They picked up their brushes and they twirled them over and over, just as they had been taught.

Lip… Dip… Paint.

They were told that the radium was harmless, and not only harmless, but that it actually was a health benefit. After a few years, the girls discovered that their jaws and teeth were in a lot of pain, and their jaws literally started to fall apart. There are many stories of the various girls visiting the dentist and the dentist pulling bits of bone out of their mouth, as the radium would disintegrate their bones. (Sorry for that image, but the book is highly disturbing. I don’t recommend reading this right before a dentist appointment. I actually did that, and had a tough time in the dentist chair as I kept picturing these poor women.)

From spontaneous fractures to miscarriages, mysterious ailments, and death, what the girls suffered was horrific. The Radium Girls does not shy away from the disturbing details of their health, and it does take a strong stomach to be able to read this book. I cannot even begin to imagine the pain and trauma that these girls and their families went through. One girl was told she had syphilis, as even though these girls were in evident pain, with visible health issues, no one was really taking them seriously. A few doctors were concerned, but all of the information about radium at this time was positive. The book expounds on where all of this positive propaganda came from, and the depths of greed that these radium companies had was just astounding.

The Radium Girls tells the story of the many girls that worked at these radium companies, and how they discovered that the radium was causing their sicknesses, and it also covers all of the legal battles they went through to get money to cover their health bills and also for better working conditions for workers. These legal battles were interesting and it was very shocking all of the different ways these radium companies were trying to hide what was happening.

“I’m angry,” said one of Peg’s sisters. “They knew she was full of radium. And then they lied.”

“Every family has sadness and grief,” Jean said steadily. “But Margaret’s death was unnecessary.”

That was the tragedy. Radium had been known to be harmful since 1901. Every death since was unnecessary.

One of the issues I had with The Radium Girls is that there were so many characters, that I couldn’t remember who every character was. The book is split between talking about radium companies in New Jersey and Illinois, and I had trouble remembering which girl worked for which company.

But all in all, this is a fascinating book that tells a disturbing story that everyone should read. I recommend it for everyone because we need to know about the women who came before us and their stories and struggles. Read The Radium Girls and be horrified at what these girls went through, what these companies did in the name of profit, and what was done with the radium before everyone finally realized it was deadly.

Bottom Line: Horrifying and fascinating. Quite the disturbing read!


LINKS     ***the Amazon link is an affiliate link which means that I get a small commission if you click the link and make a purchase***



29 thoughts on “Book Review: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

  1. Are there characters, or are they real people? I thought the Radium Girls story was nonfiction. I have heard about this story (not this particular book every time) a lot recently, and it’s stuck on my radar because St. Mary’s College in Indiana put on a play of the same title. It really stuck with me, especially the part about their bones falling apart.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is nonfiction. The author actually discovered the story by directing a play about this called These Shining Lives, and then she wanted to do more research and wrote a book. The Radium Girls is a fairly new release – it came out in April and isn’t out in paperback yet. I haven’t seen very many reviews of it – just one or two, but I think it’s a book that the more people hear of it the more people will want to read about it as it is so horrifying.
      Yes, the bones falling apart is definitely memorable! It just sounded absolutely terrible for these poor girls.


  2. This is my first time hearing of Radium. That’s scary that the girls have to put the paintbrush in their mouth to shape the brush and in the mean time ingest the radium filled paint and then later suffer health risks.. so sad.. this also reminds me of lead paint. No one knows the danger of it and it has been used for a long time. It was only made known few years back isn’t it? Same with microwaving plastics.. Love your review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Yes, it is very scary. There are many scenes I read in horror and will never forget. And the people who discovered radium knew it was dangerous, and for these radium companies to hide the truth in the name of profit is just terrible. This is the kind of book where I’d be reading and have to stop and tell someone about a particular scene or fact mentioned. It really makes you think about all of the different chemicals that are out there.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Definitely a disturbing read but the greed of the companies putting profits before people seems to be a never-ending saga in the world of business. Think of the factory workers in Victorian England and even the working conditions in China today. So many examples of corporate greed abound!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The greed was so disgusting to read about. Those poor girls !! And while it’s great they have made work conditions better, the book points out that all the regulations in the world don’t matter if the corporations don’t follow them. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Horrifying! I don’t know if I could read this, but I’m glad it’s out there bringing the subject to light. As other commenters have said, if ony we could believe things like this weren’t still happening.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! It’s really eye opening. There were many very shocking scenes, especially with what the radium companies were doing to promote their product and how people were using radium products before the danger was recognized. It’s pretty graphic!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great review! I will certainly stay away from this book! It sounds horrifying, and the fact that the radium girls is just one in a series of such uncaring cruelty to workers down through the ages is haunting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! The history and illness progression are fascinating but oh so horrific. The lengths that the employers go to to protect their businesses (and money) is really terrible.


  6. I just read THE REVENGE OF THE RADIOACTIVE LADY by Elizabeth Stuckey-French. It’s an older title, I think 2006, and I just stumbled across it in the laundry room of my apartment building. Once I started reading, I found out that the main character’s story is based on true events of radiation poisoning. I am so fascinated and can’t wait to read more – thanks for recommending RADIUM GIRLS!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady sounds great! And it fits right in with Radium Girls and what people were doing with Radium at the time. There actually were radium drinks that people were told to drink for their health, which is just so mind boggling!! And of course, they were super expensive.

      Liked by 1 person

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