An author who revealed the untold story of the "radio girls" of the 1920s for the first time has warned that the tragedy of their deaths is more relevant than ever in today's world, and could even happen again.
Kate Moore of Northampton told the story of workers in American factories who painted illuminated dials on military equipment during World War I and later on watches, using enriched paint with radios that glowed in the dark.
Hundreds of women later died terribly painful from radio poisoning, leaving working-class families without paying their medical bills, while their employers continually denied that their work was culpable.
Kate's book, The Raidum Girls, tells many of her individual stories, based on diaries, letters and unpublished interviews, for the first time, and was recently recommended by Emma Watson for her book club Our Shared Shelf.
It details how a brave group of women fought and finally got compensation, but now Kate gives a warning note about how quickly their stories have faded from memory.
"I worry about the continuous commercial instinct to prioritize profits over people," he told Femail. "As long as that instinct is present, a story like that of the radio girls is, unfortunately, very likely to repeat.
Radium-painters from New Jersey in a social enterprise, including Mollie Maggia (third from right) who died when her teeth and jaw collapsed and she was bled to death by abscesses that spread over most of her head.
A quadrant painter with radio-induced chin sarcoma. The workers ingested radio when they submerged the brushes they used on military equipment and observed faces in their mouths to stop the spread of the bristles.
Catherine Donohue, of Newark, collapsed in court after hearing evidence that confirmed she was sick and had no hope of overcoming radiation poisoning.
"One of the most surprising things about the history of radio girls is the carefree way in which radio was adopted by everyone as a tonic and beauty product for health, people happily painted with radioactive eyeshadow and shots. of radio to the water while we take daily vitamins.
"By reading that today, we are surprised that such a dangerous substance may have been handled so carelessly, but it gives rise to the obvious question: what do we do or use today that could be so dangerous?
The lower jaw of Mollie Maggia, riddled with holes and wrinkled by the radio
"In an earlier era, the answer could have been cigarettes, so what will it be for our generation? Social media? Mobile phones? We do not know yet, but we must be vigilant."
Kate first learned about the history of radio girls while directing a play on the subject, These Shining Lives, by Melanie Marnich, which led her to conduct background research on real-life women.
They used thin camel hair brushes with narrow wooden handles. However, as fine as the brushes, the bristles had a tendency to spread and obstruct them by painting figures one millimeter wide.
Then they were told to put the brushes in their mouths to soften them; he worked without protective equipment; They ate together at their work stations and went home at the end of the day covered in luminous paint that made them shine.
Grace Fryer said she fought for justice not so much for herself, but to help future generations of women
However, within a few years women began to get sick and many presented at the dentist with loose teeth and others suffering from mysterious bone pain.
Mollie Maggia, who worked as a quadrant painter at the American company Radium Corporation (USRC) in Orange, New Jersey, was one of the first to die at the age of 24.
She had a tooth extracted by her dentist but the space never healed, and when she lost more teeth, her mouth was filled with huge ulcers that constantly filtered blood and pus.
Then, his limbs began to hurt so much he could not walk.
After losing most of his teeth, his mouth, lower jaw and bones in his ears became "a great abscess" and in a visit to the part of his jaw he went into the hands of the dentist, before the jaw lower still a few days later.
How were the radio girls poisoned?
The doctors who investigated the cases of radio poisoning among workers at the factory indicated that it had a "chemical nature similar to" calcium.
Therefore, if the radius is absorbed, you may prefer the bone as the final fixation point.
The radius was what one might call a bone seeker, like calcium; and the human body is programmed to deliver calcium directly to the bones to strengthen them.
Essentially, the radio had masked as calcium and, deceived, the bodies of the girls had deposited it inside their bones. Radium was a silent stalker, hiding behind that mask, using his disguise to hide deep in the jaws and teeth of women.
As early as 1914, specialists knew that the radio could be deposited in the bones of radio users and that it caused changes in their blood. However, these changes in the blood were interpreted as something good: the radium seemed to stimulate the bone marrow to produce additional red blood cells. Deposited inside the body, the radio was the gift that continued to give.
But if you look a little more closely at all these positive publications, there is a common denominator: researchers, in general, worked for radio companies. Because radio was such a strange and mysterious element, its commercial exploiters actually controlled, to an almost monopolistic degree, its image and most of its knowledge about it.
Many companies had their own journals with radio themes, which were distributed free to doctors, all full of optimistic research. The companies that benefited from radio medicine were the main producers and editors of positive literature.
Extracted from Radium Girls by Kate Moore
The disease ate his tissues and spread down his throat before dying of massive hemorrhage.
Other colleagues suffered similar horrible problems with their teeth and jaws, while others suffered bone problems, such as Grace Fryer, whose spine collapsed, leaving her relying on a metal stand to keep her body together.
However, it is the story of Catherine Wolfe Donohue that resonated most powerfully with Kate, who began working as a dial painter at age 19 until she was fired nine years later because her limp was alarming other workers in the studio.
Author Kate Moore of Northampton says we can all learn from the courage of radio girls
"She was fired for being sick, sick with radio poisoning caused by her job," explained Kate.
"The company knew that she had radio poisoning because of tests they had performed, but they hid the results, they lied to her and her colleagues that the radio they were working with was safe and they refused to admit any responsibility for Catherine's terminal. disease. & # 39;
Catherine was a simple and very religious woman who wanted nothing more than a quiet life with her husband and her two children, but she did not back down from a struggle for justice.
"Catherine's story resonated with me because of the way she persevered in her legal battle against this company, which she did at the time of the Great Depression, when many of her neighbors opposed her demand," Kate explained.
"Having seen her friends die before her because of the radio poisoning she now had, she was completely focused on getting the company to respond.
Dial painter Charlotte Purcell demonstrating the technique & # 39; pointing lip & # 39; used by factory workers
"All reports say she was a quiet woman, but she used that quiet voice to change the world." She gave evidence literally on her deathbed: having collapsed in court, her evidence was taken at her home, with the judge and the lawyers sitting next to her in her living room.
"He used his last breath to fight injustice and make the world a better place, even though he knew he would not live to see it." His children were three and five years old when he died.
"That personal tragedy also affected me deeply, everything was too unnecessary: people had known for a long time that radio was dangerous, and yet these women were killed by carelessness and greed." Catherine's strength, dignity and selflessness They shine so bright for me. "
Catherine points out how these women of the working class who were immensely brave in their legal battles against a company that fought them at all times they should be hailed as unrecognized feminists of their time.
"The radio girls were pioneers in many ways, they worked at a time when it was still unusual for women to work outside the home," he said.
"The historical legal struggle in which they embarked was disapproved by many, both because they were workers and because they were women, but they persevered because they knew it was the right thing to do.
& # 39; One of my favorite quotes in the book comes from the radio girl Grace Fryer. When asked why he was filing a lawsuit, he replied: "I do not care about me." I think more about the hundreds of girls whom this can serve as an example. "
Women at work in the dial painting studio in Orange, New Jersey in the early 1920s
"I think radio girls are incredible examples for women today too." They show us that we can fight for change and achieve it. "
"It took decades to hold companies accountable, lawyers would not take their case, companies obstructed them, lied to them and blackened their names, and even their local communities turned against them.
"The perseverance of radio girls in the face of all these difficulties is, in part, what makes them such heroines for me.
"When you also remember that they suffered excruciating pain from the radio, which paralyzed them and killed them slowly, a broken bone at the same time, their feat seems even more incredible."
Emma Watson recently recommended Kate's work for her book club Our Shared Shelf
Kate warns that in the current society of high consumption, radio girls serve as a warning to the questions Where do our goods come from and how could workers be suffering to produce them?
& # 39; The goods may be economically cheap, but what are the other costs involved? & # 39; She explained. "Sometimes, when I make consumer decisions, I think it's important to ask what kind of society we want to live in and what kind of values we want to prioritize, and then make our decisions based on that as much as the ease or financial cost. what we are buying
"We should still be angry today not only because of the human tragedy of the radio girls, but because again and again we see similar stories in the press in modern times that show us that we still have a lot to learn from history like this.
"Maybe that anger will make us want to value human life more in our modern world."
The Radium Girls by Kate Moore, published by Simon and Schuster, in paper £ 8.99