The girls who glow in their graves

Let’s not talk about Michael Jackson. I’m tired of Michael Jackson even though I wrote this week about the issues confronting people who love Jackson’s music but, having left Neverland, can no longer deal.

Let’s talk about “Radium Girls,” the terrific stage play by D.W. Gregory that my daughter is in this weekend in the safest city in America, not to brag about either.

The show is a powerful look at an ugly slice of history: the poisoning of young women who worked at a New Jersey factory in the 1920s. The women, many in their teens and 20s, worked for the U.S. Radium Corporation, painting fluorescent dials on watches and clocks using a substance made of radium and zinc.

Radium had been discovered about two decades earlier by Pierre and Marie Curie and was considered a miracle substance. It was a cure for both cancer and flagging energy.  People drank water laced with radium and ate radium candy. In World War I, soldiers wore watches that were illuminated with a radium-based paint. In her terrific three-part series in Wired magazine a few years ago, Deborah Blum explained how that worked:

“The paint glowed due to a rather neat little cascade of chemical interactions:  If radium salts were mixed with a zinc compound, particles emitted by the radium caused the zinc atoms to vibrate.  The vibration created a buzz of energy, visible as a faint shiver of light.”

Of course, when the soldiers came home, civilians wanted iridescent watches of their own, and U.S. Radium Corp. set out to supply them. They hired young women who each painted about 250 watch dials every day, with brushes they wet in their mouths to make a fine point.

Day after day, year after year, they swallowed the poison, and it seeped into their bones.

Some of the women died, in ghastly fashion. Their jawbones rotted; their teeth fell out. Their bones grew brittle and porous and shrank. “Radium Girls” is the story of how a few of them, even as they were dying, worked to hold the company accountable for continuing its operations, even after confronted with evidence that the radium was killing the workers. (To be clear: Not all of the workers died; one lived to age 107.)

The case, which ultimately led to greater workplace safety protections in the U.S.,  is an important part of history, yet my children learned about it, not in class, but on the stage. Something to ponder, along with why so many people I’ve asked don’t know this story. 

I didn’t either, even though I subscribe to a digital magazine called Undark, which, as it turns out, was the trade name for the radium paint.


Watching “Radium Girls,”  I wondered “Why hasn’t this been made into a movie?” and checking later, well, it has been. There was one shown at a couple of film festivals last year, but I haven’t been able to find a way to watch it. There are also a couple of books, of which this one seems the best. 

Radium, by the way, still is being used to treat cancer. But thankfully, no one’s painting it on their teeth as a fun party prank, or carrying it around in their pockets, like Marie Curie did. Scientists believe her notebooks will be radioactive for another 1,500 years. People who want to inspect them have to wear protective clothing and sign a waiver, the Christian Science Monitor reported. The bones of the radium girls are believed to glow in their graves.

In the last scene of my daughter’s show, a character struts around puffing on a cigarette — yesterday’s radium.

Makes you wonder what ours is today.

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