Updated: Oct 17, 2020
Samantha Wilcoxson joins me today as my first guest blogger! She has done such a great job that I'm hoping to have more guests. The fate of the Radium Girls is a topic explored in several books, including Samantha's new book Luminous. It's a fascinating topic and I hope you enjoy it.
In 1922, there were few more appealing jobs for working-class girls than dial painting. The lucky women who obtained positions in these studios applied luminescent paint to watch dials and other instruments with fine-tipped brushes. An advance that had originally supported the war effort, glow in the dark watches had become a fashion trend, and the industry was booming.
Catherine Wolfe Donohue began working at Radium Dial in Ottawa, Illinois when she was 19 and was thrilled to be a part of the “family” of young women who worked together and became close friends. However, a few years later, she realized that an unusual number of them were experiencing health problems. When her close friend Peg Looney died after a long battle with deteriorating health and no answers from local doctors, Catherine and some of the other dial painters began to wonder if there wasn’t more to the luminescent paint than met the eye.
After years of sharpening the tips of their brushes with their lips and using the paint as makeup and nail polish, the women questioned if the radium that gave it that special glow was dangerous. They had no idea what kind of battle in which they were about to engage.
Catherine was fired from Radium Dial in 1931 because she had developed a limp that the company felt made younger, healthy employees uncomfortable. Feeling betrayed and abandoned, Catherine began looking for answers. Why had her young friends died? Why were so many of them sick and experiencing miscarriages? Was her limp really caused by arthritis? Was radium, which surrounded them each day, behind all of it?
Doctors and dentists denied that anything like radium poisoning existed. In fact, radium was used in the medical community for targeting cancer and treating a wide variety of ailments. As the damage caused by radium became clear, those who profited from it were reluctant to admit it. Catherine and her friends visited dozens of doctors and begged for legal assistance to see Radium Dial held liable. In the meantime, young women kept dying. Those deaths were attributed to diphtheria, infection, syphilis – anything except radium poisoning.
The dial painters of Ottawa found a desperately needed helper in Leonard Grossman of Chicago. A successful lawyer driven by a quest for social justice, Grossman took on the women’s case and took the fight to Radium Dial – for years, without payment. Without Grossman, the girls’ story would have turned out very differently. Many families had already decided that it was not worth the trouble to fight the industrial giant, but a few were willing to do whatever it took to see that their tragic fate was not shared by more young women. Catherine Wolfe Donohue was selected to be his lead client on the case.
It’s too late for me, but maybe it will help some of the others.
Catherine was under no illusions. She was chosen because she was dying. At age 35, she weighed less than 70 pounds, her teeth were falling out, she suffered constant joint pain, and had a grapefruit grapefruit-sized sized tumor. She had to be carried into the hearing with the Illinois Industrial Commission. But it was worth it. Their case was won, although Radium Dial dragged it out with appeals all the way to the Supreme Court.
Catherine died on July 27, 1938, before her final legal victory, but her case changed worker compensation laws and increased protections for employees working with dangerous substances. As she once said during her courageous battle, “It’s too late for me, but maybe it will help some of the others.”
You can read more about Catherine Donohue and the dial painters of Ottawa, Illinois in Samantha Wilcoxson’s novel, Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl. Her other works include the Plantagenet Embers series, featuring women of the Wars of the Roses and early Tudor era. All of Samantha’s books are available worldwide on Amazon.