It wouldn't be proper to begin this blog series on Luminous Women with anyone besides Catherine Wolfe Donohue. This quiet Catholic woman from Ottawa, Illinois inspired her friends, courageously challenged the radium industry, and made law-changing history in the United States. Her place in history is not one to which she aspired, but when injustice would have reigned Catherine gave voice to the vulnerable.
This was an excellent opportunity for Catherine and her friends. Working in a painting studio was more sophisticated and higher paying than domestic service or factory work. A quiet girl, Catherine formed close connections with her coworkers. She married Thomas Donohue in January 1932, just a few months after being fired from Radium Dial for poor health and a visible limp.
It would have been tempting for Catherine to settle into being a housewife and raising children, but she was concerned about her health, even more so because some of her young friends had died in recent years making Catherine wonder if there wasn't something dangerous in the paint they used in Radium Dial's studio. The radium industry by this time was well aware of the dangers of the luminescent paint, but inconsistent and underplayed efforts had been made to ensure the dial painters' safety. Radium Dial had briefly given the women glass pens to apply the paint with to stop the practice of lip-pointing brushes, but they were quickly discarded since the brushes were more efficient.
Profit is king, and Radium Dial continued operations until forcibly closed, long after the death of Catherine Donohue and others like her. In fact, Radium Dial had taken strides to protect it's cash and resources before Catherine's law suit was judged. It wasn't until her hearing before the Illinois Industrial Commission that Catherine and her co-litigants learned that only $10,000 in assets could possibly be paid - if they won - because Radium Dial's assets had been transferred to a new business. Luminous Processes operated just a few blocks away from Radium Dial's old schoolhouse.
Suffering horribly from radium poisoning, Catherine testified about her years at Radium Dial. She weighed less than 70 pounds. Her teeth and jaw bone were falling out, and a huge tumor grew on her hip. Catherine was carried into the room to make sure the court heard what was happening to dial painters. Only when a doctor was asked to testify as to her prognosis did Catherine finally break down and fully accept that she was dying.
Catherine was victorious in her case before the Illinois Industrial Commission, and new worker compensation and employee safety laws began to be drafted, but Catherine never saw any of the settlement Radium Dial was ordered to pay. She died on July 27, 1938, while Radium Dial was still filing appeals. Final victory was bittersweet when the Supreme Court refused to hear Radium Dial's appeal and Tom, Catherine's grieving and bankrupted widower, received about $5,700, a fraction of the amount that had been spent on his suffering wife's medical bills.
Learn more about Catherine Wolfe Donohue and the other radium girls of Ottawa, Illinois in Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl.
"It's too late for me, but maybe it will help some of the others."
- Catherine Wolfe Donohue
Other suggested reading:
Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935 by Claudia Clark
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore