Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Luminous Women: Charlotte Nevins Purcell


Charlotte Nevins began working at Radium Dial when she was only 16-years-old, despite the company's policy that required employees to be at least 18. She was far from the youngest girl hired, and ability to paint tiny numbers was more vital than adulthood toward gaining employment. As one of the younger girls working in the dial painting studio, Charlotte was more likely than her older friends, Catherine Donohue and Pearl Payne, to join in the silliness of using the glow-in-the-dark paint as makeup before turning out the lights to make faces and giggle at one another.

She enjoyed the comradery of the studio and built close friendships with her coworkers. Despite her fondness for the young women she worked with, Charlotte did not stay long at Radium Dial. Her dream was to become a seamstress, so when the opportunity arose after a little more than a year in the dial painting studio, Charlotte grasped it. Her friends were sad to see her go but had reason later to be grateful that she had left when she did.

A few years later, Charlotte married Albert Purcell and many of her former coworkers attended the festivities. Some of them were beginning to experience symptoms of what they would later discover were caused by radium poisoning. When Charlotte gave birth to a tiny 2.5 pound baby in 1930, she may have wondered if her time in the dial studio was the cause. Many of her friends were ill, and Peg Looney, to whom Charlotte had been particularly close, had died after months of her body painfully wasting away.

With the Great Depression underway and a healthy daughter born within two more years, Charlotte can be forgiven for setting aside her concerns. After all, medical professionals were united in their claim that no such thing as radium poisoning existed. That might have been the end of it so far as Charlotte was concerned, except for a persistent pain in her arm.

In 1934, then the mother of three children, Charlotte travelled to Chicago for expert medical help. Her arm ached in a way that was abnormal for her 28 years. Even after an amputation, Charlotte felt phantom pain along with the stress of caring for her family with only one arm. A few doctors were putting forward the idea that the health problems suffered by Charlotte and her friends were caused by the radium they had been exposed to as dial painters. Missing an arm and concerned about the future, Charlotte joined Catherine Donohue, Pearl Payne, and others in bringing legal action.

With the town of Ottawa and the medical community divided over the women's case, Charlotte persisted, allowing journalists to use photos of her with her sad, empty sleeve to elicit sympathy from newspaper readers. Charlotte's health was relatively good after her amputation, but the same couldn't be said of her friends. Catherine Donohue especially seemed to be fading away before their eyes.

During the women's hearing, Charlotte had the satisfaction of testifying that Mr Reed of Radium Dial had had the audacity of claiming he "didn't think there was any such thing as radium poisoning" while looking at the young woman who was missing her arm. She had made a huge sacrifice for her 13 months on the job, but Radium Dial was finally held responsible. 

By the time that happened, Catherine Donohue was dead and Charlotte determined to not take a single day for granted. She lived until 1988, the extra decades of life likely granted to her due to the amputation that removed the worst of the radium poisoning from her body. Charlotte made it a habit not to say she couldn't accomplish a task because of her missing arm, and one of her grandchildren remembered her tying a jump-rope to a fence in order to jump rope. 

Charlotte also remained convinced that visits from a black and yellow canary were heavenly visitations from her departed friend, Catherine Wolfe Donohue. Like her friend, Pearl Payne, Charlotte participated in scientific studies to understand radioactivity and its effects on the human body. She continued to undergo tests and exams until 1985.


Learn more about Charlotte Nevins Purcell and the other radium girls of Ottawa, Illinois in Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl.

Available for Kindle and paperback on Amazon worldwide.

"We were a bunch of happy, vivacious girls."

                             - Charlotte Nevins Purcell


  1. Oh wow thats fab thank you for sharing that. As I wondered what happened to some of the other girls/women in the story. So please she had a longer life. But such a nasty poison.

    1. Some of the women did live reasonably long lives, but with health issues. The next one coming up in this series is more tragic.

    2. Peg Looney. Anyone else you'd like to see featured?

    3. Not in particular but is her last name really Looney?

    4. Yes, that is really her name. Peg was one of the first dial painters in Ottawa, IL to suffer from radium poisoning. Inez does show up in Luminous briefly. I'll have to see how much information I can find on her.

  2. So glad that you chose to highlight the plights of these girls. I loved your book Samantha.