Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Luminous Women: Margaret Looney


Margaret Looney started work at Radium Dial in 1923, not long after Catherine Wolfe (Donohue) and Charlotte Nevins (Purcell). Her friends called her Peg. She was 17-years-old, too young to be working at Radium Dial according to their stated rules, but she was far from the only one. Some women remembered girls as young as 11 working in the studio as long as they were able to perform the fine work. Peg was quite capable, cheerful, and dedicated to earning an income that would help feed her large family of seven siblings (and counting!).

Peg had a habit of reading the dictionary and dreamed of being a teacher, but the wages at Radium Dial were too tempting for a working class girl. Besides that, she enjoyed working in the studio with the other young ladies who became fast friends. Since they were paid according to the amount of dials painted, Peg would sometimes even take work home. Her younger siblings enjoyed playing with the glow-in-the-dark paint.

Workers at Radium Dial, 1936

In 1925, some of the women at Radium Dial were beginning to feel symptoms of radium poisoning, although they did not realize that was the reason for their suffering. Red haired, freckled Peg was selected for health screening by her employer. Since she never received any results, she assumed that she was as healthy as any young woman would expect to be. Peg had a happy life with her friends, family, and a handsome boyfriend. Before long, she was engaged to be married.

Peg didn't make much of the problems she was having. Her jaw was sore, and she lost a few teeth. She lost weight and felt fatigued, but she kept working and living life as her failing health allowed. Sometimes, her boyfriend would pull her around in a little, red wagon when she lacked the energy to walk around town. She still enjoyed dancing and hanging out with friends as much as she could.

When news from New Jersey finally reached Ottawa, Illinois, Peg realized that she must be suffering from the radium poisoning that had caused the death of workers at US Radium Corp, but there was little she could do about it. Radium Dial management insisted that the radium compound in their paint was different - and safe. Peg could only hope that was true.

But it wasn't. Peg kept working, as she struggled to walk and her jaw disintegrated. She couldn't let her family down. She was at Radium Dial on August 6, 1929, when she collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. Radium Dial doctors attended her and refused to allow her family visits. Peg Looney, who had loved to be surrounded by family and friends, died alone on August 14. Company doctors claimed the cause of death was diphtheria.

Memorial to radium girls in Ottawa, IL

Radium Dial continued to insist that the women's work was safe for years following Peg's death. More women sickened and died, but some took up the legal fight against the company. Their bittersweet victory came in 1938, far too late for Peg Looney and many of her friends.


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

Available for Kindle and paperback on Amazon worldwide.

"Well, mother, my time is nearly up."                                                               - Peg Looney