Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Luminous Women: Pearl Payne


Pearl Payne worked with the young women at Radium Dial in the 1920s, and she was what I would have called a 'non-trad' back in my college days. She was a few years older than her coworkers, but, more notably, she was married. Pearl had her nursing certificate, but dial painting paid better, allowing her to sock away more savings for the day when she and her husband started a family.

Motherly and caring, Pearl was the oldest of thirteen siblings. She loved children and was eager to have a large family of her own. Little did she realize that the paint used in the Radium Dial studio caused miscarriage and infertility. Thankfully, Pearl worked there for only eight months. At the time, she was disappointed when her mother's health failed, forcing Pearl to give up her job to serve as caregiver. Only later would Pearl realize that this course of events might have saved her life.

During her short time at Radium Dial, Pearl had become close friends with Catherine Wolfe (who later married Tom Donohue). Pearl watched Catherine's health devastatingly decline after working at Radium Dial for nine years. Pearl remained relatively healthy and outlived her friend by decades, but radium poisoning did cause one heartbreaking health problem for Pearl. The woman who dreamed of a large family struggled to bear children.

Pearl holding Catherine's hand at IIC hearing

Pearl was plagued by tumors and endured multiple surgeries before realizing that she was suffering from the same ailment, though with varied symptoms, as her dear friend. By 1929, one side of Pearl's face was paralyzed and she had been hospitalized nine times. She feared she might be dying. Catherine was.

Pearl had the advantage of being trained as a nurse, so she realized better than many of the victims of radium poisoning that many of the illnesses suggested by medical professionals did not make sense as the cause of her suffering. When she was forced to have a hysterectomy in 1933, abruptly ending any dream she had of giving her daughter siblings, Pearl began to realize what was happening to the dial painters of Ottawa, Illinois. By the end of the next year, Pearl had brought together a group of women to challenge the legality of Radium Dial's operations.

To protect their assets, the owners of Radium Dial shut down the studio in 1936 . . . . only to reopen it a few blocks away under a new name: Luminous Processes. The workers were informed they would be safe as long as they didn't "lip-point" their brushes, and operations continued. Pearl and Catherine were determined to make a difference.

Desperate for justice - and money to pay the women's snowballing medical bills - Pearl's husband, Hobart wrote to famous attorney, Clarence Darrow, hoping that he would be willing to take on their case. Darrow was not able to help them directly, but he did refer them to Leonard Grossman, who turned out to be their knight in shining armor. 

Pearl wasn't content with the dial painters of Ottawa winning their own case, she also presented Grossman with the idea of an organization created to help other exploited workers. They gave it the morbid, yet apt, name The Society of the Living Dead. Months after the first meeting of the Society, Catherine Wolfe Donohue died of radium poisoning at age 35, leaving behind two small children. Pearl was heartbroken to lose her friend and even more determined to see justice prevail.

When the Supreme Court upheld the Illinois Industrial Commission decision to hold Radium Dial liable for the women's radium poisoning, Pearl did not stop there. She submitted to years of tests and exams for the Center for Human Radiobiology, helping to ensure that others did not suffer the way she and her friends had. 

Despite her radium poisoning related health problems, Pearl Payne lived until 1998. In her attic, she kept a baby stroller and crib alongside the papers she had kept through the years. Many of those clippings, letters, and other records can be viewed today at the LaSalle County Historical Museum. 


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

Available for Kindle and paperback on Amazon worldwide.

"I belong to a class of women of which the medical profession does not know the reason for their illness."                                                               - Pearl Payne

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