In the years following World War I, Radium Dial was one of the best places for working-class girls of Ottawa, Illinois to earn good wages to help support their family or set savings aside for when they were married. Little did those girls know that the material they used to paint watch and instrument dials was slowly poisoning them. Even when realization dawned, they were faced with opposition from the radium industry, which did not wish to see their profits disappear, and the medical community, which had been using radium as a miracle cure. One group of dial painters decided they did not want to see future workers suffer their fate, so they decided to form the Society of the Living Dead.
The called themselves the Society of the Living Dead because some victims of radium poisoning had the eerie appearance of walking corpses. Charlotte Purcell had an arm amputated, and Catherine Donohue’s body wasted away to less than half of her healthy weight. Other women grew giant tumors or had their jaws and noses rot away. The varied symptoms of radium poisoning was one of the factors that made it difficult to diagnose and hold employers responsible.
The Society got the attention of the press and used it to spread awareness of the struggle of the “radium girls,” as they came to be known. Even the women who did not enjoy being the center attention allowed media photos of their emaciated bodies and underdeveloped children to increase sympathy and action. The news stories requested that readers send funds to help support the disabled workers whose families were struggling with medical bills and loss of wages.
As the former dial painters sickened and died, Radium Dial and other companies in the radium industry fought to deny liability or even the idea that radium might be causing their health problems. Without the work of the Society of the Living Dead, the fight to see radium poisoning recognized as an occupational hazard might have taken years longer. These women’s quest to protect others from the harm they had suffered saved countless lives, even as they lost their own.
My book, Luminous, tells the story of Catherine
Donohue, one of the key members of the Society of the Living Dead. Photos of
her shrinking frame and her tiny children inspired sympathy and increased
awareness across the country, but there is much more to her than those media
photos and news stories. Her private struggle is what I strive to capture in Luminous.
What did it feel like to fight for your life when even the medical community
seemed to be an enemy? How did she cope with watching her health fail at the
time of her life that should have been filled with health and happiness? How
did a quiet Catholic girl stand up to the might of the radium industry? Find
out in Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl.