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In a Watch's Deadly Glow, a Fight for Justice

Author: John Williams

Gale - Product Login. Accessed 14 Mar. 2023.

In the early 20th century, the United States Radium Corporation hired young women to paint the numbers and hands on watches so they could be seen in the dark. By the end of a day's work, the women glowed, too. The seemingly magical substance in the paint that covered them -- and gave them the name ''shining girls'' -- was, of course, highly radioactive. The resulting tragic deaths led, eventually, to several of the women suing the company, in what would become a landmark workers' rights case. In ''The Radium Girls,'' Kate Moore tells the story of these women, from their initial excitement about the work to their realization that it was killing them to their legal battles. Below, Ms. Moore tells us about the inspiration for the book, what surprised her most while researching it and more.

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

I first discovered the girls' story through directing a play about them in 2015, ''These Shining Lives,'' by Melanie Marnich, in London. In my preparation, I wanted it to be as authentic as it could be, because it was a real piece of history, so I felt a sense of responsibility. I realized that there was no book that focuses on the radium girls themselves, and told their story from their perspectives. The other books, fantastic as they are, focus on the legal side of things, or the scientific side. I thought, If no one else has done it, why don't I do it? Because they deserve their own story.

What's the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

I think the most shocking thing rather than surprising: looking at the companies' files, and at their memos and realizing just how deep the corruption ran. They knew what was happening, and that they were killing these girls; not only the ones they had already killed but the ones who were still working.

The surprising thing was, during my research I went to the LaSalle County Historical Museum in Illinois, which had a terrific collection of radium girls' letters. I'm leafing through this file in the back of this tiny museum, and I find not only letters between the girls, but also, one of the most moving things: Pearl Payne, who was clearly a very intelligent woman, though she had to leave school when she was 13, had written -- for posterity, really -- what happened to her, detailing fully her medical conditions. She had problems with her wounds, so she bled a lot. She talked about bleeding for 87 days straight and the doctors didn't know what was wrong with her. I was sitting there with tears streaming down my cheeks, reading it aloud. I don't know if it was surprising, but it was just heartbreaking and special, to discover this treasure trove of material and to know I could use it to bring these girls to life.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

It's a lot longer. And a lot more detailed. When I pitched it, I didn't know what I was going to find when I started researching: the girls' voices, in court transcripts and diaries and letters. When I first pitched it, I had no idea these things existed. I sensed that material might be available, but the other authors hadn't quoted it to the full extent. As part of my research, I interviewed family members as well. I focused on a lot more individual women than I probably planned to originally. With these kinds of books, there's normally one heroine you follow, but the thing about this story is that each girl contributed. So I obviously had to bring to life several of them, because they all played a part in this fight for justice and in proving radium wasn't this beneficial substance everyone thought it was.

Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

My husband, Duncan Moore, who is an exceptional theater director. I've learned so much from him as a writer and a director and just as a creator. His attention to the tiniest detail in his productions, his insight in encouraging people to uncover the truth of their characters -- which is often several layers deep in a play -- and the way he inspires people to embrace his vision, is something I've tried to emulate and take on.

He's also, as is the case with many writers, my first reader. We've both lived with this story for a long time. He read the first chapter, and said: ''This isn't what you do. This isn't the accessible narrative with the girls at the center of it. I think you need to scrap it and start again.'' So I did.

Persuade someone to read it in less than 50 words.

An amazing story about real women who stood up and fought for justice. Their strength, sacrifice and courage deserve to be remembered. Part scientific mystery, part horror story and part courtroom drama, this is a piece of history that will break your heart but somehow lift your spirit.

This interview has been condensed and edited.


PHOTOS: Kate Moore, left, depicts the women who were exposed to radium in places like the Dial-Painting Studio, far left, in Orange, N.J., in the 1920s. Below, a woman with a radium-induced sarcoma of the chin. (PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHR, NATIONAL ARCHIVES, CHICAGO; COLLECTION OF ROSS MULLNER)

DMU Timestamp: March 11, 2023 09:24

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