Radium girls: Revisiting poisoning of women workers at radioactive factory


Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize as well as the first person to win two Nobel Prizes in Science. PHOTO | POOL

Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize as well as the first person to win two Nobel Prizes in Science.

She is also the scientist who discovered radium and even championed the use of radiation in the field of medicine, which led to its utility in curing cancer.

It’s ironic then that for all the good that Curie’s discovery of radium has done, it had the exact opposite effect on the young women who worked with radium paint every day at the US Radium Corporation in the 1920s.

Many lost their teeth. Others, like Amalia Maggia in the play, ‘Radium Girls’, simply died from radium poisoning, derived from painting clock dials with luminous radium paint using fine-tipped brushes.

The dire effects of working with radium and experiencing direct doses of radiation might not have been so bad but for the bosses at US.

Radium insisted the girls sharpen the wet points of their brushes with their lips.

It’s those young women workers’ story that got told last week when Rosslyn Academy, Nairobi’s Gigiri produced DW Gregory’s play, Radium Girls, which is based on the book by Kate Moss, and subsequently made into a compelling film in 2020, based on the facts of the ground.

In real life, the young women worked at three different radium paint factories in the US, one in Illinois, others in New Jersey and Connecticut.

But the play is set in just one factory where the show’s director, Kirsten Krymusa, gave her cast the challenge of dramatising this tragic and troubling tale about the exploitation of women workers and the pain that led one of them, namely Grace Fryer (Martina Haugland), to challenge the status quo and fight for the rights of dying and the dead.

Radium Girls is not an easy story to watch, especially as the naivete of the young women makes them easy prey for the factory owners to exploit. Whether the bosses knew at the time that the luminosity from the radium was poisonous is not clear. But it’s more likely that they did.

Their position is similar to that of the big oil companies that pretended they didn’t know fossil fuels (the source of petrol or gas) were destroying the ozone and polluting clean air.

It’s also comparable to the tobacco companies that were forced by law to ultimately admit after many years, that they actually knew that cigarettes destroy lungs and finally, human life.

In any case, the story is no comedy, and the drama comes once the girls start getting sick.

Grace takes on the role of whistle-blower, representing the reality of women workers who rose in real life and challenged the bosses and the system.

Grace lost her job, of course. But she also found a supporter in Katherine Wiley (Magdelene Krymusa) who in turn helped her find the one lawyer, Raymond Berry (Josiah Githinji), who agreed to represent the women pro bono and fight Big Radium.

The play is a fascinating study of both sides of a class war. There are the bosses at U.S. Radium, including its President Arthur Roeder (Danny Kathungu) and his VP Charles Lee (Seungwon Jeon).

Their advocate was Edward Markley (Abigail Siegrist) who went to war against Grace and the girls she was fighting for.

Grace was told often by many people to give up the battle because she could never win. But she refused to listen. Ultimately towards the end of her life, and after her case went all the way to the Supreme Court, there was a settlement though not as significant as it should have been.

Still the story marks an important turning point in American labor history and one that is also significant to women worldwide since it illustrates how strong women can be in fighting against dark, materialistic forces and defending the rights of the weak.

It illustrates women as fighters, not victims which is a source of inspiration to younger generations of girls who now can know that females don’t need to be limited by outmoded stereotypes which try to dictate how small they should remain when they are not.

Radium Girls reveals one more shameless fact about the capitalist profit motive. It also exposes the reasons why everyone should learn how to be a whistle-blower, someone who’s prepared to go out on a limb for truth and justice, by exposing and challenging the duplicitous, deceitful ways in which corporations can get away with murder.