Radium Girls

Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935

By Claudia Clark

304 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4640-7
    Published: July 1997
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-6081-6
    Published: November 2000

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Awards & distinctions

1998 Viseltear Prize in Public Health History, American Public Health Association Medical Care Section

1999 Richard P. McCormick Prize, New Jersey Historical Commission

In the early twentieth century, a group of women workers hired to apply luminous paint to watch faces and instrument dials found themselves among the first victims of radium poisoning. Claudia Clark's book tells the compelling story of these women, who at first had no idea that the tedious task of dialpainting was any different from the other factory jobs available to them. But after repeated exposure to the radium-laced paint, they began to develop mysterious, often fatal illnesses that they traced to conditions in the workplace. Their fight to have their symptoms recognized as an industrial disease represents an important chapter in the history of modern health and labor policy. Clark's account emphasizes the social and political factors that influenced the responses of the workers, managers, government officials, medical specialists, and legal authorities involved in the case. She enriches the story by exploring contemporary disputes over workplace control, government intervention, and industry-backed medical research. Finally, in appraising the dialpainters' campaign to secure compensation and prevention of further incidents--efforts launched with the help of the reform-minded, middle-class women of the Consumers' League--Clark is able to evaluate the achievements and shortcomings of the industrial health movement as a whole.

About the Author

Claudia Clark (1954-2003) taught history at Central Michigan University.
For more information about Claudia Clark, visit the Author Page.

Reviews

"An extraordinarily rich and rewarding book. . . . Clark provides a sophisticated and complex analysis of the interaction of labor, reformers, industrial physicians, academics, and industry that illuminates the specifics of this case as well as the development of industrial hygiene in general. . . . Radium Girls is a brilliant case study of the radium dial industry. But it is much more. It should be of interest to those interested in social history, women's history, and labor history and the development of public health in the United States."--Journal of American History

“A rich education in how 'knowledge about industrial diseases is a contested site of power'. . . . Contributes to the cultural history of the atomic age.”--Labor Studies Journal

“A dramatic and important story. By so heedfully unearthing workers’ perspectives and experiences and by broaching extra-workplace questions about consumption, Clark helps transport the history of ‘occupational health’ beyond the framework first forged by George Rosen and Henry Sigerist, based on 1920s and 1930s industrial hygiene.”--Bulletin of the History of Medicine

“An intelligent book that is both meticulously researched and highly readable. [Clark] demonstrates an impressive mastery of many disparate sub-disciplines, and weaves dominant debates of these fields into a tapestry of narrative that is cogent, compelling and compassionate. . . . Highly recommended to all those interested in women’s history, labour history and the social history of medicine within and without the United States.”--Labour History Review

“Provides an understanding of the situation of one sector of working class women, and the strengths and weaknesses of one of the major middle-class women’s social reform organizations of the Progressive Era in the period of World War I. . . . Clark does an excellent job of showing the weaknesses of the company and state medical investigators, and the economic and political ties which kept them from conscientiously defending worker or public health. Her story also makes clear many of the limitations of the middle-class reform movement and of Progressive Era reformers in general.”--Against the Current

“This well-researched book. . . . provides an interesting social and human perspective on a classic health physics case.”--Health Physics