Women, Radium, and the Depravity of Man

My wife and I are listening together to The Radium Girls, a book about the women who worked in the the dial-painting factories in the 1920s. Radium was a recently discovered element, and was viewed as a wonder substance that would cure illnesses and improve health. And it glowed. That factor made it a perfect application for use in glowing watch and clock faces. The jobs paid well for girls with little training in other areas. By the dozens they signed up to manually paint numbers onto the small faces of watches and clocks. The struggle was to make their numbers small and accurate enough to fit on the surface. This resulted in the development of lip-pointing, a process in which a girl would lick the tip of the brush, dip it in the paint, paint a numeral, then stick the brush back in her mouth to start the process over again.

Unknown to the girls, this process caused them to ingest significant quantities of an extremely radioactive substance. Slowly, but with increasing frequency, the girls began to get sick. I don’t want to give away too much of the book, and the purpose of this article is not to review the book, but rather to look at the evil that lies in the heart of men.

As these young women began to get ill, the companies they worked for insisted that the illnesses had nothing to do with the working conditions in the factories. At first, this response could be understood. Radium had been advocated by many as healthy substance, and the country was going through something of a “radium craze.” But as cases mounted, tests were run, and evidence became clear, these companies continued to try to discredit the women, even to the point of withholding evidence and using deceit.

The story is a fascinating one, and well worth reading. But at the heart of it is brokenness. History is full of stories of people doing underhanded and devious things in order to enrich themselves. In that regard, this story is only one of many. But unlike the black lung faced by miners or the long-term effects of other unsafe working conditions, this story had consequences that emerged on a much shorter timeline. How many lives could have been saved if the evidence had been allowed to speak earlier? How many broken bodies would have been left whole if the shareholders in these companies and valued image bearers more than profit margins? We will never know. Because they didn’t. And there’s a lesson there. We all have lines that we draw and state that we will never cross. But what supports those convictions? Are your beliefs strong enough to stand against the strongest temptations?

As believers, we are called to be a people of conviction. By definition, we are those who answer to a standard that exists outside of ourselves. In the Scriptures, we are given our guidelines and rules. The value of human life is high on the list. From babies in the womb to single moms struggling to find hope to the elderly, we are to be those who value life. There is no disposable human being. There are only image bearers. I don’t know the religious backgrounds of those who ran the radium dial-painting plants. I do know that Christians are called to a different way of life. May this type of compromise, deception, and evil not even be named among us. Let the employers and supervisors who claim the name of Christ be known as those who value the person above the profit, and morality above compromise.