I have a healthy respect for radiation.
As a fledgling student in genetics in the 1990s, I learned how to use radioactive phosphorus (32P) safely to tag fragments of DNA molecules. When you expose materials containing radioactive DNA to X-ray film, the emitted particles from the phosphorus atoms create dark splotches on the film that help you identify and characterize your DNA samples.
You have to be careful with 32P, however. The beta particles it emits can damage DNA and other molecules in living cells. As a student researcher, I was taught to use plexiglas shielding between me and the radioactive material to block the damaging particles from reaching most of my body, and the radioactive material was stored in special containers to limit human exposure during storage and transport. Today, fluorescent dyes or colored compounds are sometimes used instead of radioactive substances to highlight the DNA fragments of interest, which helps limit the risk of radiation exposure to researchers.
When used carefully, radiation has bestowed many benefits to human society: microwave ovens heat our food safely and quickly; X-rays help diagnose broken bones; radioactive materials are used to kill cancer cells; nuclear reactors generate electricity… and yes, scientists still explore various types of radiation and study the basic properties of DNA and other molecules, as well as how molecules and cells respond to and potentially repair radiation damage.
And yet. We know today that different types of radiation and radioactive materials have the potential to harm the cells of living things indiscriminately if not used, stored, or disposed of carefully. On a larger scale, the use of nuclear weaponry remains an international concern and provides a cautionary tale after the deployment of an atomic bomb by the U.S. in Japan during World War II. How we live with the benefits and risks of radioactive materials has been an evolving story, played out only over the past 100 years or so.
During a lull between my academic semesters this winter, I read the 2017 book, The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, by Kate Moore. While this book is not the first effort to describe the plight of the young women who worked in factories to paint clock and watch dials with luminous, radioactive, radium-based paint, it was my own introduction to this story of science history. Moore’s self-described goal in writing the book was to illuminate the personal stories of some of the workers in New Jersey and Illinois, using items from the women themselves, historical records, and interviews with relatives. She was inspired to learn more about the individual women after directing a play based on the Radium Girls, “These Shining Lives,” by Melanie Marnich.
In the book, we are introduced to a number of individual young women and their families, and we follow their personal stories during and following employment with the dial-painting companies. As the young women (some only teenagers) nipped paintbrushes between their lips to form a tight point for precision painting, they ingested minute–but damaging–quantities of radium directly into their bodies. Their clothes and bodies were also routinely coated with a fine dust of radium powder. Over time, scientists and physicians learned that radium mimics calcium (both elements are in the same column on the periodic table) and can replace calcium in bone, causing skeletal damage and tumors over extended periods of time. The radioactive nature of the element created an ongoing release of damaging particles emanating from the insides of the women’s bodies–a life sentence of radiation sickness. The book also describes the lengthy and uphill efforts of the women to seek legal compensation from the dial companies, and a brief overview of how these cases changed the landscape of workplace safety regulations and parameters of workers’ compensation rights.
After finishing the book, I was struck by two themes that extend beyond the lifetimes of the radium workers: the contributions to science made by the discoverer of radium, Marie Curie, and the ways in which novel scientific discoveries are necessarily somewhat incomplete. As we build up knowledge over time, however, we refine our understanding of the natural world in important ways.Marie Curie is probably the most famous woman in science history. She was born 150 years ago in Poland and discovered that certain substances could emit particles smaller than an atom. She won two Nobel prizes–jointly in 1903 in Physics along with her husband and Henri Becquerel for fundamental principles of radioactivity, and later in Chemistry in 1911 (after Pierre Curie’s death) for her own 1898 discoveries of the radioactive elements radium and polonium. Curie’s life has been since defined and well described in different categories–Curie the scientist, the woman, the mother (her daughter Irène also won a Nobel prize, and her daughter Eve wrote a biography of her mother), and simply Marie Curie the person. She remains a somewhat enigmatic yet powerful historic figure both for her breakthrough research in science, as well as for the challenges facing female scientists a century ago and the legacy of these challenges that remains for female scientists today.
Early experiments with radium and other radioactive elements led to observations that radioactive materials could damage and kill human tissues. Some of these experiments were unintended, as the researchers began suffering physically from exposure to radiation while handling radioactive materials. Quickly, however, the near mythical properties of radium eclipsed concerns about safety. If it cures cancer, it must be healthful, right? Many radium products hit the shelves–including beauty products and radium-infused water–and it became the marketing buzzword of the early 20th century. After the decades-long story of radium’s effects on the dial factory workers came to light, radium lost its shine, so to speak. But radium for cancer treatment is still an option, and research into radiation for medical therapies opened a wide range of diagnostic tools and targeted approaches to treating cancer and other conditions.
The plight of the Radium Girls has all the intrigue you could want in a story: ordinary young women with high hopes and dreams of a better life, cut down by devastating illness marked by mystery and conspiracy on the part of industry moguls, who fight for their lives and their legacy in their homes and in courtrooms, bringing to light an important cautionary tale about the darker side of living in human society. But the legacy of the Radium Girls has a positive aspect, showing that change is possible when we have more complete information about the world around us and the will to create a just and healthy society. It also frames important issues about the legacy of scientific discovery. We are often quick to look before we leap in our excitement over new hopes and promises spurred by scientific discovery (sometimes coupled with instances of savvy but misleading marketing). Yet, we do nonetheless continue to debate the pros and cons of applications of new research. Even through the dark chapter of the glow of radium, we’ve moved forward in our knowledge about the world around us. The forward progression of knowledge continues, even as the basis of understanding shifts back and forth in the self-correcting nature of scientific discovery. How we use that knowledge is the true test of our society. Learning from the past can create a brighter future, when we put our knowledge and ingenuity to work. This is the legacy of scientific discovery as a whole, and of Marie Curie’s remarkable radium.
• SciShow brief video overview about radium and the history of the Radium Girls: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaIqlW6VcMY
• “The Girls with Radioactive Bones,” by Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic (Q&A with author Kate Moore about The Radium Girls): https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/03/radium-girls-kate-moore/515685/
• “Marie Curie’s Passion,” by Julie Des Jardins, Smithsonian Magazine, October 2011: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/madame-curies-passion-74183598/
• “How We Realized Putting Radium in Everything Was Not the Answer,” Taylor Orci, The Atlantic, March 2013: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/03/how-we-realized-putting-radium-in-everything-was-not-the-answer/273780/