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The Radium Girls of Ottawa, Illinois

On Labor Day, the young women of Ottawa who died of radium poisoning from their work at Radium Dial were memorialized. Chillingly, they were the second Radium Girls: an identical case made an identical furor in New York ten years prior, but it took years for the science, and the law, to make it to Illinois.

Via Capitol Fax, the documentary Radium City is available in full on YouTube. It’s a simply made, affecting account of the deaths attributed to the Radium Dial plant in Ottawa, Illinois, and the legal action that followed.

The story of the Radium Girls of Ottawa and the “Society of the Living Dead,” which began organizing for a legal response in 1934, is pretty well known around these parts; the Capitol Fax post was occasioned by a new memorial to the fallen. What I didn’t realize is that radium poisoning from the painting of watch and clock dials was at the center of another lawsuit in New York City several years prior: a second set of Radium Girls, who received similarly breathless media attention in New York (and even briefs in the Chicago press), as well as the attentions of the legendary Walter Lippman and Jane Addams’s National Consumers League:

Alice Hamilton had carefully laid out a strategy in the previous months with the editor of one of the nation’s most powerful newspapers of the time, the New York World. An avowedly liberal newspaper founded by Joseph Pulitzer, the World championed public health causes as part of its mission to “never lack sympathy with the poor [and] always remain devoted to the public welfare.” Hamilton’s long-time friend was World editor Walter Lippmann; he had already worked with Hamilton, ensuring that coverage of the ethyl leaded gasoline controversy in 1925 included both sides of the story, including large amounts of copy from university scientists critical of Standard Oil.

Hamilton had written to Lippmann in 1927 as she formulated strategy. “There is a situation at present which seems to me to be in need of the sort of help which the World gave in the tetra-ethyl affair,” Hamilton wrote. She got a response. Lippmann wrote to Berry, “Dr. Hamilton has asked The World to interest itself in this case and has told me that you have the necessary documents. I should appreciate it if you could let me see them.” When the judge continued the case until September, Lippmann stepped out of his normally cool and sober editorial pulpit. This, he said in a May 10, 1928 editorial, was a “damnable travesty of justice… There is no possible excuse for such a delay. The women are dying. If ever a case called for prompt adjudication, it is the case of five crippled women who are fighting for a few miserable dollars to ease their last days on earth…”

[snip]

With Lippmann and the newspapers outraged and the legal system shifting in favor of the victims, pressure to settle the case built on U.S. Radium. In early June, a federal judge volunteered to mediate the dispute and help reach an out-of-court settlement. Days before the case was to go to trial, Berry and the five “Radium Girls” agreed that each would receive $10,000 and a $600 per year annuity while they lived, and that all medical and legal expenses incurred would also be paid by the company. The agreement also stipulated payment for all future medical expenses, which would be determined by an impartial panel of physicians.

It was a huge story in the New York press, yet the identical work of Radium Dial continued well into the 1930s. Catherine Donohue, one of the plaintiffs in the Ottawa lawsuit, said that she worked up until 1931:

Finally, in 1931, the woman testified, she was dismissed because her limping became so noticeable other employees grew terrified. She said her superiors told her: “Your limping will cause talk. We’re sorry, but you’ll have to go.

The pollution, however, remains: The EPA has cleaned up 13 of the 16 radioactive sites in Ottawa.

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