“I COULD have given way to tears,” Katherine Schaub wrote. It was January 1928, and she’d just witnessed her friends—their spines shored up by braces, their splintering jawbones bandaged and bound—give evidence against the company that had poisoned them.
She continued: “But tears would not do any good … I must summon all the courage I had, and fight.”
Katherine Schaub was a Radium Girl—one of the most courageous group of women who have ever lived. As teenagers, the Radium Girls were hired to paint dials with luminous radium paint as part of the nation’s World War I effort.
They were assured it was safe, in keeping with the received wisdom of the age. They were instructed that they must put their brushes between their lips to create a fine point for the delicate handiwork so, trustingly, they did.
But once Katherine and her co-workers swallowed that radium paint, the radioactive element settled in their bones, all over their bodies. Katherine’s teeth fell out, while her jawbone and knee began to ache with agonizing intensity.
“The pain [I’ve] suffered,” she later said, “could only be compared with the pain caused by a dentist drilling on a live nerve, hour after hour.” In fact, radium was literally boring holes into Katherine’s bones while she was alive.
Then huge cancerous tumors began to kill the women, one by one.
Despite overwhelming evidence, the company refused to admit responsibility. To do so would mean the end of the lucrative radium industry.
So the original Radium Girls fought back.
“It is not for myself I care,” Radium Girl Grace Fryer commented altruistically of their ground-breaking legal case. “I am thinking more of the hundreds of girls to whom this may serve as an example.”
And what an example the Radium Girls set. In 1928, women barely had the vote, yet Grace, Katherine and their colleagues used their newly empowered voices to speak out against injustice.
The company tried everything to shut them up. It “slut-shamed” them, insisting that one of the women killed by her work had instead died of syphilis. It hired so-called “experts” to discredit the women’s testimony, while concealing evidence that proved the women right. It tried to drag the case out for years, hoping the girls would succumb to their fatal poisoning before a verdict could be given.
But it had not reckoned with the tenacity of the incredible Radium Girls.
“I must summon all the courage I had, and fight,” Katherine wrote—and fight on the women did. They suffered knockbacks and corporate machinations; endured lies and counter-lies, but they kept on fighting, even as their fellow Radium Girls fell.
“It’s too late for me,” said Catherine Donohue, “but maybe it will help some of the others.”
It was Catherine who led the girls at their final trial. Unable to eat because of her toothless, sore-filled mouth, she was grossly emaciated, weighing only 70 pounds, much of that from a grapefruit-sized tumor that was slowly sucking the life from her.
Nevertheless, with her last breaths, she gave evidence on her deathbed. Her courage led to victory in one of the first cases in which an employer was made responsible for the health of its employees.
The Radium Girls’ bravery also led to life-saving regulations, which protect workers all over the globe to this day. Through their strength and sacrifice, they left the world better than they found it.