by Dolores Klein
It is gratifying when we see very young people dedicate themselves to an important project, acting on research and study, and creatively and boldly taking action. An eighth grade student, now a graduate, Madeline Piller from Mendota, Illinois, along with her brother and school friends, acting on their research, wrote a play, took it a Washington, D.C. competition, and since then have seriously dedicated themselves to the building of a RADIUM GIRLS MONUMENT.
There are few monuments to women: we have Lydia Moss Bradley and Mother Jones in Illinois. This proposed monument to be erected on the site of the Radium Dial plant in Ottawa, as designed by Madeline, depicts a young, healthy dial painter “who is ready to take on the tragic challenges that will come her way.” Her story will be etched on the marble base. Though the monument is being seen as a gift to the city of Ottawa, I see it more of an Illinois asset, considering this to be example of strength in the face of certain death.
In 1925, Radium Dial became aware of the occupational danger of radium radiation exposure and the poisoning that would follow. These young women, who started in 1922 ingesting radium in the paint they were applying on brushes to numbers on clock faces, were never told. Instead, after being examined, they had their fears calmed. In 1934, seven women began legal battles to win financial compensation for occupationally acquired radium poisoning: debilitating bone fractures and infections, bone tumors and anemia. Small settlements did not pay their mounting bills. The company shut down, but reopened, remaining in business into the 70’s; finally being shut down by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for improper handling of tritium.
The seven women, known as “the Society of the Living Dead” gave more than an example. They and others traveled to Argonne National Laboratory, undergoing tests for the effects on their bodies of radium radiation, being monitored for years, sometimes being studied after death. These studies were used to set safety standards for industrial exposure to radiation, which is a gift to all of us from these women.
They took on an industry, a medical community and a legal system. While suffering from debilitating fatal illness, they fought the system that recognized women to be inferior and individual workers to be less important than the industry in which they worked.
Personally, I want to be part of Madeline Piller’s project, to be there at the dedication. NO MONEY IS BEING ASKED FOR, only pledges to see if it is financially feasible to go forward and complete it. The sculptor has donated most of the time it will take to create the life-sized bronze. Call for pledge info at 681-0311.