Category: Science History

What I’m Reading: The Radium Girls

My favorite types of books are nonfiction, specifically the history of science. It’s the nature of science that so many discoveries and innovations throughout history shaped not only the eras in which they originated, but continue to shape the society of their futures. I also find it so compelling to discover the story of someone who lived and died, contributing to a scientific advance that has had an impact on us all, but whose name has been outlived by their deeds. With this in mind, it is probably not surprising that The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore fits squarely into my literary comfort zone, and that I loved it.

Starting right after World War I, The Radium Girls chronicles the rise of radium as a wonder element, incorporated into untold numbers of beauty and household products, as well as used industrially for its ability to glow in the dark. This was an era in which a glow-in-the-dark wrist watch was an extremely sought-after item, and companies like the United States Radium Corporation and the Radium Dial Company sprung up to cash in on the radium craze.

My copy of The Radium Girls. Photo by Erin Podolak.

My copy of The Radium Girls. Photo by Erin Podolak.

Hundreds of young women, some barely into their teens, came to work at these companies because they offered well-paying jobs at a time when families were struggling. Young women who could work would do so to help support their families in the years before they established families of their own or to provide themselves with spending money. At the time, while some scientists were just discovering that radium could be extremely dangerous, the public image of the substance was that it was beneficial and couldn’t possibly be harmful.

A well-paying job with other young women in a joyful and convivial atmosphere, working with a healthful wonder substance that had the added bonus of making your clothes and hair glow-in-the-dark? It was an opportunity few women could pass up. So women flocked to the factories, spending every day sitting in a studio painting watch dials with luminescent radium paint. To paint the small numbers on the dials, the women used a technique called “lip pointing” –twirling their paint brush in their mouth between highlighting each number to make a fine point, ingesting traces of the radium paint each time they did so.

Within a few years, the “dream job” bubble would burst as women started suffering from mystery illnesses: tooth decay, mouth sores that wouldn’t heal, pain in their feet, their backs, their hips, low blood cell counts, sarcomas, and even bones that simply crumbled at the touch. Ultimately, scores of women would die of these illnesses, many long before the women and their doctors were able to figure out that it was exposure to the radium that was harming them.

Radium was still new enough that its negative effects were poorly understood, and  illnesses like the dial-painters had never been seen before. Companies profiting from radium and the girls’ work had every interest in preserving radium’s healthful image and their own finances. The companies would go to excessive lengths to avoid taking responsibility for any of the women harmed by the radium in their studios. Moore’s book tells the story of these women, as they struggled to make sense of what could have harmed them, never dreaming it could be their employers. She notes their dramatic turns from victims to advocates as they discovered their own poisoning, fighting until the end to make sure that the companies were forced to do the right thing for their workers.

One of the things about the Radium Girls that I loved was the connection to the women that Moore clearly feels. She cares about their stories, protecting them, preserving them, and telling it right. Moore writes beautifully, with sentences that lingered in my mind, hammering home the point that she is trying to make. For example, Moore describes the exhumation of a radium worker years after her death, while seeking evidence to bolster the evidence that radium could kill:

“When they checked the x-ray film, days later, there was Mollie’s message from beyond the grave. She had been trying to speak for so long-now, at last, there was someone listening. Her bones made white pictures on the ebony film. Her vertebrae glowed in the vertical white lights, like a regiment of matches slowing burning into black. They looked like rows of shining dial painters walking home from work. The pictures of her skull, meanwhile, with her jawbone missing, make her mouth stretch unnaturally wide, as though she was screaming-screaming for justice through all these years.” The Radium Girls, page 194.

It’s a passage that I read and re-read, and I think it showcases how Moore writes. It is captivating and hard-hitting, playing up the facts and their resonance at the same time.

The book shines a light on the misdeeds at the dial painting plants in Newark and Orange, New Jersey and in Ottowa, Illinois. Having grown up in New Jersey, the story of the dial painters struck a chord with me. But the plight of the women in these cities is a story that is altogether engaging and compelling. At the time, radium sickness wasn’t even defined, but the women fought to make their illnesses recognized by the government. They went on to challenge the companies, even forcing changes to worker’s compensation rules, and saving countless lives by exposing radium for the dangerous substance we all now know it to be.

The amount of deceit on the part of the companies made my blood boil with the injustice of it all. I think being a young woman, I could relate to the idea that young women would simply believe their bosses when they said they had their best interest at heart. I think that was a lesson that I learned the hard way early on in my career, that if something seems too good to be true, you have to wonder where the good fortune is coming from and question the motivations behind it. The women never considered the possibility that they were being lied to, that their very lives were worth nothing to the companies compared to their bottom line.

It also gives a new (to me) perspective on corporate misdeeds, how far some people might go to earn a buck, the lies that might be told, and the people that might be harmed. The timeline of events in the book is perhaps the most damning part of the story, because it shows without a doubt how, if the companies and individuals who knew that radium was harmful had owned up to it as soon as they knew, so many lives could have been spared, so much suffering avoided.

In the end, the idea that it was all only for the money, only about profits, just leaves the whole story tinged with sadness, because it does not provide a satisfying answer to the question of why, why would anyone knowingly do this to another human being. “For money” is an answer that is shockingly inadequate in the context of all that these women suffered, all that they were deprived of by these companies.

The Radium Girls is a story that will stay with me for a long time. This story is a piece of science history, as the mystery of radium and what it could do was untangled. It is a piece of American history as the workers compensation laws were rewritten and laws put in place to protect workers. And it is a piece of women’s history as these girls banded together to take on powerful companies in a David and Goliath struggle to do what was right. It’s a fascinating and sobering story, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

What I’m Reading: The Firebrand and the First Lady & Hidden Figures

The more I learn about and bear witness to the world, the more I’ve realized that my classroom education left out some aspects of history that give context to world and national events, and shape how I understand and interpret them. Reading is one of the best ways I’ve found to introduce missing perspectives and fill in gaps in my education.

Growing up I certainly had an awareness about the civil rights era–we learned about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X in school. But, even though I learned about these important people, there are so many others whose names I should also know, that I don’t. Pauli Murray and Katherine Johnson are just two of those names. Luckily, reading brought their stories into my world, and helped add depth to my knowledge about the various contributions of people of color to the United States during the civil rights era.

The Firebrand and The First Lady by Patricia Bell Scott

The Firebrand and The First Lady by Patricia Bell Scott

I learned about these two women by reading books that I think offered a lot of good information about US history and the role that women of color played in it: The Firebrand and the First Lady by Patricia Bell-Scott and Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.  Science writing and science history tend to comprise more of my reading list so Hidden Figures was in my conventional wheelhouse more so than the Firebrand and the First Lady, but both books were still quite different choices for me, being written by and about women of color. While I’m embarrassed by how little of my bookshelf came from or is about women and people of color, it is something that I can and am consciously fixing.

The Firebrand and the First Lady tells the story of the friendship between Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt. Murray was a lawyer, a civil rights and women’s rights activist, and the first black women to be ordained as an episcopal priest. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first lady of the United States from 1933-1945, US representative to the United Nations 1946-1953, and an important political figures in the women’s rights and civil rights movements. With neither woman alive to speak for themselves, the author draws heavily on the letters they wrote to each other.

Being able to see the letters they wrote to each other, especially when they disagreed, was amazing. It really was a snapshot from another time, where people with opposing views could find common ground and unite around a shared respect, treating each other with civility and thoughtfulness. It just struck me as sweet and sad that there was once a time when a young woman could reach out to a political figure and not just get a reply, but get true buy-in and a relationship that lasted the rest of their lives. I don’t think we currently live in such times, although this lovely piece by Jeanne Marie Laskas about how President Obama handled his mail, reading 10 letters a day from the public was a nice reminder about how important it is to have elected officials who hear you.

In telling the story of Murray and Roosevelt’s extraordinary friendship, the author gave an overview of the civil rights movement and the role that women played in it. But it was also an extremely American story, about how regular people built themselves up through education and hard work to leave an imprint on the world through the changes in policy and law that they helped bring about. The book left me not only knowing Murray’s name, but also with a profound respect for her.

I felt sympathy for Roosevelt, being a power broker but with limitations, and needing to figure out what she could do, what she should do, and how to pick which battles were the ones worth seeing through. She wasn’t able to do all that she wanted to, and yet she did so much more than most. But I was glad to see that Murray always held Roosevelt’s feet to the fire. In some ways, seeing Roosevelt’s responses felt like a master class in how to deal with criticism, and how there is always more that we can all do to help improve life for those around us. Being pushed to be better is a gift in many ways, but it’s also an endorsement of your own worth– that you’re worth improving.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.

Hidden Figures is quite a bit more well known, now that it has been made into a box office-topping film. Despite there being a movie version, the book is certainly worth your time. It tells the story of the black women “computers” (in the literal sense of “people who do computations,” but really mathematicians and engineers) who worked at NASA during its formation and at the dawn of the space race. It’s been written and said by others that the fact that this story hasn’t been told before is amazing. I certainly am not the first person to notice that this is a trend, the contributions of women of color being erased from the history that gets handed down. I’m glad that this book is as popular as it is because it is bringing this bit of history to the forefront and giving the amazing women whose story the book tells the place in history that they deserve.

One of the important things about Hidden Figures that has been said in this article and elsewhere is that, while it might be about events that took place from the 1940-1960s, there are still trends and themes from then that echo through research institutions today. Certainly for women of color working in physics today there are still numerous barriers to success and discrimination that white women and women in other fields don’t encounter.

Ultimately, I recommend both of these books, they are beautifully written and offer a point of view that I found incredibly valuable for expanding my understanding of the role that women of color played in US history. That context is important for understanding the tumultuous political climate of the world today, and I’m grateful to the authors for telling the stories of these women.

What I’m Reading: Two Years’ Worth

It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed any books on this blog, but that doesn’t mean I stopped reading. I have devoured quite a bit of non-fiction in the past two years with occasional forays into fiction. I want to share with you a list of the things I’ve been reading lately. Even though I read them all in the last two years, some of these books have been out for a long time, while some are more recently published. I don’t really have a set way of figuring out what I’m going to read; it really comes down to whatever attracts my attention. If it’s listed here, I enjoyed it in some capacity, but I certainly have my favorites that stood out to me more than others.

A sample of books from the past two years.  Photo by Erin Podolak.

A sample of books from the past two years. Photo by Erin Podolak.

In non-fiction, I don’t think I could possibly say enough flattering things about Rust by Jonathan Waldman. I absolutely loved this book, but I was surprised by how much there is to say about a topic like rust. It’s an incredibly compelling story, and I learned a lot not only about the science of rust and it’s history but also about the problems rust poses in the United States today in terms of infrastructure. Having gone to college just steps away from the abandoned Bethlehem Steel mill, I also got a kick out of his adventures exploring the hulking ruins I’m so familiar with. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and completely recommend it for anyone who likes non-fiction and just learning about a new topic. I was also very impressed by The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell. It chronicles an interesting exercise in which the author watches and records what happens in a single patch of land for an entire year. I thought it was unique and beautifully written.

I read a lot of science history books; it’s probably the genre I find myself pulled toward the most. In this realm, I absolutely loved The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan; it certainly tells a side of the development of the atomic bomb that you don’t often see. I also read three books by Sam Kean, and enjoyed them all.  He does an amazing job of putting scientific topics into current and historical context. I find his books consistently entertaining. They’re full of fun narrative bits that bring the topics to life.  I also have to specifically mention The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl by Arthur Allen.  I was completely fascinated by this account of research using body lice during World War II, it was an aspect of the war that I’d never heard anything about. I was sharing fun facts about body lice with friends, family, and acquaintances for some time after I finished it. I think people probably got tired of hearing me say, “did you know….” and having the second half have to do with lice.

More books from my collection. Photo by Erin Podolak

More books from my collection. Photo by Erin Podolak

I haven’t listed below all of the fiction books I read, but one highlight was discovering Michael Crichton for books aside from Jurassic Park. I really enjoyed Sphere in particular. I also spent the better part of the two years listening to every Harry Potter audiobook. Somehow I managed to get to my mid-twenties never having read a single Harry Potter book– better late than never. It probably goes without saying that I loved them. I really enjoyed having them read to me by listening to the audiobooks; hearing everything pronounced in a British accent really puts the books over the top. I also read a collection of short stories by H.P. Lovecraft, and the Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I was also a big fan of The Circle by Dave Eggers, although I have to admit I found the ideas it presents for our future quite frightening (like, haul up in a shack in the woods frightening). Which is the point, I think it’s supposed to do that.  Or at least make us think more critically about how much we share online, why we share it, and which entities we allow to own our information.

I go back and forth between reading paper books and using a Nook. In general, I tend to buy my non-fiction books as books because I truly wouldn’t mind living in a library (which seems possible in a small apartment sometimes). I usually don’t buy paper books for fiction, but I’ve read some that were borrowed. For fiction I typically rely on my e-reader, especially for collections and murder mysteries, which I’d say are my main guilty pleasure.

So, if you’re interesting in checking out some of the books that I’ve enjoyed here’s my list:

The Billion-Dollar Molecule – Barry Werth
Bossypants – Tina Fey
The Case of the Dueling Neuroscientists – Sam Kean
The Disappearing Spoon – Sam Kean
Driving Mr. Albert – Michael Paterniti
Empires of Light – Jill Jonnes
The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl – Arthur Allen
The Forest Unseen – David George Haskell
The Ghost Map – Steven Johnson
The Girls of Atomic City – Denise Kiernan
The Half Life of Facts – Samuel Arbesman
The Hunt for Vulcan – Thomas Levenson
I Was Told There’d Be Cake – Sloane Crosley
Infinitesimal – Amir Alexander
Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
Longitude – Dava Sorbel
The Map Thief – Michael Blanding
Merchants of Doubt – Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway
On the Move – Oliver Sacks
Scatter, Adapt, and Remember – Annalee Newitz
The Science of Harry Potter – Roger Highfield
The Secret History of Wonder Woman – Jill Lepore
The Skeleton Crew – Deborah Halber
Soul Made Flesh – Carl Zimmer
Thunderstruck – Erik Larson
Rust – Jonathan Waldman
The Violinist’s Thumb – Sam Kean
The Water Book – Alok Jha
Wild Ones – Jon Mooallem
Yes Please – Amy Poehler
10% Happier – Dan Harris

I also just want to mention that I wasn’t asked by any of the authors or publishers of the books listed above to review them or say nice things. No compensation, I just liked them and you might too.

Adventures at the Mütter Museum

When I take trips that aren’t for conferences, I am usually lucky enough that my family and friends will indulge me and let me divert us toward nerdy activities (like when I dragged my family to the La Brea Tar Pits.) That was the case a few months ago when I visited my friend Liz in Philadelphia. When she asked me what touristy things I wanted to do, my response was, “so, there is this museum…”

No photography inside, so here is a cell phone pic of the outside.

No photography inside, so here is a cell phone pic of the outside.

I was talking about the College of Physicians of Philadelpia Mütter Museum (which is marking 150 years in 2013!) On the trip down I had been reading a book called Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart (which is a fun, quick read – if problematic plants is the kind of thing that sounds interesting to you.) At the back of the book is a list of locations that have cool gardens, the Mütter Museum was listed because in addition to the museum’s collections it also has a garden of medical plants.

Reading about the Mütter Museum intrigued me. It is a medical history museum that contains anatomical specimens, models, and medical instruments displayed in a way that harkens back to the 19th century “cabinet of curiosities. ” It was serendipity that I was reading about the Mütter, just happened to be in Philadelphia, and was with a friend whose response to my entreaty that we go look at skulls was, “oooh, let’s do it.”

In general what I loved most about the museum was just the feel of the place. It is a little known fact that I actually love history, particularly medical history. One of my favorite classes that I took at UW-Madison was on the history of the scientific book. My main project in that class focused on evaluating an original copy of Vesalius’ de humani corpis fabrica (On the fabric of the human body) which in 1543, rocked the world of human anatomy. I was blown away by the gruesome beauty of the illustrations in Vesalius’ textbook, and spent much of my time in the library’s special reading room imagining what it would have been like to see such scandalous images when they were first published.

One of the things I love about history is being able to observe the process of discovery, how did we come to know what we know, is a fascinating question to me. The Mütter just has this air of the raw, gritty, exposure needed to understand ourselves. I found myself instantly drawn in by that quality, by the history of the place. Once fully inside of course there was the whole curiosity aspect. The specimens in the Mütter range from the relatively normal like the wall of skulls, to standard medical conditions like cancer or bone abnormalities, all the way up to the toxic megacolon. Oh, yes. I said toxic megacolon, and it is precisely what you expect a nine-foot-long human colon to be – gross and amazing.

Vesalius' skulls. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Vesalius’ skulls. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The collection also includes specimens that radiate a slightly sad sideshow quality, like the skeleton of someone with gigantism next to someone with dwarfism. I couldn’t help trying to imagine their lives. I was also particularly struck by a skeleton with fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, a condition where muscle turns to bone. While the “stone man” certainly fits the idea of a spectacle, it really hit me that this isn’t a historical disease it is a disease caused by a genetic abnormality with no known cure that can still occur today – even if it is incredibly rare. I was looking at the skeleton of a man who lived and died with that disease.

I recently wrote about the New England Aquarium and how science centers and museums can be the gateway to drive people toward science. I think this was reflected a bit in the Science Spark thread started by Ben Lillie on Twitter recently, which had people tweeting what got them involved in science. A lot of it had to do with parents, teachers, books, and movies, but a few tweets I saw had to do with trips to museums and science centers. There is a difference though, between hands on museums like Boston’s Museum of Science, and a place like the Mütter (aside from the fact that maybe skulls and preserved organs are not for small children.)

I recently received the criticism that as a stereotypical millenial, I’m only focused on the next app. While I am undeniably in the generation referred to as millenials (I may have scored a 94 out of 100 on this Pew Center quiz, for whatever that is worth) I think that characterizing whole generations in any way is a little unfair. Yes, I tend to focus on what we can do that will be new and engaging and make science and communication better – but despite how I may represent myself sometimes that doesn’t mean I disregard the past completely. I don’t think you can consider the future in a productive way without reflecting on where we’ve been. That was part of what I loved about the Mütter, it didn’t spark me as a gateway toward science, it sparked me as a cause for reflection. It made me think, and it made me feel. It stirred up my brain. That, to me, is one of the most valuable things about preserving our history.

I mentioned that I went with a friend to the museum. My friend is a perfect example of an interested but non-sciencey audience. Her response, when I asked her what she thought, was that the Mütter left her feeling a good kind of disturbed. She liked the museum, but it made her a little uncomfortable, in a way that perhaps only such an up close look at the corporeal things that make us human can make one feel.  I am a science minded person, but I felt that way too. For both of us, it was an afternoon well spent.

If you find yourself in Philadelphia, I whole-heartedly recommend a trip to the Mütter Museum. It is also worth mentioning that the museum is currently running a “Save Our Skulls” campaign where you can adopt a skull from the Hyrtl Collection for $200. For more on Joseph Hyrtl and the pseudo-science of phrenology, check out this Wired article by Greg Miller. You can also check the museum out on Twitter @muttermuseum or visit their YouTube channel.

Vacation Adventure: The La Brea Tar Pits

During my nearly three week blogging hiatus (caused mostly by the fact that I moved and started a new job) I also took my first trip to California. It was recommended to me on twitter that I check out the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, which when I looked it up led me to the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. The Page Museum houses one of the world’s largest collections of late Pleistocene fossils and is the only constantly active urban Ice Age excavation site in the world. Mammoths? Yes, please. So my family (also intrigued, though not as much as I was) agreed to make a visit to the La Brea Tar Pits during our trip, and boy was it a tar pit. But it was also so much more.
Yup, that would be tar. Credit: Erin Podolak
The La Brea Tar Pits are located in Los Angeles. The area of Hancock Park (where the lake pit pictured above and the museum are located) has crude oil underneath it. The oil seeps up along fault lines and when it reaches the surface it forms pools and becomes asphalt. The tar has been seeping up for tens of thousands of years, and at times would be deep and thick enough to trap animals. Water, dust, or leaves would obscure the tar, and when animals would wander into the pit they would become trapped. The struggle to get out of the tar would attract predators, which could also get trapped in the tar and eventually die. The remains of these animals would then be enveloped in the tar, which does a remarkable job at preserving the bones.
While the tar pits were known about as early as the 1780’s it wasn’t until 1875 when William Denton, a professor at Wellesley College, visited the Hancock family’s property at Rancho La Brea and identified a piece of bone as a tooth from a saber-toothed cat that the remains from the tar pits were identified as belonging to a species that wasn’t just a typical modern animal. Despite this it wasn’t until 1901 when geologist William W. Orcutt, who was checking out prospects for oil production on the land, noticed a piece of armored hide from an extinct ground sloth in the asphalt that the real process of uncovering the La Brea area’s hidden fossils began.
A display of 400 dire wolf skulls at the Page museum Credit: Erin Podolak

A display of 400 dire wolf skulls at the Page museum
Credit: Erin Podolak

Excavations of the area have been ongoing since the initial 1913-1915 project began. The 23 acre Hancock estate was officially turned over by the family to Los Angeles County for scientific exploration. The density and richness of the La Brea area is really remarkable. Several examples of prehistoric species have been uncovered at the La Brea Tar Pits including mammoths, mastadons, dire wolves, short-faced bears, ground sloths and saber-toothed cats. I think it can be easy to forget that until only 11,000 years ago North America had some tremendous large mammals that were all driven extinct. My favorites are definitely the short-faced bear and the ground sloth. By comparison, dinosaurs last roamed the Earth 65 million years ago. The last ice age dates to 0.3 million years ago. The Pleistocene, when many of the La Brea animals would have lived dates from 40,000 to 11,000 years ago. Several of the bones have been dated using Carbon-14 radiometric dating, which showed some of the oldest remains to be 46, 800 years old.

Despite all of the fossils that have been recovered from the area, the tar pits still continue to give up more. According to the Page Museum’s website since 1906 more than one million bones have been recovered representing over 231 species of vertebrates in addition to 159 species of plants and 234 invertebrates. An estimate of the size of the Page Museum’s collection is at about three million items. Three million. Excavations are still going on today at the La Brea Tar Pits with Project 23, a series of 23 crates of samples from the pits that were uncovered when the neighboring Los Angeles County Museum of Art excavated the area to build an underground parking lot.
You just can't visit the La Brea Tar Pits without riding the ground sloth. Or at least, that is how I felt.

You just can’t visit the La Brea Tar Pits without riding the
ground sloth. Or at least, that is how I felt.

What I loved about the La Brea Tar Pits was the ability to ignite a sense of imagination. I thought it was great to try to visualize what the area would have looked like some 40,000 years ago. Trying to imagine an animal like a mastodon just wandering by you as you watch tar bubbling up to the surface of the lake pit definitely peaked my sense of wonder at the world. If you find yourself in the Los Angeles area, I definitely recommend the La Brea Tar Pits as a must see for kids and adults. The museum is fun and informative and the grounds that you can walk around and peer into the pits are definitely interesting to see. Really, who wouldn’t want the chance to ride a ground sloth?