Joliet Junior College history professor and author Heinz Dietrich Suppan doesn’t want the community to forget about one of the most important events in its history, so he wrote a book about the “Radium Girls” and the old Radium Dial Factory in Ottawa.
His book, “Marking Time: The Radium Girls of Ottawa,” details the tragic story of a group of young women who worked at the Radium Dial Factory during the 1920s, a time when the dangers of radium were not well understood. Young women looking to gain independence by entering the workforce were drawn to work for the company because of its good wages. They were instructed to paint numbers on wristwatches, pocket watches, and alarm clocks using a liquid that contained radium, which made the numbers light up in the dark.
They were encouraged to paint using the “lip pointing” technique, which involved each dial painter to put the tip of the brush between their lips to sharpen it so each number would be painted on the watches without error.
“What was perhaps the most fascinating, however, was what the radium dial painters did to provide a source of amusement – they would use radium brushes to paint their eyelids, ears, nostrils, and lips and then go into a dark area to tease each other,” Suppan said. “Little did they know this paint was highly toxic.”
Many of the women died of poisoning not many years after beginning work at the factory. The company denied that radium was poisonous, but ultimately, the women who brought charges against the company won their lawsuits.
Even though these events happened almost 100 years ago, traces of radium can still be found in Ottawa soil today.
“These events still have an effect on the city, and the federal government is still working to remove huge amounts of radioactive contaminated soil,” Suppan added. “This was an event that at the beginning, looked as though it would benefit Ottawa by creating jobs and encouraging more industry to locate in Ottawa. Since then, a monument to the Radium Girls has been erected in Ottawa. I believe it’s important that their story be told.”
In his research, Suppan interviewed several people whose relatives worked at the Radium Dial Factory. He also read biographies of the dial painters who brought charges against the company, and visited cemeteries where the women were buried.
“I hope readers learn how the state and federal governments became involved in this issue and what was developed to understand the dangerous levels of radiation,” Suppan said. “I also want readers to understand that as a result of this event, laws were passed to protect the workers from dangerous working environments.”
In addition to JJC, Suppan also works as a history professor at Marquette Academy in Ottawa. He is also the author of “Remember Indian Creek! In the Shadow of the Black Hawk War.” Both of Suppan’s books can be purchased on Amazon.com, or at the local Ottawa bookstore, “The Book Mouse.”