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Book Review: The Radium Girls

People have suffered the harmful, debilitating, and sometimes lethal effects of radiation since its discovery, since before its true destructive power became widely known. In her book The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, British author Kate Moore illuminates the lives — and gruesome deaths — of two groups of women who worked with radium in the 1910s-1930s.

Around the turn of the century, radium was thought to be a miracle cure for many ailments. It was used in hospitals to treat tumors, but “radium water” and other fad products were also popular. Radium, mixed with paint, was also used on watches, clock faces, and other dials because it glowed in the dark. This industry boomed during World War I, when demand for soldiers’ watches and dials used in military machinery sharply increased.

In the US, young working-class women, often with immigrant backgrounds, were hired to paint dials. They were instructed to use their lips to shape the brush hairs into a fine point — every time they did so, they ingested the radioactive paint. Once inside a person’s body, radium makes its way to the bones and stays there. With a half-life of 1600 years, radium continuously bombards its victims with radiation from the inside.

After a few years, a number of women who worked or used to work in the radium dial factories began falling ill. They complained of toothaches, but after a tooth was pulled, the wound refused to heal; the infection would spread, leaving women toothless, with fractured jaws and flowing pus. Others had painful backs and eventually required the constant support of a metal brace, as the radium ate away at their spine. Still others developed huge tumors, called sarcoma, on various parts of their bodies. Most victims had a combination of these symptoms and were in constant pain. While many of the women died, others were merely handicapped for life.

A dial-painter at work

Because radium was thought to have only positive health effects, at first the women — and the doctors they consulted — didn’t realize the cause of their illness. Even when they did finally understand that their health problems were due to their work, the radium companies refused to take any responsibility or provide any financial compensation. They did their utmost to discredit the women and their allies. Residents of Ottawa, Illinois, gave the ailing dial-painters in their community no support when the women sued their former employer Radium Dial Company — the radium business brought much-needed jobs to the little town. (Incidentally, radiation that seeped into the ground from the Radium Dial plant in Ottawa still contaminates part of the town, and cleanup efforts are ongoing as of 2015.)

It was only in the 1930s, roughly 20 years after some of the women had worked in dial-painting factories, that they finally saw justice under the law. One group of dial painters in New Jersey, led by a woman named Grace Fryer, who spent two years searching for a lawyer to take her case, reached an out-of-court settlement with the United States Radium Corporation. Later, a woman named Catherine Donohue and her former colleagues won their suit against Radium Dial Company in Illinois.

Many women and their families lost all their savings to doctors’ bills and hospital visits. Those with children, like Catherine, sometimes were forced to hire help to take care of their families, despite their already nonexistent funds. For these women, the money gained from suit or settlement meant saving their family from debt or providing for their children’s future. However, it rankles to think of the value of a woman’s life in financial terms; no sum can equal their lost friends, family members, or good health.

Both lawsuits gained nationwide media attention, and the American public’s perception of radium (and radiation) changed forever. The dial-painters’ cases also helped raise federal health and safety standards and improve labor laws. Despite the adversity they faced, the women became champions for workers’ rights.

In 2011, a statue was erected in Ottawa, Illinois, to commemorate the dial-painters. The idea for a statue was put forward by an eighth-grade student named Madeline, who read that the dial-painters had no monument. She thought they deserve to be remembered.

Memorial statue to the Radium Girls in Ottawa, Illinois

In Radium Girls‘ epilogue, Moore mentions that the dial-painters’ experiences even had an impact on the Manhattan Project. Glenn Seaborg, a scientist working on the project, was one day “suddenly struck by a disturbing vision [of] the workers in the radium dial-painting industry.” Seaborg championed high, nonnegotiable safety standards for those working with radioactive materials in the Manhattan Project. Seaborg knew that plutonium, used in the project’s fusion bombs, behaves similarly to radium: It settles in the bones of those exposed to it.

After the end of World War II, the US Atomic Energy Commission called the dial-painters “invaluable,” writing, “If it hadn’t been for those dial-painters, the [Manhattan] Project’s management could have reasonably rejected the extreme precautions that were urged on it and thousands of workers might well have been, and might still be, in great danger.” While the scientists and workers may have been kept safe, no such compunctions were felt for others involved in the production, testing, and use of nuclear weapons in the days, years, and decades that followed the successful completion of the Manhattan Project.

Although Moore is admirable for paying tribute to the dial-painter’s impact, her conclusion whitewashes the US’s (and other nations’) real relationship with radiation. The radium girls may have finally received compensation for the injury done to them by their employers, but to this day people live and die with the effects of nuclear industries and receive little in the way of compensation or assistance.

Everyone should read Radium Girls. Moore brings her subjects to life and does not spare readers horrifying details about the effects of radium poisoning. The book tells a true story of women’s strength and determination to speak truth to power.

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Book Reviews: Rhodes and Dower

Nonfiction isn’t always gripping — but it can be. Seven months ago, I decided to learn more about nuclear weapons in general, rather than simply focus on a single instance of their use. Your average Google searches led me to the following books; all three are worth a read.

The Twilight of the Bombs

Average citizen turned leading nuclear scholar Richard Rhodes chronicles late- and post-Cold War (dis)armament efforts in The Twilight of the Bombs (2010). The book looks at a number of case studies in which nations tried to secretly develop nuclear weapons and were (usually) stymied. He also describes instances when states voluntarily decided to disarm. Rhodes, who has experience as a novelist, has a clear, engaging writing style — it at times feels more like reading an adventure rather than a history, such as when Rhodes describes literal car chases and bus-sieges in Iraq.

In addition to recounting the post-Gulf War inspection of Iraq’s nuclear facilities, The Twilight of the Bombs delves into how nuclear weapons positioned in former Soviet states were collected after the fall of the Soviet Union, South Africa’s development then abandonment of nuclear weapons, diplomatic negotiations with North Korea over nuclear technology, and the creation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, among other subjects. The book is a great starting point for anyone looking to understand the current global context surrounding nuclear weapons.

The Twilight of the Bombs ends on a hopeful note, with Rhodes asserting, “In time, possession of a nuclear weapon will be judged a crime against humanity. Such a judgement would only codify what is already an evident fact.”

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

The Making of the Atomic Bomb is the first volume of Rhodes’ landmark trilogy on nuclear weapons. It was published in 1986 and earned Rhodes the Pulitzer Prize. As one Amazon reviewer put it, the 900-page door-stopper is really two books in one. The first half chronicles prominent physicists and their research, starting around the turn of the century. Rhodes painstakingly weaves together every scientific breakthrough that led to humans splitting and harnessing the atom. The second half of the book follows the development and use of the first nuclear weapons, as many of the scientists readers get to know in part one join the Manhattan Project.

Through the eyes of the scientists — both those involved in the Manhattan Project and those who were shut out — Rhodes presents a multi-faceted look at the basic questions and contradictions surrounding nuclear weapons.

Despite the scientific focus of the book, Rhodes makes sure not to present the development of nuclear weapons in a vacuum. Along with discussing the political and military aspects of the Manhattan Project, Rhodes carefully lays out how warfare itself evolved over the first half of the 20th century, including how the mass bombing of civilians became acceptable and even desirable to military leaders.

As I mentioned earlier, Rhodes has formidable chops as a writer, and in The Making of the Atomic Bomb his symbolic turns of phrase aren’t common but never fail pack a punch. For example, the book begins with Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard describing how he realized nuclear fission was possible as he crossed a London street. Szilard only mentions the green cross light, but Rhodes closes the chapter by saying “the light changed to red.”

Cultures of War

At last, a book written by someone other than Rhodes. John Dower’s Cultures of War (2010), subtitled Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq, is the author’s response to the Bush administration’s repeated and surface-level use of references to WWII-era Japan after 9-11 and during the Iraq War. Dower reminds readers of the real circumstances surrounding these coded words and phrases (“Pearl Harbor,” “ground zero,” “democratization,” etc.) and posits real lessons to be gleaned from them. He examines the common themes of strategic imbecility, underestimating one’s enemy (often due to racism), and the U.S.’s alternating condemnation and use of air bombing and terror. Dower presents the U.S.’s eponymous culture of war as its belief in the infallible nature of overwhelming military force — a culture that came to maturity during World War II.

Although I had high hopes for this book — Dower’s Embracing Defeat was the first time I had thoroughly enjoyed nonfiction — the analysis ultimately felt shallow. It’s a common problem: attempting to compare two similar things and getting to the heart of neither. Cultures of War also had a fair bit of overlap with The Making of the Atomic Bomb, particularly in chapters describing the air war against Japan, so it sometimes felt like new information was in short supply.

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Book Review: Shigeko! A Girl from Hiroshima Crosses the Ocean

In her book Shigeko! Hiroshima kara umi wo watatte (Shigeko! A Girl from Hiroshima Crosses the Ocean), Seiko Suga chronicles the life of Shigeko Sasamori, a woman who was badly scarred in the atomic bombing, received reconstructive surgery in Tokyo and the U.S., and later permanently moved to the latter. The nonfiction book, published in 2010, is framed by Seiko meeting with Shigeko in Hiroshima to learn about her life; the chapters then switch to Seiko narrating Shigeko’s experiences in third person. Although Shigeko! is unavailable in English, the Japanese, targeted at children in late elementary school, is easy enough to understand without perfect knowledge of the language.

Shigeko’s story begins on August 6, 1945, when she was 13 years old. After being exposed to and horribly burned by the atomic bomb near Tsurumi Bridge, Shigeko managed to walk to what is now Danbara Elementary School, where she laid semi-conscious for four days without receiving medial attention, food, or water. She continuously mumbled her name and address, and finally someone told Shigeko’s family where she was. After bringing her home, Shigeko’s family nursed her back from the brink of death, but she still had severe keloid scars on her face, neck, and hands, the latter of which would give her a lifelong slight handicap.

Monument to Norman Cousins in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

After meeting Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto at Nagarekawa Methodist Church, Shigeko joined a group of young women all scarred by the bomb. Some of them traveled to Tokyo to receive reconstructive surgery; it was then that the term “Atomic Bomb Maidens” became widely publicized in Japan. Through Reverend Tanimoto’s introduction, Shigeko met journalist and writer Norman Cousins, who was visiting Hiroshima with his wife. Cousins raised money for 25 young women from Hiroshima, including Shigeko, to undergo more surgery New York City in 1955. Inspired by both her time in the U.S. and in hospitals, Shigeko decided to return to the States in 1958 to study nursing. She became Cousins’ adopted daughter.

The book then follows Shigeko as she works hard to master English, become a nurse’s aide, help difficult but ultimately gracious patients, and raise her son. Over the years, Shigeko began to do more and more public speaking. After retiring from nursing, she visited schools, universities, and other functions to share her experience of the atomic bombing and advocate for peace. Shigeko also visited Chernobyl to speak with people affected by the nuclear disaster there.

The author closes the story with two examples of Shigeko speaking to students in the U.S., one at an elementary school and the other at Winona State University, from which Shigeko received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters in 2009. In her talks, Shigeko spoke about hating and fearing war itself rather than the country that dropped the atomic bomb, about young people’s potential to create a peaceful world, and about the necessity of living one’s life with courage, action, and love.

Shigeko and her son (Photo taken from the book)

Shigeko! rewrites “Atomic Bomb Maidens” as “Hiroshima Girls” in more than just name. While undergoing surgery in Tokyo and before their departure to the U.S., Japanese media referred to the group by the former moniker. However, Shigeko and the other young women didn’t much like that phrase — “As if there was nothing more to our lives than the atomic bomb.” Americans often called Shigeko and the others “Hiroshima Girls” instead, which made Shigeko feel more accepted as a person and free in her identity. The bombing of Hiroshima, the people she met, and her experiences in the U.S. all shaped Shigeko’s life, and all are given due weight in Shigeko!

Despite the scope of its story and open view of identity, Shigeko! sometimes lacks complexity. Perhaps simplicity is just a characteristic of children’s literature, but it occasionally feels like something is being left out of the book. Embracing more emotional and social complexity could, in turn, develop readers’ own nuanced understanding of the people and events the story describes.

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Oberlin College Holds Event Introducing Hibakujumoku Saplings

Oberlin College recently held an event, titled Spring Thaw, to introduce students to the college’s second-generation hibakujumoku saplings. Oberlin received the wisteria, Chinese parasol (aogiri), and ginkgo saplings from Green Legacy Hiroshima in September 2015. The saplings are currently growing in the sheltered science building courtyard until they become big enough to weather the harsh Ohio winter and be replanted in a permanent home.

Professor Garvin speaks about the saplings.

Professor of Biology Mary Garvin gave a tour of the saplings, adding a scientific side to the hibakujumoku narrative. Attendees, who included college students, faculty, and staff, listened to Professor Garvin speak about how trees transition through seasons and about ginkgo’s robust and resilient qualities. Students were curious as to whether genetic research is being done on hibakujumoku. The group also discussed the symbolic importance of Hiroshima’s parasol tree, the parent of Oberlin’s saplings. The parasol tree is one of only two hibakujumoku in the Peace Park, and its saplings have been sent around the world as messengers of peace even before Green Legacy began its activities. Although ginkgo can handle Ohio’s climate, the more delicate parasol tree saplings need to be handled with greater care.

Attendees also watched a video introducing some of the hibakujumoku back in Hiroshima, shot in early spring by yours truly and which can be viewed below. The video included shots of the parasol and ginkgo parent trees, so that Spring Thaw attendees could see where they came from. The ginkgo, which leans in the direction of the hypocenter, was of particular interest.

Events like Spring Thaw aren’t the only way Oberlin students come into contact with hibakujumoku. Environmental Studies Professor Chie Sakakibara’s class Nature Culture Interpretation watched and discussed the Green Legacy Hiroshima introduction video, and then Professor Garvin introduced the students to the ginkgo saplings and explained how ginkgo’s biological properties helped them survive the bombing.

Spring Thaw attendees

Hopefully interest in hibakujumoku and Hiroshima will continue to grow at Oberlin.

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Students in Chicago Put On Atomic Bomb Themed Art Exhibit

Eighth-grade students from Chicago’s Polaris Charter Academy, led by teacher Carrie Moy, recently exhibited their atomic bomb themed artwork at 345 Art Gallery. Ms. Moy’s class spends the entire year studying the atomic bomb, and the class collaborated with the Japanese Culture Center in Chicago to express through art what they learned.

Students with their artwork

The art exhibit came about after the class visited the Center’s “Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Exhibition,” which was held in October 2016 and used materials on loan from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. After a discussion with Japanese Culture Center Director Saira Chambers about Hiroshima-Nagasaki, the class decided to put on their own exhibition. Ms. Chambers visited their classroom and helped the students work through and express their ideas.

Gallery 345 is run by a Chicago police officer, who donated the space to the community to hold events. According to its website, the gallery is meant to be “a space to showcase art as a form of social engagement.”

Students happily receive copies of “Paper Crane Journey”

The students received copies of “Paper Crane Journey” from ANT-Hiroshima during the gallery event. Ms. Chambers said the students were grateful for the books and happy to “know there were people listening to them far away.”

The Japanese Culture Center plans to collaborate with the class again for August 6 commemoration events, as well as continue working with Ms. Moy’s classes in future years.

A student discusses his artwork with Professor Miyamoto

DePaul University Professor Yuki Miyamoto also attended the exhibition. Professor Miyamoto teaches classes on the atomic bomb and takes a group of students on a study trip to Hiroshima and Nagasaki every other year. The humble writer of this blog met her when she brought her students to the UNITAR Hiroshima Office last December.

From left to right: Yuki Miyamoto, Carrie Moy, Saira Chambers

Ms. Chambers is passionate about sharing what she’s learned about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the atomic bomb. She said, “Chicago also has a deep history with the atomic bomb, and there is a community of dedicated advocates for knowledge and understanding of the topic here.” As the Center’s director, she supports “anyone who wishes to learn about this part of our collective past and how to make this a positive lesson for the future.”

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Green Legacy Hiroshima