In late March, I received a phone call from a high school student in Texas named Nirvana Khan. She told that she was preparing a website for National History Day 2018.
More that half a million middle and high school students and over 30,000 teachers nationwide participate in National History Day each year. This year’s theme is Conflict and Compromise.
Ms. Khan told me that for her project she had chosen the legal battles that took place from the 1920’s to the 1940’s involving young women who had suffered disastrous illnesses from radium poisoning resulting from their employment painting watch dials.
Because my grandfather, Ray Berry, had represented Grace Fryer and some other New Jersey girls in their case against US Radium Corporation beginning in 1927, she asked if we could do an interview for her project. I agreed and we had a very nice talk.
Her website Legion Of The Doomed: How The Radium Girls’ Compromise Changed Public Safety is now completed and online. Ms. Khan succinctly and fluently provides the background of the radium craze in the early part of the 20th century, covers the conflict with the corporations, describes the compromise and settlement of the case, and discusses the aftermath and effect that the cases had on subsequent labor and worker safety law. Each section is full of fascinating newspaper articles and quotes.
In her process paper for the project, Ms. Khan describes her work,
I started by reading modern news articles about their case and gradually went further to gain a sense of the historical context; this included finding pictures, quotes, and news articles from the time about World War I and the radium craze. While doing so I also stumbled on several scholarly sources such as law reviews and scientific studies on the radium girls, which helped me understand their historical significance. I was able to purchase several books, including Kate Moore’s “The Radium Girls,” which helped me gain a thorough knowledge of the women and feel like I knew them personally. From there I found many newspaper articles and photographs from their case, as well as a documentary “Radium City” where one can see interviews of the living radium girls and the families of the dead. Finally, I circled back again to modern news articles in order to properly define their legacy.
Ms. Khan also said
The lawsuit filed against the corporations is very interesting because of the lack of regard the corporations had for their female employees, the fact that the dial painters triumphed against such stacked odds, and the revolutionary nature of the case. The compromise reached at the end of the case by both parties following the girls’ victory cleared the way for workers’ rights and compensation cases, as well as changed America’s view of radium and knowledge of radium necrosis. This led to safety measures for the public that survived through World War II and beyond.
Her website also has a 16 page bibliography that is a wonderful resource for further investigation.
Currently, she is participating in the state level History Day competition in Texas. Competition in Texas is fierce so she is not sure if she will make it to the national competition. The National History Day Competition will be held June 10-14 at the University of Maryland in College Park Maryland.
Best wishes, Nirvana Khan! I hope you win it all. You have performed a great service