Ottawa, Ill.—Madeline Piller became interested in the Radium Girls of Ottawa, Illinois, in 2006 when she was 12, for her class project. She talked to Ottawa leaders and helped raise money for a permanent memorial dedicated on Labor Day, which now sits on the site of the Luminous Processes Factory where the girls had worked. Madeline’s dad, Bill Piller, a Mendota sculptor, designed the statue, a life size figure dressed in the fashion of the day, 1920-1930. The paint brushes in her left hand were used by the women on their jobs and are what poisoned them, and the tulip in her right hand represents rebirth. The figure stands on a clock as the girls painted radium-infused paint on the face and hands of clocks, which is what caused them to become sick. They were known at the time of the trial against the company as “The Society of the Living Dead.”
Even though it was known in 1925 that radium was harmful, the workers painted glow-in-the-dark dials on the clocks. To get a good brush stroke, they placed the brushes in their mouths to make a point on the end.
The workers were dying and were lied to by the doctors. Lawyer Leonard Grossman Sr. represented seven of the women in 1934 when the truth came out. Their case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the workers finally won a modest settlement.
The case affected U.S. labor law, workers compensation, and the creation of radiation safety standards. However, with the Depression, these workers were blamed for job losses and the topic became taboo.
Radium was found in the soil and groundwater around the plant. Clean-up, begun by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency in the 1980s, is still underway.
Survivors joined the hundreds who attended the ceremony including Rose Baima, Pauline “Toots” Fuller and June Menne. Family members of those who died attended, as did the son of the lawyer who represented the girls in their lawsuit.
The ceremony was hosted by Laborers’ Local 393 of Marseilles. Many of their members volunteered and worked with city workers to help put the memorial site area in shape with landscaping and a fountain. During the ceremony white carnations were handed out and some were placed at the foot of the statue.