For by the summer of 1929, red-haired Peg Looney was not at all well. The teeth extractions that never healed had only been the start of it; she’d developed anemia and then this pain had settled in her hip so that now she could barely walk…Peg was wasting away, and her family watched in horror as she pulled teeth and parts of her jaw from her mouth. […]

Radium Dial – warned by Kjaer that Peg’s was a special case in which the government was particularly interested – watched her very closely. They knew she had tested positive for radioactivity in 1925 and 1928; they knew from their own medical tests exactly what was wrong with her. And so, when Peg collapsed at work on August 6, 1929, Mr. Reed made arrangements for her to be admitted to the company doctor’s hospital. […]

At 2:10 a.m. on August 14, 1929, Margaret Looney died…It seems the firm was concerned that Peg’s death would be attributed to radium poisoning, which would scare all the girls at the studio and possibly lead to innumerable lawsuits. The executives needed to take control of the situation. What did the family think, they asked, of having Peg autopsied?…They readily agreed, on condition that their own family doctor could be present, because they wanted to find out the truth. Their proviso was all-important: after the firm’s midnight machinations [to steal Peg’s body], they did not trust them. The company doctor agreed easily. Yes, yes, they said, no problem. What time?

When the family doctor arrived at the appointed hour, bag in hand, he found the autopsy had been performed an hour before he got there. He wasn’t there to see the multiple fracture lines on Peg’s ribs, nor the way “the flat bones of [her] skull showed numerous ‘thin’ areas as ‘holes.’” He didn’t examine the radium necrosis that was found “very strongly” in the skull vault, pelvis, and at least sixteen other bones. He did not witness the widespread skeletal changes that were evident throughout Peg’s battered body. He was not there to see as the company doctor “removed by post-mortem resection” the remains of Peg Looney’s jaw.

He took her bones. He took the most compelling evidence.

The family was not sent a copy of the report, but Radium Dial received one…”The teeth are in excellent condition,” read the official autopsy report. “There is no evidence of any destructive bone changes in the upper or lower jaw.” her death certificate was duly signed: diphtheria was the cause of death. […]

In 1978, researchers exhumed Peg’s body from St. Columba Cemetary, where she had been resting alongside her parents. They discovered she had 19,500 microcuries of radium in her bones – one of the highest quantities found. It was more than 1,000 times the amount scientists then considered safe.

Kate Moore, The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women (2017)


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