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Primary Sources in Science Classrooms: Asking Science and Social Studies Questions about “Radium Girls”

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This post was written by Trey Smith, 2015-16 Science Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

In the early twentieth century, women painted luminous and lethal radium on clock faces for military use, companies marketed radium-laced products to consumers, and doctors celebrated radium as a medical wonder. Today, primary sources about radium can prompt students to ask questions that can drive inquiry in science and social studies classes.

Radium and Beauty Ad for Raidnor Cosmetics.  New York Tribune, Nov. 10, 1918

Five Women Dying of Radium Poisoning. Evening Star, May 13. 1928

X-Ray, radium, surgery – the three recognized treatments for cancer.

Launch a lesson about asking discipline-specific questions by using the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool to support students in observing, reflecting on, and asking questions about a Radior advertisement from 1918. The ad promoted beauty and health benefits of personal care products that contained radium.

Examining it, my high school chemistry students wondered:

  • What is radium? And when was it discovered?
  • Did they know at the time that radium was harmful?
  • Was the company sued for selling the products?

Primary sources from the Library of Congress, including a curated set of radium-related items in Chronicling America and this “Headlines and Heroes” blog post, can address students’ initial questions about:

Students might also ask new questions about:

Radium and Beauty Analysis Exercise. Photograph by Trey Smith

My students analyzed select primary sources in a gallery walk. They noted which of their questions from the initial analysis were addressed by the sources, but the items also sparked additional questions and began to illuminate possible inquiry trajectories.

When we reconvened as a whole group, students shared their new questions. I asked what we might do next to answer their questions, and they suggested a secondary source could provide some context and answers. Together, we watched a brief video that described effects of radium on the health of the “radium girls.” The video stated that radium can replace calcium in bones, causing structural weaknesses and releasing radiation from inside the body. The video also mentioned a lawsuit some of the women levied against one of the companies and suggested that the outcome had an effect on labor laws. Rather than fully answer our questions, the secondary source and the primary sources encouraged students to deepen their inquiries.

Grouping of similar questions. Photograph by Trey Smith

Students wrote questions on sticky notes that they thought we might take up in our science class. They wrote questions they might explore in a social studies class on another sticky note. We grouped questions on a board and trends emerged, including:

  • Why does your body mistake radium for calcium?
  • What were working conditions of women in factories during World War I?

Questions about phenomena and events described in primary and secondary sourses can motivate discipline-specific investigations about topics ranging from chemical bonding and periodic trends to labor, gender, and World War I. What might you do in your classroom to support students in learning to ask questions that they can answer with the help of disciplinary tools?


  1. I’m at LoC today.I’m a retired federal employee/veteran working in Education.We had many depleted uranium tank ammunitions to fire in the old days.Stay safe and know the right combinations.

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