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History Fair WinnerStory of Ottawa Women’s Tragedy Inspires Student

Palatine, Ill., June 20, 2014…A 2014 graduate of Immanuel Lutheran School in Palatine, is the 2014 National History Day Gold Medal recipient for her exhibit entitled, “The Living Dead: The Radium Dial Painters of Ottawa, Illinois, and Their Impact on Workplace Safety.”  Our student’s  winning junior individual exhibit was announced at an awards ceremony at the University of Maryland, in College Park, Md., on June 19th.

Our student was inspired by a group of Ottawa, Illinois, women who, in the 1920s, painted clock and watch dials with radioluminescent paint. Before painting a number, the women placed the tip of the paint brush into their mouths to keep the bristles pointy for their detailed work. By performing this ritual for each and every number, the women unknowingly were ingesting small amounts of deadly radium. The tragedy of the illness and death of these dial painters brought global awareness of the dangers of radiation exposure and changed the 1911 Occupational Disease Law in Illinois.

“As I began my research, I learned how these women had a huge impact on changing workplace safety laws,” our student said. “Even though these women did not have the support of their community, they bravely challenged their employer. They helped scientists at Argonne National Laboratories determine a ‘safe’ level of radiation exposure by donating their bones to research. Their bone ash continues to be used today in scientific research.”

Each year, more than 600,000 sixth through 12th grade students around the world participate in National History Day (NHD), a year-long academic program that engages young people in advanced history research projects that align with an annual theme. Of those 600,000, less than 3,000 students will advance to The Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest. The contest kicked off at the University of Maryland at College Park on June 15th, and concluded on June 19th, when select students took home some of the biggest student awards in history.

This year’s NHD theme – Rights and Responsibilities in History – challenged students to think about the rights that citizens are guaranteed, like freedom of the press. With those rights, however, come personal responsibilities. Students who advanced to the national contest were able to clearly examine this year’s theme through their original research projects in one of five categories: exhibits, performances, papers, documentaries and websites. Only one gold, silver and bronze medalist is awarded in each category at the National History Day Contest.

“There are several elements that made our student’s history exhibit special,” said Dave Saunders, history and religion teacher at Immanuel Lutheran School. “It is well researched, provides evidence to support her thesis and is attractively presented. But perhaps more importantly, her project has heart. She goes beyond the tragedy of the moment to show how these events were later used to bring about reforms that most certainly saved the lives of many people in the future.”

Our student’s road to Washington began with a school-wide judging, then the Chicago Metro Junior History Fair, at DePaul University, on April 5th, and the Illinois History Fair Expo, in Springfield, Ill., on May 8th. (She is one of five Immanuel Lutheran 8th-grade students to win blue ribbons at the Illinois History Fair Expo.) At the state expo, her exhibit received the honor of being selected as Illinois’ National History Day qualifier. On June 18th, her project also was displayed at The Smithsonian National Museum of American History Kenneth E. Behring Center, in Washington, DC.

“I congratulate her for her incredible achievements at the regional, state and national level as she captured not only the struggles of the Ottawa women, but how their efforts impacted workplace safety,” said Dave Ingwersen, principal at Immanuel Lutheran School. “I’d also like to congratulate Mr. Saunders for his guidance and dedication to teaching students about history and its relevance to their lives. His efforts are indicative of the expectations of and support for students by the faculty at Immanuel Lutheran School to create a challenging academic, yet nurturing, environment in a Christian school setting.”

While at Immanuel Lutheran School, our student participated in sports, and was a member of the National Junior Honor Society, student council and cheerleading squad. Since age 8, she has been performing with the Spotlight Youth Theater.