The Radium Girls: The Glowing Women Who Changed History

Most of the people in the world own a watch or owned one before cell phones could be in our pockets telling us the time. Before we had high tech digital watches, we had analog ones and more often than not the watch faces would glow in the dark. This gave us the ability to tell the time if you were outside after dark, in a movie theater, or any other situation where lighting was not ideal. It’s pretty cool when you think about it, right? It’s a common thing we’re all accustomed to but over a century ago they had just hit the market and were a hot commodity. They didn’t need to be charged by sun light because the special luminous paint is what gave the item its special glow. My God, it seemed like magic. 

We don’t have to worry about our watches using radium in the paint that makes them glow since its use was phased out in 1968. But what about before then? Well, before then, as you probably guessed it was used. Radium was the main ingredient in the paint that made watch faces glow in the dark. Each number and marking on the dial were coated in it. It didn’t get that way on its own, somebody had to painstakingly apply it. There was a group of women who worked in a factory and used a tiny paintbrush to apply the radium paint onto the watch dials, and although the company they were for ensured them that the product was 100% safe, their job had deadly consequences.

Women working in the watch dial factory

On December 20, 1898, just a few days before Christmas, physicist Pierre Curie, scribbled the word “radium” in his notebook as the name for a new element he and his fellow physicist wife, Marie Skłodowska–Curie discovered in their ramshackle laboratory in Paris. It was a white, luminescent, rare, and highly radioactive metallic element. They derived the name from the Latin word radius, meaning “ray”. The notebook that the infamous word is first written down in is still highly radioactive and dangerous to this day. It is now stored in a lead-lined box in The National Library of France in Paris. It and other of Curie’s notebooks may only be viewed by people who sign a liability waiver and wear protective gear since their radioactive elements will be present until (approximately) the year 3534.

In July 1898, The Curie’s and her husband published a paper announcing the existence of an element named “polonium”, which was named after Marie’s homeland of Poland. On December 26, 1898, the couple publicly announced the existence of a second element, which they named “radium”. During the length of their research, they would also go on to coin the term “radioactivity”. To prove their discoveries beyond a reasonable doubt. Pierre and Marie sought to isolate polonium and radium in pure form. Pitchblende is a complex black mineral that consists of massive uraninite and radium. Although it’s a chief ore-mineral source of uranium, the chemical separation of its constituents is a tedious task. Discovering the polonium was relatively easy since it was the only bismuth-like substance in the ore. However, radium was much more elusive. It is closely related chemically to barium, and pitchblende contains both elements. In 1902 they had managed to separate one-tenth of a gram of radium chloride and in 1910, the Curies isolated pure radium metal. They never succeeded in isolating polonium. Between 1898 and 1902, the Curies published, a total of thirty-two scientific papers bother jointly and separately. One of the papers stated that, when exposed to radium, diseased, tumor-forming cells were destroyed faster than healthy cells.

Pierre Curie died tragically in a street accident in Paris on April 19, 1906. While crossing the busy Rue Dauphine in the rain at the Quai de Conti, he slipped and fell under a horse-drawn carriage. One of the wheels ran over his head, killing him instantly. Both of the Curies were exposed to extensive doses of radiation while conducting their research. They experienced radiation burns and sickness. It is believed that if Pierre did not die the way he did he would have eventually died from the effects of the radiation. Marie Curie passed away on July 4, 1934, from aplastic anemia believed to have been contracted from her long-time exposure to radiation. She spent the last days of her life at the Sancellemoz sanatorium in Passy, Haute-Savoie. The Curie’s daughter, Irene, and her husband Frederic Joliot would too eventually be away from medical issues brought on by exposure to radiation. Marie was buried at a cemetery in Sceaux, alongside Pierre before both of their bodies were transferred to the Paris Pantheon in 1995. Their bodies were sealed in lead lining because of their radioactive nature. The couple was not aware of the damaging effects of ionizing radiation during the time of their experiments and they often carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in their pockets and stored them in their desk drawers. The couple is both well respected and highly regarded for their achievements and scientific breakthroughs.

Pierre & Marie Curie

Radium was formerly used in self-luminous paints for watches, nuclear panels, aircraft switches, clocks, and instrument dials. A typical self-luminous watch that uses radium paint contains approximately one microgram of radium. 

At the onset of World War I, several factories were established across the United States to produce watches and military dials painted with self-luminous material. Young women were hired for the well-paying jobs because their small hands were well suited for the precise, detailed work. Since radium had only been discovered some twenty years earlier its properties were still not well known. But since it had been used successfully in the treatment of cancer, many considered radium to be a miracle element. A variety of commercial products containing radium were manufactured, including toothpaste and cosmetics. Oh yeah, I definitely want to put that shit on my teeth and slather it all over my face. From 1917 to 1926, U.S Radium Corporation, originally named Radium Luminous Material Corporation, was engaged in the extraction and purification of radium from carnotite (a potassium uranium vanadate radioactive mineral) ore to produce luminous paints. These paints were sold under the brand name “Undark”. As a defense contractor, U.S Radium was a large supplier of radioluminescent watches to the military. Their factory in Orange, New Jersey, employed as many as three hundred workers to paint radium-lit faces and instruments, misleading them that it was a safe product to work with.

USRC hired approximately seventy women to perform various tasks including handling radium, while the owners and the scientist familiar with the effects of radium carefully avoided any exposure to themselves. Chemists at the plant used lead screens, masks, and tongs. The women used…. nothing. Roughly 4,000 workers were hired by corporations in the U.S. and Canada to paint watch faces with radium. At USRC, each of the painters mixed their own pain in a small crucible and then used tiny camel hair brushes to apply the glowing paint onto the dials. The women earned approximately a penny and a half per dial painted (approximately $0.32 today). On average each woman painted around 250 dials per shift. Are you guys sitting down because this is shocking? This was more than THREE TIMES the average pay for a factory job and those lucky enough to be offered a position ranked in the top 5% of female workers nationally. This gave these women financial freedom in a time of burgeoning female empowerment. Word of the great pay and the appeal of their jobs spread through their friend and family networks; this often resulted in sets of siblings working alongside one other in the factory.

Since the brushes were so fine, they would lose shape after a few strokes, so the USRC supervisors encouraged the workers to point the brushes with their lips. The women would lick the brush to sharpen the bristles and use their lips to smooth and reshape them. This technique became known as the “lip, dip, paint” routine. Now, this is something we obviously would never dream of doing today but these women didn’t know any better. They were lied to and I feel very sorry for them. Every single time the girls put the brush in their mouths they swallowed a tiny bit of that green paint. There is no way I would ingest even the tiniest amount of radium. I don’t care how much money I got offered; that’s a no for me dawg. On April 10, 1917, eighteen-year-old Grace Fryer began working at the factory in Orange, New Jersey. This was just four days after World War I started and with two brothers enlisted in the Army, Grace wanted to do all she could to help the war effort.

Grace was trained in the “lip, dip, paint” routine by fellow radium girl, Mae Cubberley who was quick to comfort the younger woman when she expressed concerns about putting the paint in their mouth by reassuring her that it was safe. She recounted a conversation she had with her manager about the safety of the paint. “The first thing we asked was ‘Does this stuff hurt you? Naturally you don’t want to put anything in your mouth that is going to hurt you. Mr. Savoy said that it wasn’t dangerous, that we didn’t need to be afraid.” The popular belief at the time was that a SMALL amount of radium was good for your health. People drank radium water as a tonic, and one could buy, cosmetics (as mentioned above), butter, milk, and toothpaste (as mentioned above) laced with the wonder element. Newspapers even reported that its use would “add years to our lives!” But that belief was founded upon research conducted by the same radium firms who built their lucrative industry around it. So it was a load of bullshit. Managers working at the factories chose to ignore all the warning signs, telling the girls the substance would put roses in their cheeks.

Radium’s luminosity was part of its allure, and after some time the dial painters became known as the “ghost girls”, because by the time they finished their shifts, they would physically glow in the dark. They were like a giant glowstick. Once the women noticed that the radium dust would make them glow, they started using it to their advantage. They’d wear their “good dresses” to the factory so they’d shine in the dance halls at night. They began painting it on their lips like a lipstick and would even brush it on their teeth for a smile that was sure to knock their suitors dead. Some of the women would put in their hair to add extra flair to a boring style. It wasn’t long before the women’s health took a hit from their daily exposure. In 1922 Amelia “Mollie” Maggia, had to quit working at the factory after she became ill. She couldn’t figure out where her sickness had come from. Her trouble started with a simple toothache. She visited her dentist who subsequently pulled the painful tooth. Shortly after, the tooth next to it began to give her trouble. That tooth was extracted as well. 

Soon, agonizing ulcers full of blood and pus formed where the missing teeth used to live. They would weep constantly and made her breath smell foul. Mollie’s body began to ache daily and when she visited the doctor he diagnosed her with rheumatism, and sent her home with a bottle of aspirin. By May 1922, Mollie Maggia was desperate. Her mysterious illness had spread throughout her mouth. Her lower jaw, roof of her mouth, and even some bones by her ears were said to be “one large abscess”. Her teeth began falling out one by one and the infection only grew worse. Mollie had been through hell and back but the most troubling symptoms were about to develop. Her dentist gently poked at Mollie’s jawbone during a routine visit and to his absolute horror and shock, the bone broke against his fingers when he applied the slightest pressure. He was able to remove the piece of broken bone fragments, “not by an operation, but merely by putting his fingers in her mouth and lifting it out.” A few days later, her entire lower jaw was removed the exact same way. Mollie Maggia was literally falling to pieces. And she wasn’t the only one; by this time, Grace Fryer, too, was having trouble with her jaw and was suffering from pain in her feet. 

Mollie Maggia passed away on September 12, 1922, from a massive hemorrhage. Doctors were puzzled as to the cause of her condition, and, ultimately determined that she had died from syphilis. As time went one more and more of the dial painters became deathly ill, experiencing many of the same symptoms as Maggia. For two years their employer vehemently denied any connection between the girls’ deaths and their work. Facing a huge downturn in business because of the growing controversy, the company finally commissioned an independent study of the matter, which concluded that the painters had grown ill and died from the effects of radium exposure. The company refused to accept the findings and commissioned additional studies that came to the opposite conclusion. These studied declared that radium did not have anything to do with the decline in the painter’s health. The public continued to believe that the material was safe. The company had also asked doctors, dentists, and researchers to not release their data in relation to the issue and for some time they complied. By 1924, fifty women who had worked in the factories were ill, and a dozen had died. At the urging of the companies, worker deaths were attributed by medical professionals to other causes. Syphilis was often cited as the cause of the illness and death to smear the reputations for the women. 

With the report hushed up, the women’s biggest challenge was proving the link between their illnesses and the radium they’d been ingesting multiple times a day. Though the women, their family, and friends discussed that the illnesses had to be linked to their work, they were fighting against the widespread belief that radium was safe. Are you all ready for this bullshit? Are you ready for this absolute pile of dookie? It was only when the first MALE employee of the radium firm died that experts finally took up the charge. So, basically, the case only became important once someone with a penis died.

In 1925 pathologist, Harrison Martland developed a test that proved conclusively that radium had poisoned the watch painters by destroying their bodies from the inside. The radium industry tried to discredit Martland’s findings, but the Radium Girls fought back. Many of the women knew they were living on borrowed time, (then again aren’t we all?) but they wanted to do something to help their colleagues still working with the deadly substance. Martland discovered that when radium was used internally, even in tiny amounts, the damage was thousands of times greater than if it was not ingested. The radium had subsequently settled in the women’s bodies and was now giving off constant, destructive radiation that “honeycombed” their bones. It was literally creating holes inside their bodies while they were going about their everyday lives. Grace Fryer’s spine was “crushed” and she had to wear a steel back brace just to make it through the day. Another woman’s jaw was broken down to “a mere stump”. The woman’s legs were shortened and spontaneously fractured as well.

Martland had also realized that the poisoning was fatal, and once inside a person’s body there was no way of removing it from the failing bones. The women were now 100% certain that they were going to die from their illness. Despite the radium industry’s attempts to discredit Martland’s pioneering work, it hadn’t been able to defeat the courage and tenacity of the radium girls themselves. The women started banding together to fight the injustice. It was going to be an uphill battle since dial painters were still being employed all across the United States. “It is not for myself I care. I am thinking more of the hundreds of girls to whom this may serve as an example.” Fryer stated. It was Grace Fryer who led their fight, determined to find a lawyer even after many attorneys turned her down; most disbelieving the women’s claims, running scared from the powerful radium corporations, or being unprepared to fight a legal battle that demanded the overturn of existing legislation. At the time, radium poisoning was not a compensable disease, it hadn’t even been discovered until the women fell ill. The women were also set back by the statute of limitations, which ruled that victims of occupational poisoning had to bring their legal cases within two years. Unfortunately, the radium poisoning was insidious, (do you like my SAT word?) so most of the dial painters did not start to show symptoms until around five years after they started working. They were trapped in a vicious legal cycle that showed no end. But Grace was the daughter of a union delegate, and was determined to hold an obviously guilty firm to account. 

In 1927, after two years of disappointment, attorney Raymond Berry agreed to accept the women’s case. By this time many of the dial painters had been given only four months to live and were forced to accept an out-of-court settlement. Still, their experiences made the issue of radium safety a front-page story across the world. The United States Radium Corporation continued to deny its role in the women’s poisoning, and more and more women continued to get sick and die. The litigation process moved slowly and the radium girls finally made their first appearance in court in January 1928, two women were bedridden, and none of them could raise their arms to take an oath. A total of five factory workers: Grace Fryer, Edna Hussman, Katherine Schaub, and sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice, joined the suit. The media sensation surrounding the case established legal precedents and triggered the enactment of regulations governing labor safety standards. The New Jersey radium girls were famous. Their story sent a shock wave across America.

In Ottawa, Illinois, a dial painter by the name of the Catherine Wolfe read the coverage with disgust. “There were meetings at our plant that bordered on riots. The chill of fear was so depressing that we could scarcely work.” She recalled. The Illinois firm, Radium Dial, also denied responsibility. The firm’s medical tests proved that the Illinois dial painters were showing clear symptoms of radium poisoning, it lied about the results. The firm even placed a full-page ad in the local paper stating: “If we at any time had reason to believe that any conditions of the work endangered the health of our employees, we would at once have suspended operations.” THE LIES! THE. LIES! Its actions to keep the scandal quiet went as far as interfering in the girls’ autopsies when the Illinois workers began to pass away. Company officials actually stole their radium-ridden bones in their callous cover up. 

If the women weren’t plagued and eventually killed by the same jaw problems as Mollie Maggia, they suffered from sarcomas. A sarcoma is a huge cancerous bone tumor that could grow anywhere on someone’s body. I watch Dr. Pimple Popper and stuff. One dial painter, Irene La Porte, died from a huge pelvic tumor that was reportedly “larger than two footballs.” In 1938, Catherine Donohue (Wolfe) developed a grapefruit-sized tumor that protruded from her hip. She lost her teeth and had to pick pieces of her jawbone out of her mouth; she constantly held a handkerchief to her jaw to absorb the permanently seeping pus. To make matters worse she watched her friends dying one by one right in front of her eyes. Catherine started her fight for justice in the mid-1930s. By that time America was in the grip of the Great Depression. Catherine and her friends were shunned by their community for suing one of the few radium firms still operating.  

Catherine was close to death when she entered the courtroom in 1938. She ignored her doctors’ advice and instead gave a testimony from her deathbed. With the help of her lawyer, Leonard Grossman (who worked pro bono), she finally got justice not only for herself but for workers everywhere. By the time the lawsuit was in full swing the Radium Dial firm in Illinois had closed, moving to New York. A $10,000 deposit was retained when Radium Dial disclosed to the IIC that they could not find any insurance to cover the cost of the company against employee suits. The attorney representing the interests of Radium Dial got to work appealing the verdict in hopes of getting it overturned. But his efforts were futile and judge George B. Martin, again ruled in favor of the women. Radium Dial appealed multiple times, taking the case to the Supreme Court. On October 23, 1939, the court declined to hear the appeal. In the end, this case had been won by the workers eight times before Radium Dial was finally forced to pay.

The Radium Girls saga holds an important place in the history of both health physics and the labor rights movement. The right of individual workers to sue for damages from corporations as a result of labor abuse was established as a result of the Radium Girls case. Industrial safety standards were demonstrably (another SAT word) enhanced for many decades. The case was settled in the fall of 1928, before the trial was deliberated by the jury, and the out of court settlement for each individual woman was $10,000.00 (about $158,000 today). They each received a $600.00 per year annuity (about $9,500 today) paid in installments of $12.00 (about $9,500 today) each week. Medical and legal expenses would also be paid by the company. The publicity surrounding the lawsuit was a factor in the establishment of the occupational disease labor law. This law requires companies to cover “injury to health or death by reason of a disease contracted or sustained in the course of the employment and proximately cause by the negligence of the employer”.  

Radium dial painters were eventually instructed in proper safety precautions and provided with protective gear. They no longer shaped brushes using the “lip, dip, paint” method and avoided ingesting or breathing the paint. Companies continued using radium paint until roughly 1968. The radium girls’ case was one of the first in which an employer was made responsible for the health of a company’s employees. It led to the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as well as life-saving regulations in the work place. Before OSHA was established, approximately 14,000 people died on the job every year. That number is now approximately 4,500. The women also left a legacy to science that has been termed “invaluable”.

Physicist Robley D. Evans made the first measurements of exhaled radon and radium excretion from a former dial painter in 1933. While at MIT he gathered dependable body content measurements from twenty-seven dial painters. This information was used by the National Bureau of Standards to establish the tolerance level for radium of 0.1 uci in 1941. In 1968, the Center for Human Radiobiology was established. The purpose of the center was to provide medical examinations for living dial painters. It also focused on the collection of information and, in some cases, tissue samples from the radium dial painters. When the project ended in 1993, detailed information on 2,403 cases had been collected. This data was published in a book on the effects of radium on the human body. The book suggests that radium-228 exposure is more harmful than exposure to radium-226. Radium-228 is more likely to cause bone cancer since it delivers a greater dose of alpha radiation to the bones. Information in this book was not only collected from radium dial painters but also from other groups of people who had been exposed to radium.

Even though the radium girls went through hell and gave it their all to change the course of history and workers’ safety you won’t often read their names in history books. You won’t find statues of the dial painters in parks or in front of buildings and you won’t find a museum honoring their lives. People don’t share their stories like they do with Nikola Tesla or Albert Einstein. By now, the individual radium girls have largely been forgotten. Grace Fryer and Catherine Donohue (to name just two) are women that should be honored as fearless champions. They shine through history with all that they achieved in their devastatingly short lives. They still shine in other ways, too. Radium has a half-life of 1,600 years and is still embedded in their bones. The radium girls will be glowing in their graves for years to come.

As early as 1901, it had been evident that radium could harm humans when applied externally; Pierre Curie once remarked that he would not want to be in the same room with a kilo of pure radium because he believed it would burn all the skin off his body, destroy his eyesight, and “probably kill him”. Yet, none of this was taken into account when companies had those women sit down, put radium paint in their mouth, and make watch dial glow. Was it because they were women? Was it because the companies were greedy and wanted to make money at any cost, including the lives of others? What made these women’s lives not deemed as important as others. We’ll never know, but one thing is certain, we all owe those brave radium girls a big thank you.  

Sources: “Glow” – American Shadows Podcast

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women – Kate Moore

“The Forgotten Story of The Radium Girls” – Buzzfeed

 

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