In honor of National Periodic Table Day, I’d like to focus on one deadly element that catalyzed a historic battle between working-class women and some of the most powerful companies in existence: Radium.
Radium (Ra) was discovered in 1898 by physics and chemistry pioneers Pierre and Marie Curie, a discovery that would win them both Nobel prizes — and made Marie the first woman to earn the award.
Obviously, not much was known about this unique element at the time, other than it gave off a faint glow. But before long, scientists — mostly in the pay of radium companies — began publishing research touting the element’s health-giving properties. Soon it was being included in all manner of consumer goods. Toothpaste, makeup, and even water was “fortified” with radium, promising “glowing” health and vitality.
U.S. Radium Corp., which operated radium mines in Colorado and Utah, used the element to formulate a luminescent paint they called “Undark.” They, along with Radium Dial Co., began using Undark to paint watch and clock dials.
At first, the glowing timepieces were little more than curiosities. But with the entry of the US into WWI in 1917, the defense industry saw the usefulness of watches and dials that glowed just enough to be seen by the wearer at night, but not so much that they could be seen by the enemy. The government placed thousands of orders for the glowing watches and instrument panels, which prompted both companies to expand their operations and hire hundreds of workers. They hired mostly women and girls, believing that their small hands were better suited to the meticulous job of painting the tiny watch faces and dials.
In the late 1910s, there weren’t many options for women who wanted, or needed, to work for pay. The few jobs that would hire women typically paid them far less than men. But U.S. Radium and Radium Dial Co. were different: they paid almost three times what the average factory job did — about $40,000 a year in today’s money. And once the U.S. entered WWI, the women could take even more pride in their work knowing they were helping the war effort. So women and girls — some as young as 11 — flocked to these seemingly good jobs.
When they were hired, the women were trained in the “lip, dip, paint” technique. In order to keep the finest points on their paintbrushes, they were trained to slightly lick the brushes, then dip them in the Undark paint, before painting the watch faces.
The paint, they were assured, was perfectly safe. In fact, because radium was being used in so many items as a health supplement, many workers considered contact with the expensive element a perk. Like ravers and festies today, some of the women even used the glowing paint on their nails, teeth, and hair.
Not that they had to. After working only a short time, the women began noticing that their clothes — and even their bodies — would glow in the dark from their exposure to radium, earning them the ominous nickname “ghost girls.”
But the management and scientists at both companies — all male, of course — would use lead screens, masks, and tongs so as not to come in contact with either the radium or the paint containing it. In fact, the inventor of Undark, Dr. Sabin A. Von Sochocky, once visited the studio where the women were painting with it. When he saw a woman touching her paintbrush to her lips, he told her to stop that — “It’ll make you sick.” When the woman later asked her manager about it, the manager dismissed the scientist’s warning.
It took years before the workers started experiencing mysterious health issues. First it was anemia, fatigue, and body aches. Many suffered from bleeding gums and jaw pain … and then their teeth began falling out. Some had miscarriages or delivered stillborn babies. For some women, their bones became so weakened, they would fracture under the slightest pressure, making them unable to walk. The cancer rate among workers skyrocketed.
What they didn’t know is that radium, when introduced into the body, is treated much like calcium and deposited into the bones. However, unlike calcium, which builds bone tissue, radium kills it. X-rays of the sick women showed jaws and other bones riddled with holes like honeycombs.
At the U.S. Radium plant, Amelia “Mollie” Maggia first began having toothaches, then her teeth began to decay and fall out. Her jaw, along with most of her body, was in excruciating pain. When she went to the doctor, he diagnosed her with rheumatism and told her to take aspirin. But the ulcers from the lost teeth weren’t healing — they were bleeding and infected. So she went to her dentist. When he went to pull out a decayed tooth, a large section of her jaw came with it.
Maggia was the first to die. By the time of her death, her entire lower jaw had been removed, and she could no longer walk. She died of massive hemorrhaging from the ulcers that had grown to cover most of her mouth and skull.
She was 24 years old.
The women were desperately seeking answers for their rapidly worsening illnesses, but, much like today, their symptoms were dismissed or misdiagnosed. Their doctors gave them different diagnoses, such as tuberculosis or other viral infections, or even told them their symptoms were psychosomatic.
What they didn’t know was that U.S. Radium was secretly paying their doctors to hide their findings. As women began dying, the company and the doctors it paid off publicly stated the women — including Maggia — had actually died from syphilis. This not only gave the company a convenient cover story, it also served to smear the women’s reputations.
The company had known for years that radium was dangerous. In 1924, U.S. Radium hired Dr. Cecil Drinker, a Harvard physiology professor, to look into the working conditions at their Orange, New Jersey, plant. After a thorough review, Drinker and his team concluded that there was extensive contamination at the plant: every single dial painter was covered in radioactive dust, and nearly every one of them had high levels of blood contamination. Based on his findings, Drinker made several safety recommendations, one of which was to immediately end the practice of “tipping” or “lip pointing” the Undark-covered brushes.
But the company not only ignored his suggestions, it barred him from publishing his findings. Even worse, when the company submitted Drinker’s report to the New Jersey Department of Labor, it had been drastically rewritten. Every mention of unsafe working conditions at the plant was replaced with praise, and even stated, “every girl is in perfect condition.”
The Radium Girls
One worker at U.S. Radium’s Orange, New Jersey, plant, Grace Fryer, had suffered from the same symptoms shown by so many of the dial painters. By now, doctors were beginning to see the pattern of young, formerly healthy women coming down with these mysterious debilitating symptoms. The one thing they had in common: they had all worked at the U.S. Radium plant.
Then a new doctor, Frederick Flynn, said he had heard of Fryer’s plight and asked if he could examine her. After a hasty exam, he declared Fryer was actually in perfect health. Later, it would be revealed he was no doctor at all, but instead, a PR hack being paid by U.S. Radium to spread disinformation.
As her condition worsened, Fryer’s spine collapsed from the effects of radium exposure. She could only remain upright with the aid of a metal brace. This intelligent, determined daughter of a union rep decided to sue U.S. Radium under New Jersey’s occupational injuries law. Four more workers who had suffered the effects of radium poisoning at the plant — Edna Hussman, Katherine Schaub, and Maggia’s surviving sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice — joined Fryer in her attempt to gain some justice.
However, for two years, no attorney would take their case. The Radium Girls were at a distinct disadvantage: first, all their money was being used for their medical care, with none left over to pay for attorneys or expert witnesses. In contrast, U.S. Radium was a huge corporation, and a defense contractor at that.
On top of that, their case itself was unclear. The women displayed a variety of different symptoms — and there were the fraudulent doctors’ diagnoses to help place the blame on other, non-work-related illnesses.
Even if they could prove they were being killed by the radium they worked with, “radium poisoning” wasn’t officially recognized as a “compensable” illness or injury.
Finally, one courageous attorney, Raymond Berry, agreed to take their case pro bono.
Fortunately, around this same time, U.S. Radium’s practices were being exposed by Dr. Harrison Martland, working with the National Consumers League, and a journalist named Walter Lippmann. Martland studied the sickened girls and performed autopsies on those who had died — noting that their bodies were “still glowing in their coffins.” He concluded that the women were suffering from radium sickness.
The National Consumers League pushed for the real results of Drinker’s study to be presented to the New Jersey Department of Labor, and after it was, Drinker published it.
What followed was a media sensation.
U.S. Radium, undeterred, put up every legal hurdle they could, delaying the case for three long years. During that time, more women died of radium poisoning.
At their first court appearance in January 1928, none of the women could even raise their right hands to take their oaths. Two of the women, MacDonald and Hussman, were bedridden.
Despite the plaintiff’s clearly limited time, U.S. Radium’s lawyers filed for delays again and again — clearly hoping to “wait out the clock” so the women would die before the company would have to stand trial. One such delay was requested because some of the company’s witnesses would be away summering in European, and so couldn’t be bothered to come to court.
The judge approved most of these delays — except the European vacation delay, which caused a public outcry. What wasn’t known until later was that judge was a stockholder of U.S. Radium.
Then Von Sochocky died in November 1928, making him the 16th known victim of radium paint poisoning. His death helped prove the Radium Girls’ case, and it was finally settled by the end of the year. Each of the surviving women received a settlement of $10,000 (about $149,000 in today’s money), a $600 per year annuity, and payment of all their medical and legal expenses. In return, U.S. Radium would admit no wrongdoing. In fact, Clarence Lee, the president of U.S. Radium, wrote, “We unfortunately gave work to a great many people who were physically unfit to procure employment in other lines of industry. Cripples and persons similarly incapacitated were engaged. What was considered an act of kindness on our part has since been turned against us.”
Workers at Radium Dial in Illinois were facing similar health problems, but without as much media attention. They didn’t immediately hear of the Radium Girls case, but when they did, their management assured the women that the paint was safe, and that the Radium Girls were actually suffering from viral infections.
The Illinois dial painters began asking for compensation for their medical and dental bills in 1927, before the Radium Girls case went before the judge, but were refused. They continued their demands into the mid-1930s, before finally bringing suit before the Illinois Industrial Commission. Like the New Jersey Radium Girls, they had difficulty finding an attorney to represent them against such a powerful corporation. But in 1937, five women found an attorney, Leonard Grossman, who agreed to represent them.
But by this time, Radium Dial had closed its Illinois plant and moved to New York.
In the spring of 1938, the IIC ruled in favor of the women. Radium Dial appealed the decision again and again, taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court. On Oct. 23, 1939, the court decided not to hear the appeal, thereby upholding the lower ruling and forcing Radium Dial to pay.
For the Radium Girls, the money could only be used to pay for their funerals, as they only lived a few months after the settlement was reached. Yet they still wanted their lives, and deaths, not to have been in vain. The New Jersey women volunteered to let scientists study them through their last days, so that the world could learn more about the effects of radium poisoning. “It is not for myself I care,” Fryer is reported to have said. “I am thinking more of the hundreds of girls to whom this may serve as an example.”
Their fight — right up to their deathbeds — won workers the right to sue for damages from corporations. Their case eventually led to the U.S. government creating the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to ensure safe working conditions for all workers. The health and safety protocols developed as a result of the Radium Girls case is directly credited to saving the lives of the scientists who would later work on the atomic bomb.
As for U.S. Radium, it went bankrupt in the 1940s. In 1979, the EPA found the former site of its manufacturing plant to be extremely contaminated, and it became a superfund site. Radium Dial’s former plant in Illinois was similarly found to be contaminated, but the company was able to avoid responsibility. The building was torn down in 1968, and to my knowledge, no decontamination efforts have been done to the site.
In all, it is estimated that 112 former dial painters died from exposure to radium. Kate Moore, who wrote the book The Radium Girls, is quoted in The Daily Mail as to why this story still needs to be told: “I worry about the continued commercial instinct of prioritising profits over people. As long as that instinct is present, a story like that of the radium girls is, unfortunately, all too likely to repeat.”