Radium Girls: Bones That Glow in the Dark

By: Catherine He

These days, mechanical watches are mass produced and often cheap enough that anyone with the desire to own this staple accessory can do so. However, these time-keeping devices come with a dark history of their own, creating circumstances that would eventually birth the moniker ‘Radium Girls’.

New Discovery: Radium!

A 1950s radium clock dial, previously exposed to UV-A light. (Wikimedia Commons)

Radium, an Alkaline Earth Metal, is a highly radioactive element on the Periodic Table of Elements that emits alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. It was discovered by Marie Curie, the first woman to achieve a Nobel Prize, in 1898. As noted by History.com, she later became interested in the medical applications of radioactive substances and investigated radiology and its potential for cancer therapy during World War One. Due to its success, people began seeing radium as a ‘cure for everything,’ consuming it as one consumes vitamins in the modern day. Others were fascinated by radium’s mysterious glow and began adding it to everyday products, from toothpaste to cosmetics, becoming a full-fledged craze. The most prominent usage, however, was in paint for clock and watch dials to make them glow in the dark.

It’s worth mentioning that according to the EPA, if radium is inhaled or ingested, it acts similarly to calcium in that the substance is deposited into the bones. The radiation emitted can damage cells and damage them, given that there are no shields to radium inside the body. Radium is extremely dangerous, especially with repeated exposure. Of course, the early 1900s had no idea this knowledge existed regarding their new miracle drug. The Radium Girls were ignorant to the terror of radium when they were dipping paintbrushes full of the substance into their mouth.

Who were the Radium Girls?

Young women painting at a factory of the United States Radium Corporation. (Wikimedia Commons)

As stated in Britannica, with the outbreak of the First World War, several factories were established across the United States to produce watches and military dials painted with a material containing radium. This allowed pilots to fly at night without using cockpit lights, which helped to avoid being spotted by enemy soldiers. Other soldiers were also able to see the time, allowing them to coordinate night attacks.

HistoryNet says the first dial painting factory opened in 1917 in Orange, New Jersey, and many more would follow in its footsteps in later years. Thousands of young women, with their small hands suitable for detailed work, were hired to paint dials with luminescent paint containing radium. With the need for pin-sharp numbers, painters were instructed to bring the paintbrush tip to their lips to create a thin point, the easiest method to achieve exact brushstrokes.

The Radium Girls did not go into their jobs blindly consuming the paint; they did ask about radium’s safety. However, given that radium was still a new element with its properties not fully investigated, their managers assured them that they had nothing to fear, and it’s understandable why many would think that. According to CNN, radium was the most expensive substance of its time, costing the equivalent of $2.2. million per gram in today’s money. Furthermore, being a dial painter was a well-paying and glamorous job, and there was a certain allure to being listed as an artist in the town directory. Thus, many encouraged their friends and sisters to join them in the coveted position. Girls began wearing their best dresses to the factories and applying paint to their teeth so that they would be covered in glittering radium and have radiant smiles – all steps to look extra beautiful for when they visited the speakeasies after work.

So began the story of the Radium Girls.

Shocking Revelations

Amelia Maggia after suffering radium poisoning. (Wikimedia Commons)

Amelia Maggia was a diligent watch-painter of the United States Radium Corp who experienced pain all throughout her teeth, mouth, and later other parts of her body that resulted in a horribly disfigured jaw that was easily removed from the surrounding tissue prior to her death of a massive hemorrhage in 1922. While it became evident later on that Mollie, as she was affectionately called, died of radium poisoning, doctors at the time were bewildered and labeled the cause of death syphilis. Amelia wasn’t the only one who suffered. As more and more painters began to fall ill, often with the same agonizingly painful symptoms, people began raising questions about the relationship between the luminescent dial paint and the girls’ ailments.

With controversy growing and the public image of United States Radium Corp deteriorating, resulting in a loss of sales, the company finally commissioned an investigation, which concluded that radium exposure was the cause of the deaths of so many young women in the factories. The US Radium Corp, adamant on holding on to their wealth at any cost, refused to accept these findings and decided to commission yet another study to prove them wrong. They eventually succeeded in doing so, allowing the public to continue to assume that radium was harmless. This doctored report did not change the fact that girls were still dying, and now, seeds had been planted for employees to suspect that their illnesses were of occupational origin.

1925 marked the year a pathologist by the name of Harrison Martland developed a test that proved, without a shadow of doubt, that radium was poisoning watch painters by destroying their bodies from the inside. Even still, from the company that went to such lengths to protect their revenue, the battle was far from over.

US Radium vs. The Radium Girls

There was one US Radium dial painter who refused to take any of this sitting down. It took Grace Fryer two years to find a lawyer willing to take her case against the company, and she was later joined by other women staking everything on protecting their colleagues. However, United States Radium Corp was sneaky, and they did everything in their power to delay the trial as long as possible, hoping that the plaintiffs would be dead by the time the case finally went to court. Unfortunately, they were successful in their endeavours, as none of the women were strong enough to raise their hand to take the oath when the fateful day came. Still, justice was served when it was revealed that male scientists at the companies were given protective equipment when processing radium powder, while their female counterparts were left out in the cold to feed to the hellish hands of radium. This led to the 1928 settlement, where US Radium gave each of the women $10 000 and $600 a year for as long as they continued to suffer from radium poisoning. From that point on, the dial painting industry began to falter.

After Justice

The playground that now stands on the site of United States Radium Corp. (New York Post/Richard Harbus)

If there was one group that had played a substantial role in achieving a favourable outcome, it was the Consumers League of New Jersey, a league of progressive women reformers. After US Radium’s settlement, the Consumers League successfully campaigned to have radium necrosis recognized as an occupational disease by the State Workmen’s Compensation Board. Until then, radium poisoning was not a compensable disease, however, it was too late to actually benefit any of the radium girls because the two-year statute of limitations had run out.

Even so, they had the set the ball rolling, and in 1941, New Jersey passed a bill making all industrial diseases compensable, and they extended the time during which workers could discover illnesses. The Radium Girls’s case ultimately led to the formation of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, rushing in a new era of workers rights. While many did not live to see it, the Radium Girls and the actions they took despite their immense pain were instrumental in improving the livelihoods of workers all across the country. Their stories will live on as a reminder to businesses that workers are more than just tools. Employees are all unique people who all deserve their rights and protection, and those who fail to recognize this will succumb to the law.

New York Post divulges that to this day, one hundred years later, the young women’s bodies continue and will continue to glow, given radium’s half-life of just 1 600 years. While many did not live to see it, the Radium Girls and the actions they took despite their immense pain were instrumental in improving the livelihoods of workers all across the country.

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