The Radium Girls

The young women who worked as dial-painters were the envy of their working-class neighborhoods … until they began suffering from mysterious, disfiguring illnesses.

The Radium Girls Painting Dials In A United States Radium Corporation Factory
Young women painting dials in a United States Radium Corporation factory, circa 1922. Wikimedia Commons.

The young women who worked in early twentieth-century radium-dial factories literally glowed in the dark. They painted dials and watch faces using a greenish-white “Undark” luminous paint, created by combining radium powder, zinc sulfide, water and an adhesive. The gleaming powder enveloped the workers and covered them from head to toe, hence the unmistakably sexy glow of the “shining girls,” who were also envied for their high wages. 

“Some earned more than three times the average factory-floor worker; some even earned more than their fathers,” notes author Kate Moore in The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women (Sourcebooks), which chronicles the life-and-death struggle of dial-painters in both New Jersey and Illinois. But if the girls—many of them teenagers—felt blessed to be working for the likes of the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation, the Radium Dial Company and the United States Radium Corporation, the feeling didn’t last. One by one, the girls began to suffer from mysterious, painful afflictions. 

Little did they know that radium was an extraordinarily dangerous radioactive substance and that radium poisoning would cause them to die young, with Mollie Maggia (1897-1922) becoming the first of the dial-painters to pass away. Their employers, however, knew of the danger, yet let nothing stand in the way of production. Selling luminous dials and watch faces was a lucrative business, and when the women began to complain of peculiar health problems—losing their teeth, for instance—their employers dismissed their complaints and went out of their way to discredit the women. 

Eventually, five dial-painters—Grace Fryer, Katherine Schaub, Edna Bolz Hussman, Albina Maggia Larice and Quinta Maggia McDonald—pursued legal action against the United State Radium Corporation, a seemingly hopeless proposition, in part due to the existing statute of limitations. In the following Failure Interview, Moore relates the intense suffering of the radium girls, explains how they fared in court, and why they did not die in vain, as their courageous fight contributed to the development of life-saving regulations that still protect workers today.    

What led you to write about the radium girls? 

I’m a British writer—and it’s a very American story—but I discovered it through a play called These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich. I was directing a production of it in London and I’m the type of director who likes to do a lot of backstory research, to try to make sure my productions are as authentic as they can be. It was through researching the other books that have been written about the girls that I realized there was no book about the women themselves from their perspective. I wanted to correct that omission and make sure there was a very readable book—you don’t have to be a scientist or lawyer, you just have to be human—where you can go on this journey with these amazing women.  

Take us back to that time period. What kinds of products were made with radium in the first quarter of the twentieth century? 

It actually might be easier to answer what wasn’t made with radium in the early twentieth century. Most famously, you could buy eye shadows, face creams, soaps and all sorts of different cosmetics. But it was also in things like cleaning spray and bug spray, and you could buy radium chocolate. They thought that the combination of radium and cocoa and sugar would give you a boost to your health. There were even medicinal products to treat everything from gout to impotence, and you could get radium-laced lingerie to improve your sex life. Radium was also [believed to] prevent problems in the same way we take vitamins today. People would drink radium water and go to radium spas and clinics to try and ward off ill health. 

So radium wasn’t merely perceived to be harmless, it was actually considered to be beneficial? 

It was and the really important thing to say is that the research that supposedly showed it was beneficial was funded by the radium firms. The firms paid their own scientists to conduct research. Those same radium firms would publish journals and send them out free of charge to doctors and journalists. These journals would be filled with [messages like] ‘radium is the new wonder drug’ and ‘radium is the hope for humanity we’ve been looking for.’ 

I found newspaper articles from 1922 saying we should all eat radium tablets, because it would add years to our lives. People genuinely thought it might be the thing that makes humans immortal. 

How lucrative was the business of selling radium-laced products? 

It was hugely lucrative. Just to give you one example, I found an invoice for a single order in 1925 that was for $500,000, which is the equivalent of $7 million today. 

The radium girls were painting dials and watch faces. Why were those products needed? 

Well, the boom began during World War I. Luminous dial-painting had been going on for a couple of years, but it took off when they needed luminous dashboards for ships, planes, and automobiles. Also, the soldiers in the trenches needed luminous watches so they could see what time it was in the gloom of war. Having been established, people fell in love with this beautiful, luminous substance. After the war, people could buy their own radium paint, to paint things at home. You might paint your slippers or your buckles or buttons on your dress. 

The girls used an interesting technique for painting the dials and watches and it involved putting radium paint in their mouths, correct? 

The technique was called lip-pointing and it was inherited from people working in china-painting factories. They would put their brushes between their lips to make a fine point, because the dials were tiny and the numbers were like a single millimeter in width, so the only way the dial-painters could get a fine point on the brush was to put the brushes between their lips. In doing so, they were putting the radium paint in their mouths and swallowing it. 

How much did the girls earn? 

It was an incredibly lucrative and glamorous job. They were paid piecework, by the number of dials that they painted. So it was in the girls’ best interest to use the most efficient technique. They were in the top five percent of female wage earners nationally. 

Especially well-paid considering that many were teenagers. 

Exactly. And it was mostly working-class immigrant women who were doing the job. The girls thought they were incredibly lucky to land a dial-painting job. One of the girls described it as “the elite job for poor, working girls.” It was very much that …

… until they developed symptoms of radium poisoning. What were the initial symptoms and how long did it take for symptoms to become evident? 

It normally took three to five years for the first symptoms to show. It might be an aching tooth or a leg or an arm that would ache, inexplicably. People would put it down to arthritis. If they went to the doctor they would be sent home with aspirin. If they went to the dentist the dentist would pull the tooth, but then the next tooth would start to hurt. And the girls started getting terrible infected ulcers in their mouths; that was another of the initial symptoms. 

Once full-fledged, what were the symptoms of radium poisoning and what was the impact on the body? 

It was horrific. Radium is a bone seeker like calcium. When you swallow it, it heads straight to your bones and settles there. So the girls had radioactive bones, and that radium—which has a half-life of sixteen-hundred years—was emanating its radioactivity. As you can imagine, that immense radioactive power destroyed their bodies. 

So that aching leg or arm soon became a spontaneous fracture. There were a lot of stories of the girls going out dancing and tripping on the dance floor and they would break their legs because their bones were so brittle. The radium was actually drilling holes in the bone so when they studied the women they found that their bones looked moth-eaten and honeycombed. And it could affect them anywhere on the body. Some of the dial-painters it affected them in their legs, in others it was in their hips or spine. And the destruction of their mouths was horrific. Most of them lost all their teeth and it started eating away at their jaw bones. Marguerite Carlough [one of the New Jersey dial-painters] was described as having a jaw eaten away to a mere stump. 

Then later, in radium poisoning’s arsenal, if you will—radium was almost like a serial killer that needed to develop its modus operandi—there were cancerous tumors that could sprout anywhere on the body. One dial-painter had a pelvic tumor that was said to be the size of two footballs when she died.   

Despite the horrific injuries, it was a challenge for the girls to bring lawsuits against the United States Radium Corporation and other radium companies. Why? 

There were a number of reasons. Part of it was hugely lucrative radium industry and the received wisdom of the age, which was that radium was harmless—and indeed considered beneficial.

What’s extraordinary to me is that you’d think they would have joined the dots and recognized that radium was harmful, not least because there was already evidence—even before a single dial-painter picked up her brush—that radium was dangerous. The book opens in 1901 with a scientist getting a radiation burn from radium. Some people knew it was dangerous, but as I said, the companies were funding the research, and of course, when the girls did start getting sick and were trying to bring the [initial] lawsuit, the firm did everything in its power to protect that lucrative industry. 

So it wasn’t as simple as saying, ‘I was a dial-painter and I got sick and it’s your fault.’ The companies hired scientists to discredit the women and discredit their claims. They also hired private detectives to slander the women and cast slurs on their character.

The fact that radium poisoning took so many years to show itself was crucial because when the girls were trying to sue they weren’t dial-painters anymore. The statute of limitations said if you didn’t file suit within two years of the point of injury then you had no claim. 

Finally, lawyers didn’t want to take the [initial] case partly because they didn’t believe the women and partly because the radium firms were so powerful. They supplied government contracts and had government contacts and no one really wanted to rock the boat. It took two special lawyers—Raymond Berry and Leonard Grossman—to take the cases in the first place.  

Without giving too much away, how did the girls fare in terms of compensation? 

It was a mixed bag. On the whole, they didn’t fare well, but there were one or two big settlements, particularly when the women were aided by publicity. This was a story where people took the dial- painters to their hearts and sometimes that helped them get a high settlement. But usually there was very little money. The most shocking example to me was a Waterbury [Conn.] case where the Waterbury Clock Company offered $43.75 in compensation to the widow of Mildred Cardow, who died in 1929 at age 22. It was quite shocking in terms of the value they placed on human life.  

What impact did the radium girls have on the Manhattan Project? 

Because of the radium girls’ courage in bringing lawsuits and trying to hold companies to account for what they had done to them and were continuing to do to the next generation of dial-painters, everyone knew that radium was dangerous—and that radioactive materials were dangerous.

So as America started working on the Manhattan Project, the leading scientist on that project, Glenn Seaborg, determined that he didn’t want his workers to suffer the same fate as the radium girls and insisted that they undertake research into the effects that plutonium would have on workers. They found that plutonium was very similar to radium, bio-medically, so they took the safety standards that had been put in place in the radium industry and transferred them to the Manhattan Project. So because of the radium girls, the workers on the Manhattan Project were protected. 

More generally, what is the legacy of these women in terms of workplace safety? 

Cases like those of the radium girls eventually led to the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the early 1970s. The radium girls case was one of the first cases where an employer was held responsible for the health of its employees; the verdict was handed down that it’s not acceptable to see your employees as disposable and expendable, and you have a responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workplace. 

Through OSHA, Americans are now protected and ten-thousand lives are saved every year. That is a direct legacy of the radium girls and the way they responded to what happened to them. They didn’t just take it; they didn’t allow the companies to hush things up. They fought for what they thought was right and fought in an altruistic way. Radium poisoning was fatal, so there was no hope for the women who had been harmed. But they took on legal cases, in part because they wanted to protect others. 

Grace Fryer, who was one of the leading radium girls, said, “It is not for myself that I am speaking, but for the hundreds of other girls for whom this may serve as an example. “ In bringing their case, the radium girls not only protected other dial-painters, but also every American who works today.

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