In the Glow of Death: The Extraordinarily Dark Tale of the Radium Girls

Under the shadow of the first world war and incredible feats of first wave feminism, young women flocked to factories run by the U.S. Radium Corporation and in this they would meet a gruesome end.

Marie and Pierre Curie had discovered Radium some 20 years previous and after the radioactive element was found to help treat cancer, radium was heralded as a cure-all health treatment. Radium was found in skin creams, bottled water, toothpaste and high-end spas bragged about their radioactive pools. As it stimulated red blood cells and gave your skin a rosy complexion, you could even get radium injections if you had the money to burn.

But one of the biggest discoveries regarding radium was the fact that when it was mixed with zinc sulfide and a glue agent, it glowed in the dark.

Now for us these days that’s not really a big deal, we can get enough glow sticks at the $2 Shop to last us a lifetime. However this discovery gave the military the ability to have watches that were visible in the dark, which gave soldiers the ability to read and sync their watches without giving their position away to the enemy.

Enter the U.S. Radium Corporation and their contract with the U.S. Military.

With radioluminescent paint marketed as “Undark”, the U.S. Radium Corporation was contracted to produce watches for U.S. soldiers but the watches gain popularity with the general public too. This production required workers with small hands and between 1917 and 1926 approximately 4000 young women were hired across multiple factories to paint the dials with radium paint.

One such woman was 18-year-old Grace Fryer. America had joined the fight in WWI, two of Grace’s brothers were amongst the men deployed to join the efforts and she was keen to support the troops in any way she could. So on April 10, 1917, Grace began work as a dial painter at the U.S. Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey.

Grace Fryer.
Photo from Find A Grave.

As it paid three times as much as a regular factory job, dial painting was believed to be the “elite job for the poor working girls”. This great pay allowed the girls to have financial freedom for the first time in their lives. The job was highly revered and many young women encouraged their friends and family to join them.

Grace and her colleagues were tasked with painting numbers on a dial that could be just 3.5cm wide. To assist with this, their bosses encouraged a techniques known as lip-pointing. The women were instructed to place the paint brush between their lips to create a fine point between brush strokes. The ‘lip, dip, paint routine’ became common practice and the women consumed a little bit of radium paint each time.

Ever since the discovery of radium, there was concerns about the elements safety. Marie Curie herself had suffered radiation burns whilst handling radium. Curie’s notes are even kept in a lead box due to their radioactivity. However, managers at the U.S. Radium Corporation factories told the dial painters it was completely safe to use and even place in their mouths. Whilst the women placed radium paint in between their lips, the scientists and management walked around in protective gear such as lead aprons and handled the radium with ivory-tipped tongs. As previously mentioned, small amounts of radium was believed to be beneficial to ones health. But these benefits were found in studies founded by the radium companies themselves and the managers at the factories assured the women that the paint would be good for them.

In 1922, Grace’s co-worker Amelia ‘Mollie’ Maggia was forced to leave work due to a strange illness with no apparent cause. After having an aching tooth extracted, more of Mollie’s teeth began to ache. Eventually dark, painful ulcers formed in her jaw were the teeth had been taken out. They were riddled with pus and blood, seeping constantly into her mouth. Her bones ached uncontrollably. By May she had lost most of her teeth and her lower jaw, roof of her mouth and bones in her ear had become “one large abscess.” Her dentist found her jaw crumbled at his touch and he was able to remove it by simply reaching into her mouth and pulling it out.

Soon Grace too was suffering the same fate as Mollie. Her teeth loosened and fell out. Her feet ached and an x-ray of Grace’s jawbone found that her bones were riddled with little holes like honeycomb. Doctors began realising that more and more women were coming down with this mysterious illness. Eventually the women were linked by their current or former employment at a watch painting factory.

Their bones broke underneath them, their teeth fell out, their bodies rapidly decayed, rotting while they were still alive. Some girls only knew they had been poisoned after seeing themselves in the mirror at night, seeing that their bones were glowing through their skin.

On September 12, 1922, Mollie’s infection had spread to her throat and ate away her jugular vein, filling her mouth with blood in a disgustingly unstoppable haemorrhage. At 24-years-old, Mollie was dead. Her doctors were paid off by the U.S. Radium Coporation to claim on her death certificate that she had died from syphilis. Rubbing more salt into her gaping wounds as the stigma around syphilis was used to humiliate her and discredit Mollie’s suffering by her employers.

Grace looked for help with her deteriorating health and eventually found specialist Dr. Frederick Flynn of Columbia University. Flynn and a colleague of his examined Grace and eventually stated there was absolutely nothing wrong with her. However, Flynn was not only not a doctor but a toxicologist who worked for the U.S. Radium Corporation but his ‘colleague’ was the vice-president of the company.

Mollie Maggia was soon join in the grave by many of her co-workers and for two years the U.S. Radium Corporation denied any neglect or wrong doing, continuing to pay off doctors and dentists to naming their cause of death as syphilis.

In 1924, they finally caved into an investigation, but only because of a loss of business due to what they referred to as “gossip”. They hired Harvard physiologist Cecil Drinker to research the factory conditions. But Cecil couldn’t be paid off. He reported that the conditions were dire and that the girls were being poisoned by their exposure to radium. He wrote:

“Dust samples collected in the workroom from various locations and from chairs not used by the workers were all luminous in the dark room. Their hair, faces, hands, arms, necks, the dresses, the underclothes, even the corsets of the dial painters were luminous. One of the girls showed luminous spots on her legs and thighs. The back of another was luminous almost to the waist….”

Drinker offered solutions and listed things to be addressed to reduce the exposure, but the U.S. Radium Corporation weren’t happy. They rewrote his report, leaving him as author, and submitted it to the New Jersey Department of Labor. The president of the U.S. Radium Corporation publicly claimed the girls were trying to ‘palm off’ their syphilis diagnosis on the company in an attempt to get money for their medical bills.

In 1927, after two years of searching for a lawyer that would represent her and her difficult case, Grace found attorney Raymond Berry. Berry and the Consumers’ League of New Jersey filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Radium Corporation on behalf of Grace and four other dial painters; Katherine Schaub, Edna Hussman,  Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice for the sum of $250,000 (roughly $3.4 million in today’s money).

Grace said about the lawsuit: “It is not for myself I care, I am thinking more of the hundreds of girls to whom this may serve as an example.”

The Radium Girls at work.
Photo from Wikipedia.

The U.S. Radium Corporation attempted at all costs to delay the trials in the hopes the girls would die before concluding.

The case finally made it to court in 1928, but by then the girls were too sick to raise their hands to take the oath. Some were bedridden, Grace could no longer walk or sit without a back brace. The Radium Girls were decaying.

Again the trial was delayed due to claims some of the company executives were on vacation and would be for a while. Eventually the dying girls were forced to settle with U.S. Radium out of court, the company never took responsibility for the girls illnesses. Claiming they settled due to public bias against them. President Clarence Lee stated:

“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 then considered an act of kindness on our part has since been turned against us.”

Even though the case was settled out of court, the media storm that surrounded the Radium Girls lead the way for changes in legislation regarding workers rights and studies into the effects of radioactive material.

As radium has a half-life of 1600 years, the bones of Radium Girls are still glowing deep within the earth and will continue to long after we join them.

Sources

https://www.buzzfeed.com/authorkatemoore/the-light-that-does-not-lie

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radium_Girls

https://roadtrippers.com/magazine/radium-girls-graves/

Today I Found Out, GLOWING IN THE DARK, THE “RADIUM GIRLS‘ by Daven Hiskey.

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