The Radium Girls: America’s Darkest Secret Lost in History
During World War I, hundreds of women decided to look for work in factories, where they would be painting watch dials using paint made from radium. The light that gleamed from under their skin earned them the name “The Radium Girls.”
Although they were told handling the element was safe, it was only after they experienced horrendous illnesses that they realized they had been lied too. If their story isn’t ringing a bell, then you’ve been successfully kept in the dark.
The Beginning: The United States Radium Corporation
The United States Radium Corporation was a company located in Orange, New Jersey that operated between the years of 1917 to 1926. Although many of the events that took place during these years are not mentioned in today’s history books, they are considered to be some of the darkest years in American history.
The outrageous and sinister experiences that occurred at the USRC single-handedly led to stronger worker protection laws in the United States. The Radium Corporation was the responsible evil behind the birth of the “The Radium Girls.” The girls garnered fame in the media for the gruesome ways the company led them to their undeserving deaths.
The Ladies in Radium
The U.S. Radium Corporation was a business owned and operated by Dr. Sabin Arnold von Sockocky and Dr. George S. Willis in 1917. During World War I, the corporation was a supplier of luminous watches to the military. The workers handling the radium spent their time focusing on the extraction and purification of radium from carnotite ore to make luminous paints.
The plant had over a hundred workers, mainly women, who were also used to paint the watches and instruments using the radium paint. Knowing what we know now, we are well aware that this is a destructive path. However, back then, the hazardous characteristics of radium were not fully understood or researched.
The Initial Exposure
The women that worked in the plant were given the “honor” of painting the dial faces, an act which involved licking the paintbrush to achieve a fine tip. The managers wore masks, gloves, and facial screens to protect them from potential harm from the chemical; thought to only have repercussions after handling large quantities.
The workers, on the other hand, were not given the same protection. Although the women were initially licking the end of a clean paintbrush to paint, they would have to lick it multiple times to achieve the desired effect. This meant that they would be putting the brush into their mouths with radium still lingering on the brush from the previous stroke.
The Job Every Girl Wants
In 1917, groups of women began working in radium warehouses to assist in the war efforts, unaware of the horrors that would swiftly follow. These women considered themselves lucky, as the pay was fantastic and three times the average working girls’ wage. The best part? The “work” wasn’t difficult to manage.
All the ladies had to do was delicately apply the glowing faces of the watches using a newly discovered element called radium. They were enthralled with how the element gave their hands a beautiful deep glow at night. They believed that the liquid was extraordinarily safe to handle…
The Curies Discover Radium
In 1898, Pierre and Marie Curie discovered the elements radium and polonium during their research. Radium was found to be a luminescent and highly radioactive metallic element. A few days before the Christmas of 1898, Pierre Curie scribbled ‘Radium’ in his notebook using a radium-tip, and to this day, this notebook remains highly radioactive.
Marie Curie is still the only person in history to have won the Nobel Prize for both chemistry and physics. Their daughter, Irene, won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1935 for discovering that radioactivity could be artificially produced in a lab. The year before her daughter won the award, Marie Curie passed away at sixty-six years old due to leukemia caused by radiation.
A Dangerous Discovery
The Curies were aware that their newest discovery was a dangerous one. Once while handling the element, Marie gave herself several chemical burns and Pierre once claimed that he couldn’t bear the thought of being in the same room with even a kilogram of the element, as he was scared it could blind him and burn off his skin.
At the time, the Curies were working with large sums of radium, but it was believed by the public that a small amount was healthy so it was used daily. When radium is mixed with specific paint, it lights up after prolonged exposure to light. This is why companies used radium for military watches, as it could soak up energy during the day, and light up throughout the night.
Radium: The All-Curing
The irony of the entire situation reared its head when radium was a key ingredient to use as a cancer treatment beginning in 1898. Kate Moore, author of “The Radium Girls,” told CNN, “Because it was successful, it somehow became an all-powerful health tonic, taken in the same way as we take vitamins today — people were fascinated with its power.”
Radium was seen as a cure for everything from gout to arthritis, and people were obsessed with its supposed healing power. Radium was soon added to everyday products such as toothpaste, cosmetics, food, and drinks. One product, in particular, was called Radithor, was distilled water with radium dissolved in the liquid. The product was horrifyingly advertised as, “A Cure for the Living Dead,”.
An Invisible Killer
Radium is dangerous on its own, but when ingested, the effects are amplified. Timothy Jorgenson, a radiation expert at Georgetown University, says, “Chemically, it behaves very much like calcium. Since the body uses calcium to build bone, ingested radium is mistaken for calcium and gets incorporated into bone.”
He continued telling CNN, “so the major health risk of ingesting radium is radiation-induced bone necrosis and bone cancers. How soon they develop depends upon the dose, but at the very high doses that the Radium Girls were exposed to, just a few years.” Simply put, the Radium Girls were killing themselves from the inside-out.
The Ghost Girls
Many of the women who worked at the Radium factory were young teens, sincetheir small hands were perfect for the detailed and precise work. On some occasions, there were whole sets of siblings sitting next to each other in the studio, unaware of the dangers that sat on their tiny brushes.
What really attracted these young girls to the job was the luminosity and after-effects of the radium. Although now we refer to the women as “The Radium Girls,” back then, they were given the nickname “The Ghost Girls.” This eerie and foreshadowing label stuck with the ladies since, after their shifts, they would continue to glow from the radium into the dead (literally) night.
Some of the ladies would go to extra lengths on Fridays at the warehouse and show up to work donning their best ball gowns. Their goal was to become the talk of the town at the balls on the weekend with their ghostly figures. The girls would use the deadly substance to paint their nails, paint their hair, and they would put it in their teeth to achieve a (quite literally), glowing smile.
For many years, the ladies that worked at the Radium company took pride in their work, and they were paid handsomely. Many employees began encouraging their nieces, daughters, friends etc. to join the company, unbeknownst to them that they were leading them to their inevitable death.
All Together Now: “Lip, Dip Routine”
For hours at a time, 18-year-old Grace Fryer and her colleagues would follow the lip-pointing routine they were taught to paint the tiny dials. The method was named by playwright Melanie Marnich, as the “lip, dip, paint routine.” The cute moniker came with deadly consequences.
Mae Cubberly, a colleague of Fryer’s, told Buzzfeed that, “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 [the manager at the time] said that it wasn’t dangerous, that we didn’t need to be afraid.” Although the managers in charge told the women that there were no negative connotations associated with handling the element, they still covered themselves in lead aprons and dealt with radium carefully using ivory tongs.
The Wrath of Radium
It was in 1922 when the first victim was overtaken by radium’s wrath. A young woman by the name of Mollie Maggia, came down with a terrible sickness forcing her to quit work. The illness began with a seemingly-innocent sore tooth. Dentists planned to remove the tooth to relieve the pain, but then Maggia started to complain of another painful tooth.
Once dentists pulled out multiple teeth, ugly tumor-like ulcers broke through her gums in their place. The sores would often ooze pus, causing Maggia to have unbearable pain and foul breath. She then began suffering from pains in her limbs, making walking impossible. Doctors deduced her severe symptoms as rheumatism, and she was sent on her way with a bottle of aspirin.
It sounds like the premise for something out of ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ as the women slowly turned into zombie versions of themselves. By the time May of 1922 rolled around, Mollie Maggia had turned into a shell of the woman she once was. She lost most of her teeth, and her jaw, mouth, and bones in her ears had turned into “one large abscess.”
It wasn’t until Maggia saw her dentist for the last time that everyone realized how severe her condition was. When her dentist gently touched her jawbone to examine her, it snapped right off. He soon removed her jaw entirely, not by a surgical procedure, but by “putting his fingers in her mouth and lifting it out.”
The First of Many
During this time, Mollie Maggia wasn’t the only girl experiencing foreign and horrifying symptoms. Some of the other “Ghost Girls” began complaining about pains in their limbs and jaw bones; petrified of what was to come. By September, Mollie Maggia’s infection spread to her throat, cutting its way to her jugular vein.
The next day, the spread of the disease caused her to hemorrhage in seconds, leaving all medical intervention useless. Mollie Maggia died at the young age of 24, and The USRC would go on to use Maggia’s death certificate against the Radium girls as evidence in their favor for future legal disputes.
A Sad Fate
Some of the other girls suffered the same gruesome fate as Mollie, and some met their fate with other symptoms. One girl suffered a collapse of her vertebrae, her spine disintegrating at the hands of the radium. Some of the other girls developed skin cancer, cataracts, throat cancer, loose teeth, and hair loss.
At the time, since radium was only known to be dangerous in large amounts, the masses truly believed these women were dying from severe cases of syphilis. Doctors and medical professionals had never dealt with radiation sickness so many of the ladies died with the word “syphilis” scribbled on their death certificates.
A Fight For Their Lives
The United States Radium Company continuously denied that there were any connections between the deaths of the young women and radium. Even though studies were starting to show a slight linkage between radium and the girls’ diseases, the president of USRC would bribe scientists into counteracting the proof with other studies.
Dr. Sabin Arnold von Sochocky and Dr. George S. Willis were strictly convinced that the women were trying to ruin their company by trying to “palm off” their illnesses to get money for medical bills. It seemed as though the odds were against the suffering women, but they continued to fight against radium handling. The Radium Girls may not have had much, but they were now armed with the knowledge that radium was anything but safe.
The Death of Dozens
By 1924, dozens of girls from the factory had died undeserving deaths, and the public remained aloof about the chemical’s effects for a few more years. In 1925, A man named Harrison Martland became involved in the studies on his own accord, hoping to prove that there was a connection between radium and the illnesses.
Martland is most famous for creating the term “punch drunk,” which references brain injuries suffered by boxers from hits to the head. Dr. Martland was determined to prove that it was the small traces of radium in the paint that caused the deaths of dozens of watch dial painters from the USRC. His first order of business? To reopen the ghastly case of Mollie Maggia.
Journey to the Past
Essentially, the radium they ingested over the years was still sitting inside their bodies emitting radiation and drilling holes into their bones. It slowly bore holes into the women beginning with their insides. Young Grace Fryer’s spine had been crushed, causing her to wear a steel brace. Another girl’s jaw had been wholly disintegrated to resemble “a mere stump.”
As if the visuals weren’t revolting enough, these weak and grimacing bones still shone a radiant light from underneath their skin. The women who had once adored the glow radiating from their skin now saw it as a haunting symptom of their impending death. The radium was deep inside their beings, and there was no way of removing the murderous substance.
Evidence Against Them
During the time of these events, it was the coroner’s jury who decided on the cause of death, a process that was primarily treated as a court case. Martland, who was Medical Officer of Essex County at the time, did away with the jury system involved and replaced it with a more medically-based system.
Martland’s suspicions were confirmed after the medical exam on Maggia’s body showed zero symptoms of syphilis, but showed damage caused by radiation. After doing the same tests on the other girls’ bodies, the U.S. Radium Company had a hefty case against them, triggering a fast decline and ruination.
Although Martland had significant evidence against the U.S. Radium Company, there was still pushback from the entire radium industry. When the girls realized that it was going to take more than scientific evidence to prove their case, they banded together, prepared for the fight of their lives.
The girls wanted to make sure that there would never be another woman who suffered at the hands of the radium industry. Grace Fryer confirmed, “It is not for myself I care. I am thinking more of the hundreds of girls to whom this may serve as an example.” (Let it be known that Grace Fryer is the feminist queen we’ve been looking for).
A Tough Road Ahead
Grace Fryer, daughter of a union delegate, was determined to find legal help that would represent their case. She was turned down by countless attorneys due to the complexity of the case and the corporate power they would be up against. Since radium poisoning hadn’t even been identified yet, there was no proof that a case would be won.
Even more evidence against the girls, it was ruled that victims of occupational hazard or poisoning have to bring their cases to court within two years of the incident. Since the radium poisoning happened at such a slow rate, most of the girls did not experience its effects until five years after the initial handling.
Stepping Up To The Plate
In 1927, a young lawyer named Raymond Berry decided to take on the challenge and accepted their case. The Ghost Girls soon found themselves in the midst of an ugly court case, but time was of the essence, and they were running out of it. When the court case finally proceeded, the women had been diagnosed with only four months to live, and the Radium Company was set on dragging out the legal proceedings as long as possible.
Eventually, the case had to come to a close, and Grace Fryer and the rest of the women were forced to settle out of court due to their illness. Although they didn’t win the case, the court dealings still raised awareness of radium studies, and most importantly, brought attention to this group of New Jersey girls who were on the brink of something big.
The Banning Of Radium
In 1938, the Food and Drug Administration banned the packaging of products containing radium, and radium paint was discontinued. After the women settled out of court, the events sparked a conversation leading to huge leaps in occupational hazard laws. By 1928, the dangers of radium were on display for the world to see, the lip-pointing technique was terminated, and handlers of the element were given full protective gear.
More women followed in the footsteps of Grace Fryer and sued, to which the radium companies appealed several times. In 1939, the Supreme Court rejected the last appeal, giving the survivors compensation, and ruled that the death certificates would now show the cause of death as radium poisoning.
Death On The Job
The case of the radium girls was the first court case in which a company was made responsible for the declining health of its employees. The proceedings and the events that followed were responsible for the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration which protects workers across the United States.
It was recorded that before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, over 14,000 people died on the job every year. These days, that number has dropped down to under 5,000, and we have the radium girls’ efforts to thank. Several efforts to build safer work environments in the 20th century were cultivated through the painful sacrifices of American lives.
The Health Issues Continue
Countless women suffered health problems due to radium, and the number is estimated to be in the thousands. Even though some of the women didn’t experience the horrible fate in the same way as some of the other girls, the delayed effects of the radium came back later in life in the forms of cancer.
Kate Moore, author of “The Radium Girls,” tells that, “In the 1950s, during the Cold War, many agreed voluntarily to be studied by scientists, even with intrusive examinations because they had been exposed for prolonged periods of time. Almost everything we know about radiation inside the human body, we owe to them.”
Lost In History
Kate Moore has also confessed that she is worried this bit in history will soon be forgotten due to its irrelevance in the media and ignorance across the masses. Moore says, “I worry about the continued commercial instinct of prioritizing 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.”
She continues, “one of the most striking things about the history of the radium girls is the cavalier way that radium was embraced by the whole world as a health tonic and beauty product. People merrily painted on radioactive eyeshadow and downed radium-water shots as we pop daily vitamins.”
These Shining Lives
Moore continues to ask the question, ‘what could be our generation’s radium?’ In the past, it seemed to be tobacco products and cigarettes. She says, “So what will it be for our generation? Social Media? Mobile phones? We don’t know yet, but we should be vigilant.” Kate was inspired to bring the Radium Girls’ stories to light while directing a play called ‘These Shining Lives’ by Melanie Marnich.
The play tells the story of four women who worked in a watch factory in Ottawa, Illinois, and it focuses on the lack of safety in the workplace and the danger women faced in the workplace during the 1920s. The play’s storyline piqued Moore’s interest which led to outside research; where she stumbled upon the story of the Radium Girls.
The New Jersey Dial Painters: Katherine Schaub
Katherine was born on March 10, 1902, in Newark, New Jersey. Schaub was the second child of Mary and William Schaub, had an older sister, and a younger brother and sister. Katherine began working at the radium factory located in Newark on February 1st, 1917, when she was 14-years-old.
Based on her expertise, she was promoted to instructress, in charge of teaching the other girls the common techniques. People described her as ‘imaginative,’ and her dream was to be a writer. Although she went on to publish a piece of her memoir, the manuscript was burned by her family following her death.
The New Jersey Dial Painters: Edna Hussman
Edna was a girl known to bounce between social circles, but she and Katherine Schaub remained friends after World War I. The two girls worked for a second radium warehouse in New Jersey named Luminite, after leaving the USRC. Edna continued to paint watch dials until spring of 1925 when the studies of radium poisoning became publicized.
Katherine and Edna worked closely together to sue Luminite and the USRC in 1927, but the claims were settled out of court. Edna was born in Newark, New Jersey in May 1901, and her favorite hobbies were music and identifying flowers. When she wrote to Dr. Martland to thank him for his studies, she wrote the words “radium paint” at the top of her letter, in case Martland had forgotten who she was.
The New Jersey Dial Painters: Eleanor ‘Ella’ Eckert
Ella was born on November 10, 1895, as one of nine children and was the daughter of a chauffeur. She painted 250-300 dials a day at the radium facility. On Ella’s death certificate it read that she died due to ‘shock from operation,’ but Martland made efforts to change it to radium poisoning.
Her cause of death was unclear, as she was one of the first to die from rare bone cancers that plagued her later on in life. When she died, her four-year-old son was supposed to be given compensation, but there was no evidence that it was followed through.
Everyday Radium: Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscope
When X-Rays were first invented, the radiation emitted from the machine was not taken into consideration. Radium eventually made appearances in doctor’s offices, labs, and shoe stores. From the 1930s up until the 1960s, children were coerced into measuring their shoe sizes by placing their feet into an x-ray fluoroscope at the shoe store. To the children’s delight, they would be able to see the bones in their feet while simultaneously getting blasted with radiation.
By 1950, the machines were slowly disappearing from each state. It wasn’t until 1970 when states began restricting the devices from being used that the manufacturers stopped creating them entirely. After they were banned from the U.S., Europe continued to use the machines for years.
Everyday Radium: Tho-radia Cosmetics
A man named Dr. Alfred Curie, (no connection to Marie or Pierre Curie) and pharmacist, Alexis Mousalli, created a cosmetic line made entirely from radium with the intent of selling it to French women. The finished outcome? Tho-radia Cosmetics! Step right up and receive radium filled face cream, soap, powder, and toothpaste that will give your skin a new kind of glow.
Although the products were a little bit on the pricey side, they were all the rage in Paris, and the trend soon took off in other countries. Their most popular item was their cream, which was supposed to activate circulation, firm facial tissue, remove oils, soften wrinkles, etc.
Everyday Radium: Radon Health Mines
We’re familiar with hot springs and steam rooms, but back then, there was something called a radium spa so patrons could experience the health benefits of the supposed “wonder element.” During the 1950s, abandoned mining sites in Montana were opened to the public for those who want an extra dosage of radium in their system.
According to the Free Enterprise brochure, Radium therapy consisted of a “series of daily visits to the Mine,” where high levels of odorless and highly radioactive gas fluctuated between 700 to 2,200 picoCuries per liter of air. The spas included the Sunshine Health Mine in Boulder, Montana, and Earth Angel health Mine in Basin, Montana. Similar facilities began to open up across Europe as well after the popularity of the mines skyrocketed.
Everyday Experiments: Children’s Toys
The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab was a children’s chemistry set that came with radioactive materials for children to play with. The toy was recommended for “only boys with a great deal of education,” and the price was a hefty $50.00. However, the price wasn’t a reflection of the radioactive materials inside; the price reflected the quality of the toy itself.
Less expensive versions existed, but this one was the most coveted. Another version included the Atomic Energy Lab, which was a less-expensive version, which also contained radium and uranium. The intention of the lab sets was to give children to create chemical reactions using radioactive materials.
Everyday Radium: Radiendocrinator
Back in the 1930s, if you had $150 lying around you could go out and buy yourself your very own radiendocrinator! Radiencrinator is a small device that was placed over male’s endocrine glands to expose them to radium for therapeutic purposes. The goal of this product was to stimulate sexual virility.
Men were advised to wear it as an ‘athletic strap’ to reap the full benefit. The creator, William J. Bailey, had so much faith in his product and claimed that he used it regularly. Bailey had also ingested obscene amounts of radium water over the course of his lifetime, and he passed in 1949 of bladder cancer.