Have you ever heard of the Radium Girls? Well, if you haven’t, then you might be interested to learn about this somewhat hidden chapter in history – something you can chat about at dinner tonight. During World War I, thousands of women worked in factories painting watch dials. The problem was that they were using paint made from radium. Radium is toxic, you see. So these women got the nickname the “Radium Girls,” seeing as how light started to glow from under their skin.
It reads like a real science fiction novel, but this was no work of fiction. What made it all worse was the fact that these female workers were told that handling such elements was safe. Only after they started experiencing horrific symptoms did they realize that they hadn’t been told the whole truth. And they decided to take action.
This is the untold story of history’s Radium Girls…
Most of us have never heard of this strange but true story, and that’s because the secret was successfully kept for decades. Most of the things that happened around this time aren’t mentioned in today’s history books, but that doesn’t’ mean that these events are not noteworthy. Several events of this era are considered to be some of the worst years in American history. So here’s the story…
Between 1917 and 1926, Orange, New Jersey was home to The United States Radium Corporation (USRC). The hard-to-believe events that happened at the USRC are the reason that worker protection laws were strengthened in the US. The Radium Corporation is to blame for the Radium Girls.
In 1917, Dr. Sabin Arnold von Sockocky and Dr. George S. Willis founded the United States Radium Corporation. There were more than one hundred workers in the plant, most of whom were women. And these unwitting female workers became famous in the press due to the terrible ways the company led them to their eventual deaths.
During World War I, the corporation became the leading supplier of luminous watches to the military. The workers who were handling the radium spent a lot of their time concentrating on the extraction and purification of radium from carnotite (an ore of uranium). With it, they were making the luminous paints. These women had to paint the watches and other items using the radium paint.
Sure, today, it sounds absolutely ludicrous to give people such radioactive material. But, back in those days, the hazardous characteristics of the materials weren’t fully understood or even researched. The women at the plant had to paint the faces of the luminous watches. The method they used involved licking the paintbrush –to give it a very fine point.
All management staff in the company wore masks, gloves, and screens on the job. They figured the chemicals could only harm them if they were exposed to large amounts of it. Everyday workers, however, weren’t offered the same safety precautions. But ironically, the masks, gloves, and screens wouldn’t have even helped…
Before painting the dials, the women would lick the tip of a clean paintbrush, but they would continue licking the brush throughout the process to keep the effect going. What this meant was they kept licking the paintbrush after it was already dipped in radium. And so the radium lingered on the brush.
Thus, these women were consistently ingesting the chemical, with no concept about its harmful effects. When women started working in the radium warehouses to assist with the war effort, they weren’t aware of the consequences. These workers just thought they were lucky to get a paid job. The way they saw it, working in the radium factory was great…
They earned three times the average wage for working women. And what made it better, in their eyes, was that the work wasn’t even that difficult. All they had to do was to give watches a glowing face with a newly discovered chemical element, radium. The women were apparently fascinated by the deep glow that radium gave their hands at night.
Since they were told that it was safe, and it wasn’t so common to question authority (at least in those days), the women believed that the liquid would cause no harm. In fact, they embraced their glowing limbs as an interesting consequence. At the time, radium was a relatively new discovery.
Pierre and Marie Curie discovered the existence of radium and polonium during the research they conducted in 1898. Radium is a metallic element that is white, glowing, rare, and highly radioactive. It was just before Christmas in 1898 that Pierre Curie scribbled “Radium” in his notebook. That powerful notebook, to this day, is still extremely radioactive.
In 1903, the Curies, along with Henri Becquerel, won the Nobel Prize for Physics. Marie won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry by herself in 1911. She is still the only person – let alone woman – in history to have won the Nobel Prize for both physics and chemistry. In 1935, her daughter Irene won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry after discovering that radioactivity could be produced artificially in a laboratory.
A year before her daughter won the Nobel Prize, Marie Curie died at the age of 66. The cause of death? Leukemia caused by radiation. The Curies were aware, though, that their latest discovery was a dangerous one. Marie actually burned herself several times with chemicals when she was handling the elements.
Pierre had stated once that he didn’t want to be in a room with a kilogram of radium as he was worried it would either blind him or burn his skin off. At the time, he and Marie were working with large amounts of radium. The public was under the misconception that a small amount of radium was safe. And so, the element was being handled every day.
Mixing radium with a specific type of paint makes it glow after having been exposed to light for a prolonged period of time. This is the reason companies made military watches using radium; it soaked up the energy during daylight hours, leaving it to light up at night – just how solar lights work. (If only solar energy was used instead… lives would have been saved).
When radium began being used as a cancer treatment around the turn of the 19th century, the irony of the situation came to light. Kate Moore, the author of The Radium Girls, told CNN that due to radium’s success, “it somehow became an all-powerful health tonic.” People took it like we take vitamins today – they were utterly fascinated by its power.
Radium was seen as a cure for so many ailments, including arthritis and gout. People were obsessed with its alleged healing power. Believe it or not, radium was added to everyday products, like toothpaste, food, drinks, and cosmetics. Radithor, made of distilled water with radium dissolved in it, was one such product.
The tagline for Radithor was “A Cure for the Living Dead.” This was actually a very fitting motto given the effects radium has, especially when it came to the fate of its female handlers in the USRC. Radium is dangerous enough as it is, but when it’s ingested, the side effects are multiplied.
Timothy Jorgenson, a radiation expert at Georgetown University, said that “chemically, it behaves very much like calcium.” Why? Because our bodies use calcium to make bones. When the body ingests radium, it gets mistaken for calcium and is absorbed into the bone. Jorgenson explained the effects further…
The main health problems associated with consuming radium are bone necrosis and bone cancer – both caused by radiation. And it’s the dose of radiation that determines how soon these health risks will develop. In this case, the Radium Girls were exposed to very high doses. It meant that within a few years, symptoms developed. In other words, they were silently destroying themselves from the inside out.
Most of the women who worked at the USRC were teenagers. Thanks to their smaller hands, these young women were ideal for such precise and detailed-oriented work. There were times when entire families would sit beside each other in the factory, completely unaware of the dangers that lay on the tip of their paintbrushes.
One of the things that attracted these women to work in the factory was the glow-in-the-dark after-effects of the chemical itself. Today, we refer to them as the Radium Girls, but back then, their given nickname was the “Ghost Girls.” The label, as creepy and foreshadowing as it was, stuck with them – whether they liked it or not.
After their shifts ended, the radium would continue to show long into the night. They saw it as a fun after-effect, something that made their job more enjoyable. On Fridays, some of the women would take it a step further and come to work wearing their best dresses. They wanted their ghostly features to be the talk of the town at the parties they went to on weekends.
Some of the young and unsuspecting women would use deadly radium to paint their nails and hair. And yes, they even put it on their teeth so that their smiles would literally glow. For years, they were proud of their work and were paid really well.
Sadly, many of the mothers started to encourage their daughters, nieces, and sisters to work in the company too. 18-year-old Grace Fryer and her colleagues spent hours every day of the workweek, following the lip-pointing method they were shown when painting the tiny watch faces. Melanie Marnich, a playwright, called the routine the “lip, dip, paint routine”: a cute name for a deadly method.
Mae Cubberly, a colleague of Grace Fryer’s, said that the first thing the girls inquired about was whether the radium would harm them. “Naturally, you don’t want to put anything in your mouth that is going to hurt you,” Cubberly said. The manager at the time, Mr. Savoy, told the girls that radium wasn’t dangerous; they didn’t need to be afraid.
The managers at the USRC told the girls that there were no negative side effects. Still, they wore lead aprons that covered their torsos and handled radium with ivory tongs. The first victim to succumb to the wrath of radium was a young woman named Mollie Maggia, who was forced to quit work after getting horribly sick in 1922, five years after the factory was put into use.
Her illness appeared innocent at first. It started with a sore tooth. Dentists were planning to extract the tooth to alleviate the pain, but then Mollie reported another sore tooth. Ultimately, her dentist pulled out multiple teeth. After that, Mollie started getting these ugly, tumor-like ulcers on her gums where her teeth used to be.
The ulcers then started to ooze, leaving the poor girl with unbearable pain and awful-smelling breath. Soon after, she started getting sore limbs, eventually making it impossible for her to walk. Doctors told her that her symptoms were a case of severe rheumatism, prescribing her aspirin for the pain. It didn’t take long for the women to turn into zombie-like versions of themselves.
It reads like a screenplay for Night of the Living Dead, but the effects were as real as ever. By May of 1922, Mollie was a shell of the person she once was. Most of her teeth were long gone, and her jaw, mouth, and the bones in her ears were completely swollen. Nobody realized how severe Mollie’s condition was until she saw her dentist for the last time.
Mollie’s dentist touched her jawbone lightly when examining her, and the bone snapped right off. The dentist ultimately removed her entire jaw. Mollie wasn’t the only woman who experienced such horrible and bizarre symptoms. In fact, some of the other Ghost Girls were complaining about pains in their limbs as well as their jaws.
They were, obviously, terrified. By September 1922, Mollie’s infection spread to her throat, reaching her jugular vein. Her illness spread, causing her to hemorrhage in a matter of seconds. Unfortunately, nothing could be done, medically at least. Mollie Maggia was only 24 years old when she died. Her death certificate cited syphilis as the cause of death.
The USRC would use Mollie’s death certificate as evidence against the Radium Girls when future legal disputes arose. Alas, other Radium Girls suffered similar deaths. Some of them died in the same way, while others experienced other symptoms. One woman’s vertebrae collapsed after the radium caused her spine to disintegrate.
Other women discovered they had skin cancer, throat cancer, cataracts, hair loss, and loose teeth. During this time, the wider public was learning of their ailments and deaths, but they were under the misconception that all these women were dying from severe cases of syphilis. They didn’t realize that radium was to blame. In fact, the medical community wasn’t any wiser.
Medical professionals and doctors had never come across such radiation sickness before, which is why syphilis was consistently cited as the cause of death on multiple death certificates. The USRC denied any connection between radium and the deaths of its workers. However, studies were starting to be conducted. Slowly but surely, it became apparent that there was indeed a connection between radium and the women’s illnesses.
It turns out that the president of the corporation had bribed scientists into counteracting any negative evidence with that from other studies. Dr. George S. Willis and Dr. Sabin Arnold von Sockocky were convinced that the female workers were attempting to ruin their company. How? By playing off their ailments to get money to cover all their costly medical bills.
Although the odds were against them, the poor, suffering women kept fighting against the USRC. The Radium Girls didn’t have much scientific evidence to back up their cause, but at least they were starting to understand that radium was not nearly as safe as their employers told them it was. By 1924, dozens of women from the radium factory had died undeserved deaths.
While the public was still unaware of radium’s detrimental effects, a man named Harrison Martland got involved in radium studies of his own. He was hoping to prove the connection between the girls’ diseases and radium. Martland is actually the man behind the term “punch drunk,” which was a term he gave to brain injuries sustained by boxers who were hit in the head repeatedly.
Dr. Martland was on a mission, and the first thing he did was reopen Mollie Maggia’s case. Seeing that the women had ingested radium during their years of work, it still remained inside their bodies, spreading radiation and eroding their bones. Studies showed that Grace Fryer’s spine was destroyed, requiring her to wear a steel brace on her back.
Another girl’s jaw essentially became a stump as it completely disintegrated. Some of the women’s legs became shorter due to deep fractures, and other women developed cancer in their arms and legs. Trust me, the medical descriptions are too horrifying to list in detail. And don’t forget the fact that their bones were glowing from under their skin.
Whereas once they loved this literally radiant glow on their skin, they now saw it as a consistent reminder of their impending death. It was truly as awful as it sounds. Unfortunately, the radium was deep inside their bodies with absolutely no way of removing this silent killer. In the 1920s, it was a coroner’s jury that decided on the cause of death – a process similar to that of a court case.
At the time, Dr. Martland was the Medical Officer of Essex County. He decided to remove the jury system that was in place and replace it with a system based on medical information. All of his suspicions were confirmed after conducting a medical exam on Mollie Maggia’s body, which showed no signs or symptoms of syphilis whatsoever.
Instead of syphilis, the exam showed radiation-induced damage. Martland conducted the same exams on the bodies of the other women. Once they were completed, the USRC had a massive lawsuit against them, which unsurprisingly led to an immediate decline and downfall of their organization. However, despite all the significant evidence that Martland made against the USRC, the radium industry was pushing back.
The women affected realized that they were going to need more than just scientific proof to further their case. They rallied together and prepared themselves for the fight of their lives. The women wanted to be absolutely sure that no more women would have to suffer because of the radium industry. Grace Fryer became a feminist hero.
Fryer saw it as “thinking more of the hundreds of girls to whom this may serve as an example.” The daughter of a union representative, Grace, was set on finding legal help to support their case. Countless lawyers turned her away, saying the case was too complex because they were fighting against such a large corporate power.
At the time, radium poisoning wasn’t even named yet, so there was no proof that they could even win their case. Even more discouraging, the law held that victims of occupational injuries or poisoning have a mere two years to bring their cases to court. Radium poisoning happens at such a slow speed that most of the girls didn’t even begin experiencing symptoms until five years after they first handled the element.
Finally, in 1927, a young attorney named Raymond Berry stepped up to the plate and took the case. Soon, the Radium Girls found themselves in a tough court case. The timing was crucial, and the girls were quickly running out of it. As the court case proceeded, the women were told they had four months left to live.
As sinister as it is, the USRC was determined to drag it out for as long as possible. Eventually, Grace Fryer and the other women were forced to settle out of court because they were too sick. Unfortunately, they didn’t win their case. But the case did raise awareness about the effects of radium. More important, their case brought attention to these women who were on the verge of something huge.
By 1928, the world was beginning to see the dangers of radium, and the “lip-point” routine came to an end. Anyone handling the chemical was then given complete protective gear. A decade later, in 1938, the Food and Drug Administration banned the packaging of products containing radium, after which radium-filled paint was discontinued.
The case started a conversation that resulted in massive improvements in occupational hazard laws. More women followed Grace Fryer and sued radium companies who continued to appeal. In 1939, the Supreme Court rejected the final appeal, and survivors were given compensation. The court ruled that all the related death certificates would state the correct cause of death: radium poisoning.
The Radium Girls’ case happened to be the first court case in history in which a company was found liable for the declining health of its employees. Ever since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has worked to protect workers across America. To give you a big picture figure, over 14,000 people died on the job each year before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was established.
Now, the number has decreased to less than 5,000. And we can thank the Radium Girls for that. During the 20th Century, countless attempts to build a safer work environment came about as a result of lives being sacrificed. Sadly, this is what usually happens – we tend to learn the hard way.
Many women suffered health problems because of radium. The number is said to be in the thousands. While many didn’t die such horrific deaths, the delayed effects of radium exposure crept up on them and led to many reports of cancer. Kate Moore, the author of The Radium Girls, claimed that during the Cold War in the ‘50s, many people agreed to voluntarily be studied.
Scientists wanted to research those exposed to radium for long periods of time. Many women agreed to rather intrusive examinations, and it’s thanks to these scientific tests that we now know a lot more about what radiation does to the human body.
Moore is concerned that this hidden chapter of history will be forgotten by the wider public. Moore said she is worried “about the continued commercial instinct of prioritizing profits over people.” The way she sees it, as long as that mindset exists, the Radium Girls’ story can happen again.
According to Moore, the most surprising thing about their story is the way radium was welcomed and promoted across the world in health and beauty products. Women were happily applying radioactive eye shadow to their eyelids! They drank shots of radium-water in a way similar to how we take vitamins or supplements.
Moore asks her readers to consider what the radium of our generation is. In earlier generations, it was tobacco and cigarettes. She wonders if social media or mobile phones are our generation’s version of radium. Moore believes that because since we don’t know, we need to be cautious. It was while she was directing a play called These Shining Lives that Moore was inspired to write the story of the Radium Girls.
The play, written by Melanie Marnich, focused on the lives of four women who worked in a watch factory in Illinois. The play highlighted the lack of safety in the workplace and the dangers of working in the 1920s. The story grabbed Moore’s attention and led to her research. Eventually, she stumbled upon the Radium Girls’ story.
In 1902, Katherine Schaub was born in Newark, New Jersey. On February 1, 1917, at the age of 14, she started working at the radium factory in Newark. She was soon promoted to the role of an instructress, teaching the other girls common techniques. According to her colleagues and friends, Katherine was imaginative, and always dreamt of being a writer.
She published part of her memoirs, but – for some reason – her family burned the manuscript after she died. Then, there was a girl named Edna Hussman, who was also born in Newark in 1901. She bounced between a few different social circles. She and Katherine remained friends after the First World War.
After leaving the USRC, both women began working in another radium warehouse called Luminite, also in New Jersey. Edna painted watch dials up until 1925 when all the radium poisoning studies were being publicized. In 1927, Katherine and Edna got together to sue both Luminite and the USRC. Both cases were settled out of court.
Edna wrote a letter to Dr. Martland thanking him for his work on radium poisoning. She wrote “radium paint” at the top of her letter, just in case he might have forgotten who she was. Another radium girl was Eleanor “Ella” Eckert. Born in 1895, she worked at the radium factory and painted between 250 and 300 watches every day.
Her death certificate stated her cause of death as “shock from operation,” but Dr. Martland fought to change it to radium poisoning. The cause of Ella’s death wasn’t certain since she was one of the first women to die from a rare form of bone cancer. Her four-year-old son was meant to get compensation after she passed away, but there is no proof that this happened.
After X-rays were invented, people didn’t think that radiation was emitted from them. Thus, radium started to appear in doctors’ offices, laboratories, and shoe shops. Between the 1930s and the ‘60s, kids measured their shoe size by putting their feet into X-ray fluoroscopes at shoe stores. The children were obviously excited to see the bones in their feet.
Those machines started disappearing in the United States, but only in 1970 did state law start to restrict the use of such devices, and, eventually, they stopped being manufactured. But, even after they were banned in the US, countries in Europe continued to use them for many years.
Dr. Alfred Curie (no relation to Marie or Pierre Curie) and a pharmacist named Alexis Mousalli started a cosmetic line made completely from radium. They intended to sell it to French women. The final product was called Tho-Radia cosmetics. Their pitch was: “come buy face cream, soap, powder, and toothpaste filled with radium to give your skin a special kind of glow!”
While the Tho-Radia cosmetics were more expensive than others, they were popular in Paris and started to gain popularity in other countries as well. The most popular product in the line was their face cream that claimed to soften wrinkles, firm facial tissue, improve circulation, and remove oil.
Now, most of us know of hot springs, saunas, and steam rooms, but back in the 1920s, there was something called a “radium spa” where people could experience the “health benefits” of radium! During the 1950s, abandoned mines in Montana opened up for anyone who wanted radium in their lives. Across Europe, radium spas became extremely popular.
There used to be a kid’s chemistry kit called the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab. It came with radioactive stuff for kids to play with. The set was marketed to “boys with a great deal of education,” and cost a hefty $50. But the price tag wasn’t due to the radioactive materials in the kit; it was because of the quality of the toy.
There was another cheaper version called the Atomic Energy Lab, which came with radium and uranium. And if you had $150 lying around during the 1930s, you could have bought yourself a personal “radiendocrinator,” a small device that men would put over their endocrine glands. They essentially exposed themselves to radium for “therapeutic purposes”: to “stimulate and increase sexual virility.”
Its creator, William J. Bailey, died in 1949 as a result of bladder cancer after a lifetime of wearing his product and drinking huge amounts of radium water.