Tragic women who glowed in the dark

 

Hundreds of women worked in clock factories during WWI where they painted watch and clock dials with glow-in-the-dark radium paint.

In 1916, dial painting was the trendy new profession for young American and Canadian women; it was artistic and well-paid.

The women were paid up to three times the amount they'd be earning at other factories.

Also, because the most of the dials were for military use, the women were made to feel important, that they were making a difference in helping with the war effort.

Wearing a watch with a glow-in-the-dark dial was the hot new fashion accessory.

"Made possible by the magic of radium!" promised one advertisement.

The work involved using luminous radium paint to make the numbers on clocks, watches and aeronautic dials glow in the dark. Back then, radium wasn't considered to be dangerous in small doses.

It was seen as a relatively safe job - until the women were instructed to suck their paintbrushes to make a very fine point, making it easier to carry out the intricate work needed to get the numbers small enough. After they painted a number, they had to put the tip of the camel-haired paintbrush between their lips to make a fine point.

The women painted up to 200 watches per day and with every number they painted, they ingested a small amount of radium.

 

They were assured by the factory bosses that radium was perfectly safe.

But that was a lie.

Radium was known to be dangerous. Why else would male employees working with larger amounts of radium be required to wear lead aprons? But the women believed what they were told and continued sucking their paintbrushes, completely oblivious to the fact that they were poisoning themselves.

What's worse was that radium companies fed the public the lie that small amounts of radium was actually good for you.

During the height of radium's popularity, between 1917 and 1926, it was mostly used by the Radiation Corporation in the US to paint clock and watch faces.

For fun, some women even painted their teeth so, when they arrived home in the dark, their mouths would be glowing. Radium was marketed as a health product, with radium infused water, cosmetics and toothbrushes.

The United States Radium Corporation's radium crystallisation laboratory. Picture: Gerald Weinstein/ Library of Congress
The United States Radium Corporation's radium crystallisation laboratory. Picture: Gerald Weinstein/ Library of Congress

 

But the luminous element had a devastating side and it wasn't long before the after-effects of the radium paint began to show. It began with a toothache and quickly led to anaemia, bone fractures and necrosis of the jaw; a condition that became known as "radium jaw".

And while the "radium girls" were instructed to ingest the dangerous mixture, the management and scientists - who knew how dangerous it was - avoided any exposure.

It was 97 years ago this month that the first of the radium girls died, leading survivors to take their employer to court, paving the way for new laws that forever changed work safety practices and saved thousands of lives. Here's the story of the radium girls.


BEAUTIFUL RADIUM

Physicist Marie Curie referred to the element she created with her husband Pierre in 1898 as "beautiful radium". Originally believed to have health and healing benefits, radium was marketed as a wonder cure when it was discovered radium was able to shrink the size of tumours. It became the first step in radium being used as radiation therapy for cancer.

According to Kate Moore, author of The Radium Girls, scientist knew radium was hazardous, but radium companies insisted that small amounts were beneficial to health.

Physicist Marie Curie.
Physicist Marie Curie.

Everything radium came into contact with glowed.

Moore writes: "If the girls blew their noses, their handkerchiefs glowed; they glowed like ghosts on their way home; their clothes glowed from their wardrobes at night. Some girls wore evening dresses to work so that they would glow on their dates. One painted her teeth to impress her man. There was no reason for them to think this was in any way sinister."

The girls were even told, "Radium will be rosy cheeks on you."

An entire industry was soon devoted to radium. Grocery products such as butter and milk were sold across Britain and the US, laced with radium. There was even a "Radium Schokolade chocolate bar" and radium bread, made with radium water that were popular until they were discontinued in 1936.

Marie Curie created the element with her husband Pierre in 1898, marketing it as ’beautiful radium’. Picture: Chronicle
Marie Curie created the element with her husband Pierre in 1898, marketing it as ’beautiful radium’. Picture: Chronicle

Radium-infused cosmetics and face creams promised to give a fresh beauty that "shines" and there was even radium-laced lingerie and radium energy tablets. Toothpaste containing radium went on sale, along with radium water that was stored inside a radium-laced bucket; apparently it could cure everything from arthritis to wrinkles.

Moore writes: "Manufacturers funded research that supported their claims - and ignored independent studies that proved the opposite. So when the dial painters asked their bosses if it was safe to lip-point, they said, 'Yes'.

"They told the girls that radium would make them good-looking. So the women picked up their brushes and placed them in their mouths - over and over and over again."

An advertisement for a radium-based hair product from 1924. Picture: H.W.Cherry/ Library of Congress
An advertisement for a radium-based hair product from 1924. Picture: H.W.Cherry/ Library of Congress

Moore researched her book by starting with the story of Mollie Maggia, a former worker at a dial-painting factory. In 1922, 24-year-old Molly died a death her sister described as "painful and terrible". Doctors told her family she'd died from syphilis but her family did not believe this. (That false diagnosis was later used against her in court.)

Maggia might have been the first "radium girl" to die but many of her co-workers soon followed. By 1927 more than 50 women had died while others suffered ongoing illnesses and permanent injuries.

For many of them, the illness began when their teeth started to fall out. Others had unexplained fractures and anaemia. Some suffered chronic exhaustion while others had stillborn babies.

ON THE BRINK OF DEATH

Radium was not suspected at first because the official line was that it was safe in small doses. The only study into the safety of radium was conducted in the same factory.

According to Moore, instead of radium firms suspending dial-painting, the managers refused to accept any responsibility and vowed to find the "real cause" of the women's illness.

Moore writes: "In New Jersey, the women's illnesses had an understandable effect on the profession's popularity: dial painting declined. But 800 miles away in Ottawa, Illinois, where a new studio had opened, the painters were unaware of the problems - and their employers did not inform them of the now-established danger."

It took the death of a male employee of the radium firm for experts to finally take the issue seriously.

Then, in 1925, Doctor Harrison Martland discovered that radium had deposited in the women's bones. He created tests that proved it was the radium that was poisoning the factory workers; but for many women, this finding was too late.

By the mid-1920s, dozens of radium girls were falling ill. The radium they'd ingested was eating away at their bones. The ingested radium had settled in the factory workers' bodies and, after a short time, began emitting constant, destructive radiation.

According to Moore, the radium was literally boring holes inside them. One worker, Grace Fryer, reported that the radium had crushed her spine, forcing her to wear a steel back brace, while another woman's jaw was eaten away to "a mere stump." Many of the women's legs shortened and spontaneously fractured.

A VICTORY AT LAST

In 1927, five former dial painters, led by Catherine Donohue and represented by lawyer Leonard Grossman, (working pro bono), filed a legal case against the US Radium Corporation. During the case, the body of Molly Maggia was exhumed and taken away for an autopsy.

According to Moore, Maggia's body was in "a good state of preservation" five years after her death. An autopsy soon proved that "each and every portion of tissue and bone tested gave evidence of radioactivity".

It took eight appeals before the former radium girls finally had a victory, in October 1939. The lasting legacy of the women's fight led to the introduction of new safety standards to protect a whole new generation of dial painters, as well as those working with plutonium in making atomic bombs.

Then, in 1949, US Congress passed a law giving workers the right to compensation for occupational illnesses, paving the way for the rest of the world.

While the New Jersey factory featured the most famous case of radium dial painting, it was far from being the only one. It's believed there were 4000 workers hired at factories across the US and Canada using radium to paint the dials. And, even though safety conditions improved, the watches were still being manufactured up until the late 1960s.

One of the last surviving radium girls, Mae Keane, told America's National Public Radio in 2014 she felt lucky to have quit her job at a factory in Connecticut in 1924 after a few days because she didn't like the "gritty" taste of the radium paint on the paintbrush.

Realising she wasn't enjoying her job, her boss asked her if she'd like to quit and she happily agreed.

Keane told NPR: "I often wish I had met him after to thank him, because I would have been like the rest of them."

LJ Charleston is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @LJCharleston


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