The Radium Girls


Nobel Prizes, watch dials, and lawsuits. 

Marie Curie

Marie Curie was a Polish-born physicist and chemist and one of the most famous scientists of our time.

Marie Sklodowska was born in Warsaw on 7 November 1867.  In 1891, she went to Paris to study physics and mathematics at the Sorbonne where she met Pierre Curie, professor of the School of Physics. They were married in 1895. Marie and Pierre worked together investigating radioactivity, building on the work of the German physicist Roentgen, who had discovered X-rays and the French physicist Becquerel who was beginning to research spontaneous radiation. The Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903 “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel.”

Pierre died in 1906 when he was knocked down and killed by a carriage. Marie took over his teaching post, becoming the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne. She devoted herself to continuing the work that they had begun together. She received a second Nobel Prize in 1911 for Chemistry “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.” Shortly after, the Sorbonne built the first radium institute with two laboratories; one for study of radioactivity under Marie Curie’s direction, and the other for biological research into the treatment of cancer – the field which Curie is most associated with to this day. Many hospitals and resources operate in her name.

Curie’s research was crucial in the development of X-Rays in surgery. Her newly discovered element, radium, was the source of the Gamma Rays used in X-Ray machines. This allowed for stronger and more accurate scanning.

During World War One Marie helped to equip ambulances with mobile X-Ray equipment. These were known as “Petits Curies” and she drove them herself to the front lines. This allowed bullets and shrapnel to be removed from wounded soldiers on site. The International Red Cross made her head of its radiological service where she held training courses for medical orderlies and doctors in the new techniques.

By the late 1920s her health was beginning to deteriorate and she died in 1934 of aplastic anaemia contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation.

Curie was known to have carried test tubes full of radioactive isotopes around in her pocket, and when storing them in her desk had remarked that the tubes looked like fairy lights.

The Radium Girls

In 1902, inventor William J. Hammer left Paris with a curious souvenir. Pierre and Marie Curie had provided him with some samples of their radium salt crystals. Hammer was fascinated by the radium’s blue-green light and natural warmth. He combined his radium salt with glue and a compound called zinc sulfide which glowed in the presence of radiation. The result was radium paint. His concoction was used by the US Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey, during the First World War to produce Undark, a high-tech paint which allowed America’s military personnel to read their wristwatches and instrument panels at night. The pigment was also marketed for non-military products such as house numbers, pistol sights, light switch plates, and glowing eyes for toy dolls. (Why?!) US Radium assured the public that their paint used the radioactive element in “such minute quantities that it is absolutely harmless.” While this was vaguely true of the finished and sealed products themselves, the amount of radium present in the dial-painting factory was much more dangerous, unbeknownst to the workers there.

During the first world war, women needed to find income to manage their homes and finances. Dial painting was “the elite job for the poor working girls”. It paid more than three times the average factory job, and those who landed a position ranked in the top 5% of female workers nationally, giving the women financial freedom in a time of burgeoning empowerment. Many of them were teenagers, with small hands perfect for the artistic work, and they spread the message of their new job’s appeal through their friend and family networks. Often, whole sets of siblings worked alongside each other in the studio. They became known as “the ghost girls” because after they finished their shifts at the factory – they glowed. Many of them took advantage of this side effect of employment by wearing their best outfits to work so that they could head out to the dance halls afterwards and shine. Some even went as far as applying the radium to their teeth for the sought after bright white smile to dazzle their suitors. This was considered a perfectly safe practice at the time since radium was being hailed as a miracle elexir that could cure many ailments and was already being added to toothpaste to create a whitening effect. One newspaper reported that it would “add years to your life” when marketing radium water as a tonic. Coincidentally, these declarations of health benefits and longevity were based on research conducted by the very same firms who had built their lucrative industry around it.

Dial painting was delicate work, and to ensure that the camel hair brush was fine enough, the girls were taught to lick the tip of the brush to create a fine point perfect for achieving the slim and even dot or stripe required on the dials. This practice was called “lip pointing”.

Grace Fryer was one of these girls. She started working for US Radium in 1917 and recalled asking her mentor if “lip pointing” was a safe practice. She was assured that it was perfectly safe and, if anything, the practice would put “roses in her cheeks”. But that was a deliberate deception. Ever since radium was discovered it was known to cause harm if treated without care. Marie Curie herself had suffered radiation burns and people had died of radium poisoning before the first dial painter ever picked up her brush. The male workers at the plant where the girls worked wore lead aprons in their laboratories and handled the element with ivory-tipped tongs.

In May 1922, one of Grace’s colleagues, Mollie Maggia, became sick. It started with her teeth which required multiple extractions. When the root of the problem couldn’t be found and further investigation was needed. In an attempt to do this, her dentist prodded delicately at her jawbone which broke against his fingers. He removed it, “not by an operation, but merely by putting his fingers in her mouth and lifting it out.” Only days later, her entire lower jaw was removed in the same way. On September 12, 1922, she haemorrhaged so severely that her nurse could not staunch it. She died at the age of 24. As doctors didn’t really have the first idea about what killed her, they claimed (erroneously) that Syphilis was the cause of death on her certificate. A record which was later used against her posthumously in defence of the company. Other girls began to die, and a group of those who were still well enough, including Grace, decided to search for justice and filed a legal suit against their employers.

USRC denied any responsibility for the deaths for almost two years. However sales and staffing began to suffer and in 1924 they commissioned a report to look into the “alleged” link between the women’s profession and their deaths in an attempt to put an end to the persistent rumours which were becoming bad for business. Unlike the company’s own research into its benefits, this study was independent and undertaken by two industrial hygiene experts. When they concluded that radium was unequivocally to blame for a host of gruesome and excruciating physical ailments, the president of the firm was outraged. Instead of accepting the findings, he paid for new reports which published the opposite conclusion. They also lied to the Department of Labor, which had begun to show an interest as a result of the damning findings. Publicly, US Radium denounced the women as trying to “pass the buck” for their illnesses, which, they declared, were as a result of sexual promiscuity. Things were looking desperate.

In 1925 a doctor, Harrison Martland, began to work with the women and devised a series of tests which proved that radium was responsible for both their ill health and early deaths. Martland worked out that even though radium was highly toxic when in proximity to human beings, the substance was at its most dangerous when it was used internally, as it settled within the body and emitted constant destructive radiation causing infinitely greater damage. This was the case with the radium girls who had been regularly swallowing it when licking brushes over a number of years. There was no way to remove it or make it safe. By this time the poisoning was beginning to take its toll, and Grace was in a full back brace as her spine had been crushed from the honeycombing effect that the radium was having on her bones and a couple of her co-complainants had lost their jaws. Others had large tumours.

The Radium Corporation was still determined to dismiss Martland’s science in favour of claiming that the deaths were the results of sexually transmitted diseases. To combat these accusations, the bones of some of the already dead lip pointers were exhumed for study. It was at this point that the truth was absolutely undeniable: Their skeletons were glowing. They will continue to glow for the next 1500 years. Molly Maggia’s grave is still emitting radiation.

At this point more afflicted women began to group together to fight the injustice, particularly since many were still dial painting all across the United States. Grace, (pictured below) who was leading the charge, said “It is not for myself I care, It’s too late. I am thinking more of the hundreds of girls to whom this may serve as an example.”

The lawsuit was difficult, with many attorneys resisting involvement as they would be working against significant odds. A win would mean overturning existing legislation, radium poisoning wasn’t yet recognised, let alone known to be worthy of compensation — it hadn’t even been discovered until the women got sick and they were stymied by the statute of limitations which ruled that victims of occupational poisoning had to bring their legal cases within two years. Radium poisoning was insidious, so most did not start to display symptoms until at least five years after they started work. They were trapped in a vicious circle. A lawyer called Raymond Berry eventually accepted the case but this came a little too late as the New Jersey girls, who’s health had been rapidly deteriorating, had only months to live. This was what US Radium Corporation had been banking on, and with the clock running out Grace and her friends were forced to settle out of court, if only to pay their funeral expenses. They were awarded $10,000 each and the suit became known as “The Case of the Five Women Doomed to Die.”

Their efforts had not been in vain, however. The suit had become front page news and sent waves across America, particularly in Ottawa, Illinois, where another group of women were painting radium dials. They were showing the same signs of radium poisoning. Some had already died.

“There were meetings at [our] plant that bordered on riots. The chill of fear was so depressing that we could scarcely work.”

Catherine Donohue worked at the Ottawa plant. Her employer “Radium Dial” was trying to stay one step ahead of the fallout that would follow the New Jersey lawsuit. It took out a full-page newspaper advert stating: “If we at any time had reason to believe that any conditions of the work endangered the health of our employees, we would at once have suspended operations.” It followed up this campaign by interfering with autopsies and grave robbing the bones of their deceased workers in order to cover up the startlingly obvious. It was callous and pre meditated evidence removal. When she developed a melon sized tumour on her hip and began to lose fragments of her jaw, Donohue took action. She had seen her friends dying around her and this had somewhat steeled her resolve to pursue justice, compensation for medical bills, and ultimately, the loss of their lives.

By this time it was the mid 1930s and America was in deep depression. The radium girls of Ottawa were being shunned by the community for suing one of the local businesses that was still thriving. People were furious with them because they were fearful for the towns economy. The fact that it was killing women was deemed somewhat irrelevant compared to survival of cash flow. Catherines life was close to the end when the case eventually got to court, and she defied the advice of doctors and gave evidence, quite literally, from her death bed.

Catherine Donohue won and the case of “The Radium Girls” changed the landscape forever. The Radium dial company was found to be both guilty, and completely responsible for the diseases and deaths of its workers. They appealed the ruling eight times before being forced to pay by the Supreme Court. New legislation was developed to protect people in the workplace.

We’ve all heard of occupational health and safety – the radium girls were the beginning. The girls also left a legacy to science which, although gruesome, was invaluable, as the medical profession learned of the toxic nature and damage that radium could inflict on the body as well as its positive applications as developed by Marie Curie.

We owe the radium girls a lot, and they deserve to be remembered for their courage, their fortitude, and their victory for workers everywhere. 

Mae Keane, the last of the radium girls died in 2014 at the age of 107. She never licked the paint, and was fired from post because her dials were not as finely decorated as her colleagues. The sacking saved her life.

It is both horrifying and fascinating to look back on horological history at times. Many people aren’t aware that something as simple as a watch dial can carry such a backstory. Some of the old radium dials certainly show the effects of radium on their surfaces in the form of burns, so it isn’t hard to imagine for a few minutes what the substance may have done to those working with it.

These watches are likely to emit as much radiation today as they did when they were first manufactured, but experts say that in reality, the risk to wearers is low. Someone who wears a radium watch for 24 hours a day over the course of a year could conceivably be exposed to 65 to 130 millirems of radiation. The average person is exposed to about 300 millirems of background radiation in a typical year, and a single chest X-ray exposes a patient to about 5 to 10 millirems of radiation, so in the grand scheme, wearing a radium dialled watch is low risk.

A radium watch will become hazardous if someone opens it and tinkers with the dial as radioactive particles can be loosened and potentially inhaled, so don’t do that please.

Radium painted watches and clocks are safe so long as they remain intact. They will, however, emit a beep if passed over a Geiger counter which may appeal to some of the science geek in us. 

Sean Connery as James Bond passing a counter over his Submariner Big Crown 6538 in “Dr. No”


Tags: / /