The Radium Girls: Workers Who Painted with Radium and Suffered Radiation Exposure

The cost of glow-in-the-dark watch and clock dials was the lives of young women.
Marcia Wendorf

If you grew up in the 1950s, you may remember the comforting glow being given off by your alarm clock and wristwatches, even on the darkest nights. The dials glowed because both were painted with a radium-based paint.

The element radium was discovered in 1898 by Polish-French chemist/physicist Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie.

By 1910, Marie, aided by the scientist Andre-Louis Debierne, was able to isolate radium as a pure metal.

Periodic Table of the Elements
Periodic Table of the Elements. Source: Dmarcus100/Wikimedia Commons

In 1911, Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, her second Nobel Prize following a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, for her work on radiation. 

She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person (and the only woman) to win the Nobel prize twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields. 


The Radium Girls: Workers Who Painted with Radium and Suffered Radiation Exposure
Marie Curie. Source: The Maryland Science Center/Flickr

A craze for everything radium

By the late 1910s, there was a craze for everything radium-related, and for anything "glow-in-the-dark."

Manufacturers started putting the "miracle" substance into:

* Food - the Radium Schokolade chocolate bar manufactured by Burk & Braun, and Radium Bread made with radium water and manufactured by the Hippman-Black bakers.
* Water - the Revigator was a radium-laced container that stored a gallon of water; drinking the water supposedly cured arthritis, impotence, and wrinkles.
* Toys - the Radiumscope was sold until 1942, and it was marketed as a "wonderful" nightlight since it "glows with a weird light in a dark room."
* Toothpaste - a toothpaste containing both radium and thorium was sold by Dr. Alfred Curie, who was no relation to either Marie or Pierre Curie.
* Cosmetics - the same Dr. Curie also marketed cosmetics under the Tho-Radia brand, which promised to brighten and rejuvenate your skin.
* Impotence Treatments - the Radioendocrinator was a booklet that contained cards coated in radium and meant to be worn inside undergarments at night.

Radiumscope. Source: Pulp Librarian/Twitter

During radium's heyday, between the years 1917 and 1926, its biggest use was in painting the dials of clocks and watches.

There were three companies in the U.S.: United States Radium in Orange, New Jersey, which began around 1917, the Radium Dial Corporation in Ottawa, Illinois, which began in 1922, and the Waterbury Clock Company in Waterbury, Massachusetts.

The companies mixed radium salts with zinc sulfide and glue to produce glowing paint. U.S. Radium patented their radium paint under the name "Undark."

1921 Undark advertisement
1921 Undark advertisement. Source: (1921-08) "The Story of a Great Engineer/Wikimedia Commons

WWI Increases Demand

When the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, soldiers on the front weren't able to see their watch dials at night, which made co-ordinating night attacks more difficult. The U.S. military entered into a contract with U.S. Radium to produce wristwatches with glowing dials for their soldiers, and the company staffed up.

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The ideal dial painter was a very young woman, due to the size of their hands. While some of the girls were as young as 11 years old, the majority of the young women hired were 14, 15, and 16-year olds.

Most of the girls were from working-class families, and many were the daughters of immigrants. They were thrilled to have the job, the factory was clean and the pay was excellent.

The girls were instructed to make the tip of their camel hair brushes as fine as possible by licking the tip and compressing it between their lips. This process was called "pointing."

Dentists See Puzzling Cases

By the early 1920s, dentists in New Jersey and Illinois started seeing young women with serious dental problems. When dentists extracted their aching teeth, entire portions of their jawbones came out as well. Ultimately, this became known as radium necrosis or radium jaw.

One example was young Mollie Maggia, whose entire jaw disintegrated under her dentist's gentle prodding. Eventually, tumors invaded her jugular vein, drowning her in her own blood, and killing her at age 24.

Besides dental problems, the girls were experiencing ulcers on their skin, breaking bones and tumors in their legs, hips, and faces. Their bodies had treated the radium they had ingested through "tipping" as a calcium substitute, and it concentrated in their bones and teeth.

Jaw tumor
Jaw tumor. Source: Marketplace APM/YouTube

Often, the girls' first intimation that they had radium poisoning was catching sight of themselves in a mirror at night. Their bones literally glowed in the dark. Then, the girls started dying.

The women sought help from the companies, but they were met with a wall of denials. In 1924, U.S. Radium commissioned a report by public health experts Cecil and Katherine Drinker of Harvard University.

When the report showed radium to be the source of the girls' problems, U.S. Radium rewrote Drinker's report, claiming that "every girl is in perfect condition." They then filed it, with Drinker's name still attached, with the New Jersey Department of Labor.

The companies didn't just cover-up the problems. They went so far as to discredit the young women by encouraging doctors to list the cause of death of those who had died as syphilis. 

Five women stand up

It took U.S. Radium dial painter Grace Fryer two years to find a lawyer who was willing to take her case. She was joined by four other women: Edna Hussman, Katherine Schaub, and sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice.

U.S. Radium attempted to delay the trial as long as possible, hoping that the plaintiffs would all soon be dead. When in January 1928, the case finally came to trial, none of the five women was strong enough to raise her arm to take the oath, and two of the women were bedridden.

With the trial making worldwide headlines, Marie Curie weighed in stating, "I would be only too happy to give any aid that I could, but there is absolutely no means of destroying the substance once it enters the human body." 

When U.S. Radium convinced the trial judge for yet another delay, famed journalist Walter Lippmann wrote, "One of the most damnable travesties of justice that has ever come to our attention. It is an outrage that the company should attempt to keep these women from suing... There is no possible excuse for such a delay. The women are dying. If ever a case called for prompt adjudication, it is the case of five crippled women who are fighting for a few miserable dollars to ease their last days on Earth."

In an almost unbelievable act of hubris, U.S. Radium's 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."

During the trial, it came out that the male scientists at the companies who processed the radium powder wore lead aprons and handled the radium with tongs, while the women received no such protection.

In Ottawa, Illinois, the Radium Dial Corporation had medical reports from their own doctors showing that the girls were suffering from radium poisoning, but they took out full-page ads in the local newspaper stating that radium was completely safe.

U.S. Radium settles

In 1928, U.S. Radium settled the lawsuit, giving each of the women $10,000 plus $600 a year for as long as they continued to suffer from radium poisoning. The case became known as "The Case of the Five Women Doomed to Die."

The Consumers League of New Jersey successfully campaigned to have radium necrosis recognized as an occupational disease by the State Workmen’s Compensation Board. Until then, radium poisoning was not a compensable disease, however, it was too late to actually benefit any of the radium girls because the two-year statute of limitations had run out.

Feelings about the case lingered, and in 1941, New Jersey passed a bill making all industrial diseases compensable, and they extended the time during which workers could discover illnesses. The case of the radium girls ultimately led to the formation of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

In 2017, author Kate Moore brought back the story of these women in her book, The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women. Using safer techniques, clock and watch dials continued to be painted with radium until the 1960s.

On March 1, 2014, the last of the radium girls, Mae Keane, died at her home in Middlebury, Connecticut at the age of 107. Luckily for her, her bosses weren't satisfied with her work as a dial painter and she had been quickly fired. Today, the former U.S. Radium manufacturing plant is a Superfund Site.

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