The Radium Girls' Dark Story Still Glows With Death and Deceit

By: Kate Morgan  | 
radium girls
The women dubbed Radium Girls painted luminous numbers on watches, clocks and instrument dials using radium-laced paint in factories in New Jersey, Illinois and Connecticut. Public Domain

The first illnesses appeared around 1920, and initially, doctors were baffled. Otherwise healthy young women were suddenly sick with a number of ailments, including anemia and cancer. But the most concerning symptom these working-class women had was necrosis of the jaw: Their faces were literally rotting away.

So what did these young women have in common other than their symptoms? They were all factory workers. Every one of them worked in radium dial factories in New Jersey, Illinois and Connecticut.

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The women who were falling ill were radium dial painters. They painted watch dials, clocks and instruments for ships and aircraft with glow-in-the-dark paint. Eventually, they would learn that it was radium poisoning from the paint that was slowly killing them. Later, as lawsuits against their employers mounted, the press dubbed the women the Radium Girls.

The Discovery of Radium

"When Marie Curie and Pierre Curie discovered radium in 1898, it was only the third radioactive element discovered," James Stemm, curator of the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History, says via email. While radium had no practical applications at first, it was soon discovered that the radiation emitted by radium could kill living cells, and doctors began using it to treat cancers.

"A new treatment for cancer obviously created a sensation," Stemm says. "Many people concluded that if radiation could 'cure' cancer then it must be good for you in general. Both legitimate medical practitioners and frauds grabbed the idea and ran with it."

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Radium became, Stemm says, a major fad. It was promoted as a cure for "just about any disease or condition imaginable." Companies sold devices that infused radium's radiation into drinking water.

"Radium also appeared in other consumer products such as cleaning products, disinfectants and cosmetics," Stemm adds. "Companies added the word radium to their products simply as a marketing tool even when there was no radium used."

radium girls
This ad for the Radior Company ran in the New York Tribune in 1918. It touted radium as a wondrous and powerful source of beauty and vitality.
Library of Congress

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Painting for the United States Radium Corporation

Another industry also began using radium, but not for its "curative" abilities. On its own, the element radium glows dimly in the dark. When mixed with a substance like zinc, it takes on a bright, green color that makes a glowing paint.

Industrial manufacturers realized the paint — known as radium paint — could be used to make instruments and clocks visible at night. Demand grew as World War I began; in 1914, the United States Radium Corporation, or USRC, was founded.

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USRC hired young women to paint these instruments with radium paint. Their small hands were suited to the detailed work, and the jobs paid well.

"At the height of the industry in the early 1920s, about 2,000 women were employed," says Stemm. "Estimates of the total number of women employed in the industry between 1917 and 1935 vary, but a number approaching 10,000 is not unreasonable."

The women would mix their own paint from radium dust and other ingredients. They were soon known as "ghost girls," because the radium dust made their skin, hair and clothes glow. Some of the women even used radium paint on their teeth to brighten their smiles.

"Once the paint was mixed, the extremely fine detail painting required very sharply pointed paint brushes," says Stemm. "To ensure a sufficiently sharp point, the women were told to use their lips and tongue to shape the brush." They had to do this repeatedly throughout the day to keep that fine point, which meant the women ingested radioctive paint constantly.

The women's employers at Radium Corporation assured them the paint was harmless, but many of the women soon fell ill, some severely with necrosis of the jaw.

"This extremely painful and disfiguring condition was the most common of the diseases suffered by the [radium girls]," Stemm says. "Radium poisoning caused the victims' jaws to disintegrate over time, eventually killing them."

By the time the first dial painter died in 1923, the medical community had begun to suspect that radium exposure was the cause.

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Taking the Companies to Court

News coverage of Radium Girls
News coverage of the Radium Girls shows how horrific their story became once it went public. Library of Congress/HowStuffWorks

By the late 1920s, many of female dial painters had fallen dangerously ill; several had died.

Although Radium Corp. assured the dial painters they were safe, Stemm says, the company knew that working with radium was dangerous. "A report commissioned by USRC in the early 1920s concluded that the total lack of safety precautions was putting the dial painters in danger," he says.

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Radium Corp. submitted a falsified version of the report to New Jersey officials and suppressed its findings, continuing to refute the idea that its paint was making anyone sick.

"When one of USRC's senior chemists died of aplastic anemia in 1925, it became obvious that there was a connection," Stemm says. "Studies by officials in New Jersey proved that the women were suffering from radiation poisoning, and that it had come from the radium they were exposed to in their workplace."

By the late 1920s, five women sued USRC in Orange, New Jersey, starting with Grace Fryer. It took Fryer two years to find an attorney to take the case, but once she did, four other women — Edna Hussman, Katherine Schaub, and sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice — joined. Newspaper headlines dubbed them the Living Dead and the Radium Girls.

Their attorney, Raymond Berry, hired 30-year-old physicist Elizabeth Hughes who used an electroscope to measure radioactivity in the breath of the five dial painters. Hughes testified that all five women had ingested so much radium that their breath was toxic.

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The Radium Girls' Legacy

Katherine Schaub and Grace Fryer
Katherine Schaub (left) and Grace Fryer (right) were two of the women who filed suit against the United States Radium Corporation in 1927. Both women died in 1933. Public Domain

Hughes' testimony gained worldwide attention. To avoid the bad publicity, Radium Corp. agreed to an out of court settlement.

"[It was] one of the first instances in the United States in which employers were held liable for the health and safety of their employees" Stemm says. The legacy of the radium girls, he says, is "the creation of workplace safety regulations and of government oversight organizations like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration."

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By 1927, more than 50 women had died because of radium paint poisoning. But the Radium Girls' story doesn't end there. Their story saved lives, too. Their diseases and suffering made the public aware of the dangers of radium.

"By 1935, the use of radium in most consumer products had ended and government regulation banned its use," says Stemm. Radium was still used in aircraft instruments — with a lot more safety precautions in place — until the 1970s, but today it's been replaced by technology that's a lot less deadly.

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