In the late 1910s—in an unnerving prologue to the atomic age—there was a brief mania for radium.
The newly discovered element, with its seemingly magical radioactive properties, was hailed as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time, a marvel with the potential to cure the sick and provide benefits even to the robustly healthy. Then there were all the commercial applications, including one we don’t even think about, with our electronic devices perpetually shining in the darkness, most notably, luminous dials for watch faces. Companies like the United States Radium Corporation in Newark, New Jersey, and the Radium Dial Corporation in Ottawa, Illinois, hired fleets of working-class teenaged girls for the delicate work of covering tiny numbers with radium paint.
Their technique for applying the paint: dipping the brush against the tip of their lips to create a sufficiently fine point for the work. It was a plum job until several girls began to sicken and die in the most horrifying ways, their jaws essentially rotting inside their bodies. But even as the young women and their doctors began to piece together that their sickness must be related to their work, the companies employing them denied responsibility.
The story of their fight for justice is told in Kate Moore’s new book The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, which acts as a powerful reminder about the importance of clear, strong regulations in keeping workers safe. The Radium Girls inspired outrage nationwide, and their struggles would contribute to important workplace safety reforms. Their bodies—of those who died, but also of those who survived—contributed a great deal to what we know, even to this day, about radiation poisoning.
I talked to Moore about what happened to these young women and what they did about it, in spite of dogged opposition by the powerful radium industry. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: We now, obviously, recognize radium as being deadly. And not to be handled cavalierly. But how did people view radium when your book opens, at the beginning of the 1900s?
Kate Moore: It was absolutely a wonder element. Everyone was entranced by it. You look at some of the adverts and it’s hailed as this miracle worker, really. People thought that it could restore vitality to the elderly. It’s seen as this substance that might even add years to your life, if not create immortality. And, obviously, because people were so entranced by it, and thought it was so magical, it was very quickly exploited by entrepreneurs. As I discuss in the book, people had it in their eyeshadow and lipsticks and face creams, even things like house cleaner. One of the most peculiar things is this idea of drinking radioactive water, radium water, which the rich and famous would drink as a kind of health tonic. Which is just remarkable to us these days, but that is how radium was. It’s this total wonder drug that’s in absolutely everything from clothing to medical treatments and sung about on Broadway.
And a lot of those products, it was maybe not actually radium, right?
It can’t have been in everything, because if it was so widespread, there would have been many more cases. But it was definitely in things like the cosmetics and the radioactive water and things like this highly radioactive tonic Radithor, which, I mention later in the book, is the substance which ultimately leads to radium being identified as this fatal substance that we really shouldn’t be selling to consumers as a health tonic. So I think it wasn’t in everything but it was certainly in a lot of the things.
One of the applications for this is watches with luminous dials that you can see in the nighttime. Who went to work as dial painters for these watches?
Well, they tended to be young girls. Records show some were as young as 11, but the majority were teenagers that were 14, 15, 16 year olds. And they tended to be from working class families, often the daughters and granddaughters of immigrants. It was very much seen as the elite job for the poor working girl. The girls who got a job there were seen as really lucky. People envied them for the fact that they got to work in this very social workplace where there was a lot of camaraderie, working with radium which, as I said, is this mystical element, and the girls themselves would glow with it. I love the stories of how they would wear their good dresses to the plant so that they could get covered in this luminous dust, in this luminous paint, so that when they went out dancing the radium girls would be the ones in the nightclubs, in the speakeasies, who’d be swirling there in their shining outfits. It’s just such a wonderful vision.
But of course, obviously that glow was radioactive.
The impression I get from your book is that the handling procedures were unfathomable to a modern reader. Just very cavalier.
Absolutely. The fact that they were taught to lip point—to actually put this radioactive substance inside their mouths—is shocking. There were no warning signs. The girls did ask, is it safe? And they were assured that it was, despite the fact that people had actually died from radium poisoning, even before the first girl picked up her brush. People seem to have thought, oh it’s okay because the girls are dealing with such a small amount of radium that it won’t be harmful to them. But no one seems to have thought, okay, this is a substance that, as Pierre Curie said, burns the skin off people’s bodies, will actually kill a man if he’s left alone in a room with it. As was proved to be the case, the damage it affected inside a girl was many thousand times greater than that devastating damage that they already knew it caused externally.
But as you say, there were absolutely no safety standards, they were told it was safe, and they handled it with bare hands, they put it in their mouths, they painted it on themselves, because they thought it was so safe. They’re painting mustaches on their faces and they’re decorating their teeth for a smile that glows in the dark.
Anybody who knows anything about radium now, you know what’s going to happen when they start doing all this. And then slowly these girls start to get sick and it’s just the mismatch between what they know and what we know is just—it’s like watching a horror movie.
Yeah, it is. And some of the symptoms they suffer, they’re excruciating to read, let alone to imagine and empathize with what it must have felt like. They were literally falling apart, being killed from the inside out by this horrific, unstoppable force. Something that breaks bones without them being touched, makes their teeth fall out, causes all these ulcers, creates these horrific tumors that bloom anywhere on their body. I reference very briefly that they could spring up anywhere and obviously some of the girls in the book get them in their legs or their hips, but it was the one that said she got it on her eye that really stayed with me. You can imagine the size of these tumors, which were like grapefruits, growing out of your eye. It’s just—as you say, it’s a horror story.
One of the most striking details in the book, one of the first girls to get sick, Molly Maggia, in Newark, she’s actually diagnosed with syphilis. To have your employer essentially poison you and then to add insult to injury, people say you died of syphilis, it just seems especially cruel.
Exactly, and you think about the context of that time, as well, to have a sexually transmitted disease, she was a young unmarried woman, and that slur haunted her and the companies used it against the women further down the line, when they are trying to fight for justice. They were using the fact that, well, Molly died of syphilis, and that obviously means she wasn’t a good woman, as it were, and so the companies are using this misdiagnosis against the girls to try and discredit them.
Were there safety precautions being taken elsewhere in the business for employees who weren’t dial painters?
Yeah, that is one of the most shocking things about it, I think. Literally on the same site you have the lab workers, who were dealing with larger amounts of radium. They are wearing lead aprons, they are using ivory-tipped tongs to handle the radium, they are given enforced holidays so that they have to take a vacation every now and again so that they’re not exposed to the radium use. You have the U.S. Public Health Service issuing warnings saying radium is dangerous, everyone handling it should have a care. And then, as we’ve already talked about, the girls are handling it with bare hands, there’s no safety measures at all, and this is happening in exactly the same company. So safety precautions for some, but not for all.
And you talk about how they tried different ways of painting the dials that weren’t lip pointing, as it was called, but none of them were effective enough for the bottom line.
Exactly. And obviously that made a difference to the girls, as well, because they were paid by the number of watches they painted, so it was in everyone’s interest—the girls and the company—to have the most efficient method. That was lip pointing. And as you say, they tried several different methods and none of them was effective, so they literally took away from the girls the things that might have enabled them to escape the lip pointing. The cloths were taken away, the water in which they dipped their brushes was taken away.
How do the companies react when former employees start saying, you know, my doctor says I have something that might be like phosphorus poisoning and they start getting wind of it? What do they do?
They behaved in an absolutely appalling, callous way. They immediately discredited the idea, they didn’t put any stock in it whatsoever. The United States Radium Corporation in Newark obviously was so confident that there was no link that they commissioned this expert report from Harvard. But when the doctors came to say the girls are right, it is the radium, they covered it up. It’s just shocking to think about. They completely suppressed the report. They issued false documents to people that were investigating these mysterious illnesses and deaths, to say Harvard has said it’s absolutely fine, it’s not our problem, we’re not causing the problem. It was a lie. That was a complete misdirection. And, they continued to hire so-called medical experts who were employed to tell the girls that they were safe. They completely put profits before people, basically. They were determined to protect the radium industry at all costs. And so they discredited the women publicly, through public statements, through the way that they hired private investigators to dig up dirt on them, through the way that they put out publicity via these doctors and things like that to dismiss the claims and suggest that the women were sick when they started.
It was a complete catalog of callous behavior, no care for the fact that these women are being killed, no care for the fact that they are being made penniless, not only them but their parents and husbands are losing life savings and losing their houses as they try and fund medical treatment for the women. But the company, despite being incredibly profitable, will not spare them a single cent to try and help ease the conditions now the women are sick. They completely denied any link and denied all responsibility.
And in the case of Ottawa, they put out an ad in the local newspaper, denying it was anything but totally safe.
Which, again, I think the way USRC behaved was appalling, but you could at least say well, until they commissioned the Harvard report, you could maybe weigh it both ways and say well, they didn’t know what was happening.
But in Ottawa, by that time, it was medically proven that radium poisoning existed, that that had caused the dial painters’ illnesses, and yet, as you say, the company issued a full-page statement in the local paper which they repeated over several days, which they pinned up on the notice boards, which they brought to the girls’ attention, which said it was completely safe, which said that they would close the studio if there was any problem. And they were lying to the girls. At the point they issued that statement, they had already taken medical tests of the women, which they concealed from them, and those medical tests proved what was happening in Ottawa was identical to what was happening out East. And yet despite having those medical test results, they still issued that statement that said none of the women were hurt and there was never any sign of any radium poisoning in Ottawa, which was a bare-faced lie.
So the women start fighting back. They start going to these doctors, the doctors start piecing it together, they assemble a small number of allies who are willing to go against the radium industry. And so they start building their case and they have some successes. In contrast, tell me about what happens when Eben Byers gets sick.
Yeah, it’s interesting that it’s his case, rather than the very well publicized case of the women in New Jersey, which is the one that finally gets the FTC paying attention, that gets the American Medical Journal and things like that paying attention; it’s not when these poor working class women start dying, it’s when a rich white man who’s an industrialist and a playboy dies that suddenly people think, you know, we need to do something about all these radium products that are on our shelves.
What happened with him was, he broke his arm in 1927 and he started taking Radithor. Radium water, essentially. He consumed several thousand bottles. It might even have been hundreds of thousands of bottles. As is the way with radium, you initially start thinking you have health benefits. So he’s started taking it for this broken arm, thought it was this amazing thing, so he not only consumed loads of it himself, he also urged his friends and family to take it. One of his friends also died because he had also bought all these bottles of Radithor for her, which is another tragedy, that he caused the death of one of his closest friends.
And yeah, he consumed these hundreds of thousands of bottles and inevitably suffered from radium poisoning, equally in the same horrific conditions that the girls endured. His bones were eaten away by the radium. There’s that horrific headline—“The Radium Water Worked Fine until His Jaw Came Off.” And some of the details of his autopsy are quite shocking, with holes in his scull and things like that, all inflicted while he was alive. But he gave evidence on his deathbed to the FTC to say that Radithor had killed him and it was evidently proven and it was at that stage that the authorities stepped in. They removed radium from the list of approved medicines, they banned the use of Radithor and other radium tonics in 1931. But it wasn’t until that point that consumers were protected, despite the highly publicized trial of the Radium Girls in Newark in 1928. That wasn’t the point where people stepped in. It was only when the rich white man died.
As the case wears on, we get into the territory of the Great Depression. The Radium Dial Corporation in Ottawa, Illinois, is a moneymaking company, still doing fairly well because there’s a lot of military applications. How do their communities respond when these women start saying, you know, the company has poisoned us?
Well, they’re shunned, basically. People turn their backs on them, people think they’re doing the wrong thing, and that kind of opprobrium applies to the clergy, to business leaders, to everyone in the community. Their neighbors dismiss them and shun them. And so I think what the Radium Girls did in standing up for justice and to fight is even more impressive, because they did it in the face of complete disapproval from their local communities. And yet they still fought on.
And as I say, the radium companies were trying to discredit them as well. So it was partly that the Great Depression was on and people thought you shouldn’t talk out about a company that is giving us work. But it was also the radium companies, you know, there’s the bit where they try and charge dial painter Catherine Donohue’s husband Tom with insanity and taking him to court for getting into fistfight with the man who had essentially overseen his wife’s inevitable murder. So you had all those tensions, as well, brewing. Ottawa’s a tiny town, so this really was pitting the women against everyone else surrounding them. And I think one of the most shocking things in my research was reading questionnaires that had been filled in in the 1970s, there was one man in particular who had worked with the Radium Girls in the 1920s and 1930s, and he said then that he still didn’t believe that they had died of radium poisoning. He still thought that it was all a bit of a fix and fit-up and the companies weren’t to blame at all. And I thought that was shocking.
I mean it’s especially fascinating when you consider it’s not even that these women get sick and die—their medical care bankrupts entire families. Right?
They’re losing houses. They’re completely bereft. They’re penniless.
Eventually, the legal tide turns and they start to get some settlements and some judgements. But does anybody actually make any real money off of this in terms of damages?
No, is the short answer. I mean, the generous settlement was the one in 1928, which was when it had the most media coverage and people were up in arms about it. And the company very carefully decided to settle rather than wait for a judgement that looked as if it was going to go against them. So it was those five women who got the lump sum of $10,000. It’s okay, but when you consider the amount of medical costs that they had, it isn’t a lot of damages. But they were the luckiest in terms of what they received. The Ottawa women only had $10,000 in total to share between them because of the way that their legal case unfolded. I think in some ways it was a kind of a moral victory and for the protection of the workers that they were fighting, because the money just wasn’t there.
The book is called the The Radium Girls, and you take this very personal approach to the story. And you really tell the story via the women themselves. Why did you decide to do it that way?
I was really surprised that no one had ever done it that way before. There were two other excellent books about the Radium Girls by Dr. Ross Mullner and Claudia Clark, who look at different angles on the story. Claudia Clark’s book is about occupational health reform, legislation and so on. Dr. Ross Mullner’s book is more generally about radium and the girls’ story is a chapter in amongst everything else that he’s talking about, in terms of mining and the Curies and the Eben Byers case and that sort of thing.
And for me, what was compelling about the story was what these women suffered. And it was very much that they had done this remarkable thing, standing up against these incredibly powerful corporations, standing up against the face of their communities, battling for justice, even though they knew that they themselves were going to die. They didn’t lie down and take it quietly. They stood up and they fought for justice. And I just thought they were so extraordinary, and it was wrong that we don’t know their names and no one has ever traced their stories before—the individual tragedies that they feel. I think it’s really important to put a human face and a human experience behind the history that we see. Even the headlines we see today when we read about environmental damage or scandals. I think it’s only when you know that this was the person’s name, this is what their hopes were, that were then thwarted by what happened to them, this is how their families suffered. I think it’s only then that you can truly appreciate what the human tragedy is, and so that’s why I wanted to write it in the way I have done, because I want the women, the girls themselves, to be remembered.