The Dark Story of the Radium Girls and How It Changed the World Forever
The terrifying real-life saga of the female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning in the 1920s remains a vital component of the modern labor-rights movement
The story of the Radium Girls dates to the early days of World War I, when a handful of factories opened in the United States to manufacture watches, watch dials and military dials coated with a self-luminous paint that contained radium, a radioactive element known to glow in the dark.
That radium was supplied by the United States Radium Corporation, which sold luminescent watches and dials to the military. The instruments were met with enthusiasm, because they provided enough light to read on the battlefield without betraying one’s position. After the war, the demand shifted toward elegant watches and clocks for consumers.
Radium Girls Were Paid More Than Most Working Women
Hundreds of young women were hired for war work at factories in Orange, New Jersey; Ottawa, Illinois; and Waterbury, Connecticut. There, they applied the glowing paint to the dials of clocks, wristwatches and instrument panels. It was a relatively easy job that reportedly paid three times more than the average working woman’s wage.
Radioactive elements are ancient, but our knowledge of them dates back only to the late 19th century. That’s when engineer and physicist Henri Becquerel worked with uranium, and physicists Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium and polonium. Radium showed early promise in treating tumors, while its glow attracted people to what seemed to be a divine effervescence. By the 1920s, energy-enhancing radium water, along with radium-infused candy, soap, toothpaste and facial creams, became available to excited consumers.
In the factories, the newly hired “Radium Girls” were told the luminescent paint was harmless. Therefore, there weren’t any serious precautions put into place when they handled the glowing substance. Men who worked for U.S. Radium wore lead aprons to shield them from radiation, the danger of which was known to have a cumulative effect. However, the women were provided with no protection. The company’s reasoning was that male engineers handled bundles of raw material, while the women were exposed only to a small amount at any one time.
Radium-Painted Dials Appealed to the Military and Consumers
The women received direct exposure to radium every day of the work week. They even ingested substantial amounts after being guided to use their lips to make “points” on the brushes in order to give them a finer tip for detail work on the dials.
There were no problems at the outset. The women quickly became known as “ghost girls” because the radium dust made their clothes, hair and skin glow. Many of them painted their fingernails, faces and teeth with the substance. It was fun; it glowed.
But the smiles transformed into terror within a few short years, when a number Radium Girls started to become sick. Conditions included dental pain, loose teeth, lesions, ulcers, and the failure of tooth extractions to heal properly. Later on, many women began to develop anemia, bone fractures, and necrosis of the jaw (now known as radium jaw). For some, there was suppression of menstruation and sterility.
In 1923, Amelia “Mollie” Maggia of the Orange, New Jersey, factory, became first dial painter to die. Before Mollie’s death, her jaw literally fell away from her skull, the bone eaten away. By 1924, 50 women from the same factory were ill, and a dozen more had died.
For two years, the U.S. Radium Corp. denied any connection between the women’s deaths and their daily work with radium. When an independent study commissioned by the company concluded the deaths were caused by the effects of radium exposure, U.S. Radium Corp. refused to accept the findings, nor those of subsequent studies.
In 1925, pathologist Harrison Martland proved that radium had poisoned the watch painters by destroying their bodies from the inside. The radium industry again tried to discredit the report. However, this time the Radium Girls fought back.
The Radium Girls Took Their Employers to Court
Securing attorney Raymond Berry in 1927, the Radium Girls — five of them — began their case against their employer. Some of them had only months to live, and were forced to accept an out-of-court settlement . But the court of public opinion was in full swing as word got out. The story of the Radium Girls became widely reported around the world, even as the U.S. Radium Corp. denied its responsibility, and women continued to get sick and die.
It wasn’t until 1938 that a court ruled in favor of another group of factory workers, in Illinois. The U.S. Radium Corp. repeatedly appealed, taking the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1939. However, the lower-court ruling was upheld.
The Radium Girls’ saga holds an important place in labor history. The right of workers to sue for damages due to labor abuse was established as a result of their case. Additionally, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was established in 1920 to ensure employees are furnished with a working environment free from recognized hazards.
It’s a vital legacy that has informed the public — indeed, assured the public — that companies will stand behind employees with a promise that goes beyond salary and vacation time. Yes, conditions are still not perfect, and the pursuit of true justice remains more of a wish than a guarantee. But concrete steps have been taken.
The Radium Girls’ Legacy Is Acknowledged in the Arts
Over the decades, the Radium Girls’ story has inspired a number of novels, short stories, plays and films. Among those is the 2018 drama Radium Girls, directed by Lydia Dean Picher and Ginny Mohler.
Starring Joey King and Abby Quinn, the film explores the story, from the early factory days through its legal ramifications. Although Radium Girls has a fictionalized feel, it was well-received by critics. The Hollywood Reporter noted, “The film fulfills a vital function with its dramatization of an important chapter in America’s history of labor reform.”