In 1917, during the First World War, while the men were sent to battle foreign forces on strange soils, thousands of miles away from home, a new opportunity opened up for the working class women of USA. Only a lucky few were able to secure the coveted jobs as dial painters in watch factories. They used to paint the dials with radium-infused paints, a glowing element discovered by Madam Curie just over two decades ago from then. A job that demanded high precision and offered fairly high remuneration was soon the talk of the town. The women who got the coveted job soon started returning home at night with a heavenly glow that literally rendered them an angelic aura. Men would pursue them with magnetic attraction, while America’s ‘Radium Girls’ shone brightly in dimly-lit dance floors.
Little did they know that it was a fatal glow that gleamed through their skin and bones. While battling with radium poisoning much later, often at late nights they would find themselves glowing like a ghost in front of the mirror.
From being the fantasy for American men, the Radium Girls soon went on to become the face of workers’ rights, but not before they made the ultimate sacrifice with their precious lives.
Male workers wore protective aprons while women had to swallow radium
Madam Curie died from prolonged exposure to radium, the same element she dedicated her life’s work on. Curie’s death was not the only instance of radium poisoning, and the element was rumoured to be toxic to human health. As a matter of fact, male workers in radium factories wore lead aprons and used ivory tongs to handle the radium ore, to protect themselves. However, the scenario soon changed as the radium market grew, and corporates started misleading people to make their fortune.
The property of phosphorescence gave the luminous greenish glow to radium. It led people to fall for the idea that floated around – radium was a wonder element. Newspapers advertised radium water as a tonic for longer life. Even the food industry started adding some proportion of radium in butter, milk etc.
Public awareness about toxic radioactivity of the substance did not come to light until the tragedy of the Radium Girls. In fact, there was a time when radium was even considered beneficial for health. The cosmetic industry struck gold by infusing radium in their skin creams, makeup items and even toothpaste.
United States Radium Corporation (USRC), who manufactured radium watches and equipment, was a key player among the radium-dependent corporate firms who helped build a false notion about radium, ignoring and tactfully secreting all its danger signs. The famed watchmakers would lure young women to work for them saying that exposure to radium would enhance their beauty, as Kate Moore writes in her book The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women. The company chose younger girls, who had just stepped into adulthood; and often teenagers as well, whose delicate fingers were thought to provide more precision in the work.
For these dial painters, there were no lead aprons or ivory tongs. Rather, they were trained to use the method of lip-pointing while painting the dials. For this, they had to put the radium-laden paintbrushes to their mouth to sharpen the tips. The belief was that lip-pointing would give a finer tip than using a palette or a piece of cloth, as in normal painting.
The dial paints were prepared with gum arabic, water and a substantial amount of powdered radium. So, for every dip within the lips, the girls would unknowingly ingest a slight amount of radium. But, since their managers had assured them time and again about the benefits of radium, they would do it nonchalantly. Some of them also painted their nails, cheeks or teeth with it, to get that ethereal glow.
The tragic death of the first dial painter
Trouble did not come to prominence until early 1922 when Mollie Maggia, one of the first dial painters started feeling constantly sick, so much so that she had to leave the job. Aching tooth pain was the first sign, but even after her dentist plucked out damaged teeth one after another, the pain was increasing. Soon, her gums started ulcerating into dark red, swollen and severely painful infections. Doctors failed to diagnose her condition and brushed it off after prescribing some aspirin.
Kate Moore describes the shocking incident which made Mollie realise that something had gone horribly wrong at her work. A few months into her aggravating sickness, her entire lower jaw broke off like a fragile piece of item when her dentist tried to examine it. Adding to her horror, the infection had proliferated to her throat and veins as well. By then, a few of her former colleagues also started experiencing similar symptoms, jaw pain, swelling legs and brittle bones.
In September 1922, 24-year-old Mollie passed away from yet-unknown radium poisoning, but the doctors quoted ‘syphilis’ as the cause of death in her death certificate, naturally bringing her to a bad light for the society and giving an upper hand to the company responsible for her untimely tragic death.
Covering up the scandal by tainting the women’s ‘character’
Within the next two years, several of Mollie’s coworkers died in a manner identical to hers. By that time, people started suspecting USRC for their uncanny deaths, causing quite a downslide in their business. Compelled by the increasing protests, USRC in 1924 commissioned a probe, assigning an expert scientist to look into the possibility of radium poisoning as the reason for the death of dial painters. The expert confirmed the linkage, much to the resentment of the company director, who then conducted a new paid study that brushed aside the truth.
To cover up the scam, the company also circulated word that those women were trying to extort money from USRC for treating diseases they acquired on their own.
However, the group of sick women were not ones to give up. Despite failing health, they teamed up with a common aim, to prove to the public how dangerous radium was for humans. Though the company somewhat succeeded in silencing the rumours by staining the ‘characters’ of these women, the death of a male worker at the firm sprouted the controversy once again.
The start of a prolonged legal battle
The year 1925 remains significant as this was when popular doctor Harrison Martland explicitly claimed with concrete evidence that it was indeed radium that had poisoned the women. He explained how the radium was corroding every bits and pieces inside their bodies.
Backed with certified medical proof, the Radium Girls now began their final and most powerful fight. They dismissed all efforts to invalidate Dr Martland’s research results. Led by Grace Fryer, one of Mollie Maggia’s colleagues, these women became the poster girls for workers’ rights across all USA. They knew their own destiny was determined already; there was no cure for their health condition. But, their fight was to save hundreds of other girls who were still being recruited as dial-painters all over America.
No lawyers agreed to fight for the cause of the girls, risking their career by going against such a huge corporate firm. There were other legal obstacles as well. The existing laws mandated the women to come forward with their case of radium poisoning within two years of their recruitment by the company. But, for most, the visible symptoms of the poisoning had started to appear around five years after the employment. Nevertheless, Grace and her girls did not step back a single inch and continued their fight, in every little way possible.
Two years later, a young advocate, Raymond Berry agreed to fight for the girls. By that time, Grace and four of her most trusted associates have been told by the doctors that they had at most four months to live. This was when their final legal battle began, which, like any other case of this stature, was predicted to last for years. The company also wanted to delay and drag the proceedings, hoping that soon the death of the Radium Girls would shut down the case altogether.
Companies hid the radium-ridden bones of their dead employees in fear
However, the case had already stirred up controversy not just in native New Jersey, but the whole of the USA. As the news spread, dial-painters across the country shivered in horror, realising how their fate has been sealed the moment they stepped inside these factories. As expected, employing radium firms continued to reject the accusations and tried to hush up medical test results that went against them. As gruesome as greed can turn, the companies even hid the radium-ridden bones of their dead employees, to prevent autopsies from spilling out the truth.
The trial lasted for years, even after the death of Grace and her supporters, as the onus was taken up by other dial painters. The next prominent leader of the movement was Catherine Wolfe (Donohue) who came to the limelight in the mid-1930s. Even with a physique distorted by multiple tumours and fatal infection, Catherine did not shudder to see her friends die one after another; rather it only solidified her fiery spirit.
The final victory and the everlasting impact
At this time, America was reeling under the Great Depression, which only made the struggle harder for the Radium Girls. As people were already losing jobs due to factories shutting down one after another, people no more backed a group of ailing women who were fighting to close down radium factories that offered jobs.
Eventually, in 1938, Catherine gave evidence from her deathbed, which led to the case going in favour of the Radium Girls. The women got all their medical and other expenses covered by the convicted company.
But, the impact of the victory was more far-reaching than ever imagined, as for the first time the USA government passed the Occupational Disease Labour Law and established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which continues to protect the lives of workers in the industrial sector.
Dial painters did not go out of the picture instantly, but they were provided with ample protective gear to rule out any chances of poisoning and the practice of lip-pointing was immediately abolished. The case also initiated further research on the dangers of radium.
Radium Girls have faded over time in history, but it would be a disgrace to ever forget their unparalleled contribution to the safety of the future workers. Even after a tragic death from the ‘killer’ element, the Radium Girls continue to shine through their sacrifice.