The Forgotten Story Of The Radium Girls, Whose Deaths Saved Thousands Of Lives



During World War I, hundreds of young women went to work in clock
factories, painting watch dials with luminous radium paint. But
after the girls — who literally glowed in the dark after their
shifts — began to experience gruesome side effects, they began a
race-against-time fight for justice that would forever change US
labor laws.

Posted on May 05, 2017, 15:10 GMT

On April 10, 1917, an 18-year-old woman named Grace Fryer
started work as a dial painter at the United States Radium
Corporation (USRC) in Orange, New Jersey. It was four days
after the US had joined World War I; with two soldier
brothers, Grace wanted to do all she could to help the war
effort. She had no idea that her new job would change her
life — and workers’ rights — forever.

The Ghost Girls

With war declared, hundreds of working-class women flocked to
the studio where they were employed to paint watches and
military dials with the new element radium, which had been
discovered by Marie Curie a little less than 20 years before.
Dial painting was “the elite job for the poor working girls”;
it paid more than three times the average factory job, and
those lucky enough to land a position ranked in the top 5% of
female workers nationally, giving the women financial freedom
in a time of burgeoning female empowerment. Many of them were
teenagers, with small hands perfect for the artistic work,
and they spread the message of their new job’s appeal through
their friend and family networks; often, whole sets of
siblings worked alongside each other in the studio.

Radium’s luminosity was part of its allure, and the dial
painters soon became known as the “ghost girls” — because by
the time they finished their shifts, they themselves would
glow in the dark. They made the most of the perk, wearing
their good dresses to the plant so they’d shine in the dance
halls at night, and even painting radium onto their teeth for
a smile that would knock their suitors dead.

Grace and her colleagues obediently followed the technique
they’d been taught for the painstaking handiwork of painting
the tiny dials, some of which were only 3.5 centimeters wide.
The girls were instructed to slip their paintbrushes between
their lips to make a fine point — a practice called
lip-pointing, or a “lip, dip, paint routine,” as playwright
Melanie Marnich later described it. Every time the girls
raised the brushes to their mouths, they swallowed a little
of the glowing green paint.

Chicago Daily Times / Sun-Times Media

Charlotte Purcell demonstrates lip-pointing.

Truth and Lies

“The first thing we asked [was] ‘Does this stuff hurt you?’”
Mae Cubberley, who instructed Grace in the technique, later
remembered. “Naturally you don’t want to put anything in your
mouth that is going to hurt you. Mr. Savoy [the manager] said
that it wasn’t dangerous, that we didn’t need to be afraid.”

But that wasn’t true. Ever since the glowing element had been
discovered, it had been known to cause harm; Marie Curie
herself had suffered radiation burns from handling it. People
had died of radium poisoning before the first dial painter
ever picked up her brush. That was why the men at the radium
companies wore lead aprons in their laboratories and handled
the radium with ivory-tipped tongs. Yet the dial painters
were not afforded such protection, or even warned it might be
necessary.

That was because, at that time, a small amount of
radium — such as the girls were handling — was believed to be
beneficial to health: People drank radium water as a tonic,
and one could buy cosmetics, butter, milk, and toothpaste
laced with the wonder element. Newspapers reported its use
would “add years to our lives!”

But that belief was founded upon research conducted by the
very same radium firms who had built their lucrative industry
around it. They ignored all the danger signs; when asked,
managers told the girls the substance would put roses in
their cheeks.

Daily Herald Archive / Getty Images

The First Death

In 1922, one of Grace’s colleagues, Mollie Maggia, had to
quit the studio because she was sick. She didn’t know what
was wrong with her. Her trouble had started with an aching
tooth: Her dentist pulled it, but then the next tooth started
hurting and also had to be extracted. In the place of the
missing teeth, agonizing ulcers sprouted as dark flowers,
blooming red and yellow with blood and pus. They seeped
constantly and made her breath foul. Then she suffered aching
pains in her limbs that were so agonizing they eventually
left her unable to walk. The doctor thought it was
rheumatism; he sent her home with aspirin.

By May 1922, Mollie was desperate. At that point, she had
lost most of her teeth and the mysterious infection had
spread: Her entire lower jaw, the roof of her mouth, and even
some of the bones of her ears were said to be “one large
abscess.” But worse was to come. When her dentist prodded
delicately at her jawbone in her mouth, to his horror and
shock, it broke against his fingers. He removed it, “not by
an operation, but merely by putting his fingers in her mouth
and lifting it out.” Only days later, her entire lower jaw
was removed in the same way.

Mollie was literally falling apart. And she wasn’t the only
one; by now, Grace Fryer, too, was having trouble with her
jaw and suffering pains in her feet, and so were the other
radium girls.

It was literally boring holes inside them while they were
alive
.

On September 12, 1922, the strange infection that had plagued
Mollie Maggia for less than a year spread to the tissues of
her throat. The disease slowly ate its way through her
jugular vein. At 5 p.m. that day, her mouth was flooded with
blood as she hemorrhaged so fast that her nurse could not
staunch it. She died at the age of 24. With her doctors
flummoxed as to the cause of death, her death certificate,
erroneously, said she’d died of syphilis, something her
former company would later use against her.

As if by clockwork, one by one, Mollie’s former colleagues
soon followed her to the grave.

The Cover-Up

The young women’s employer, USRC, denied any responsibility
for the deaths for almost two years. After suffering a
downturn in business because of what they saw as “gossip”
that wouldn’t go away, in 1924 they finally commissioned an
expert to look into the rumored link between the
dial-painting profession and the women’s deaths.

“Mr. Savoy said that it wasn’t dangerous, that we didn’t need
to be afraid.”

Unlike the company’s own research into radium’s beneficence,
this study was independent, and when the expert confirmed the
link between the radium and the women’s illnesses, the
president of the firm was outraged. Instead of accepting the
findings, he paid for new studies that published the opposite
conclusion; he also lied to the Department of Labor, which
had begun investigating, about the verdict of the original
report. Publicly, he denounced the women as trying to “palm
off” their illnesses on the firm and decried their attempts
to get some financial help for their mounting medical
bills.

The Light That Does Not Lie

With the report hushed up, the women’s biggest challenge was
proving the link between their mysterious illnesses and the
radium that they’d been ingesting hundreds of times a day.
Though they themselves discussed the fact that their work
must be to blame, they were fighting against the widespread
belief that radium was safe. In fact, it was only when the
first male employee of the radium firm died that experts
finally took up the charge. In 1925, a brilliant doctor named
Harrison Martland devised tests that proved once and for all
that radium had poisoned the women.

It was only when the first male employee of the radium firm
died that experts finally took up the charge.

Martland also explained what was happening inside their
bodies. As early as 1901, it had been evident that radium
could harm humans dramatically when applied externally;
Pierre Curie once remarked that he would not want to be in
room with a kilo of pure radium because he believed it would
burn all the skin off his body, destroy his eyesight, and
“probably kill [him].” Martland discovered that when radium
was used internally, even in tiny amounts, the damage was
many thousands of times greater.

That ingested radium had subsequently settled in the women’s
bodies and was now emitting constant, destructive radiation
that “honeycombed” their bones. It was literally boring holes
inside them while they were alive. It attacked the
women all over their bodies: Grace Fryer’s spine was
“crushed” and she had to wear a steel back brace; another
girl’s jaw was eaten away to “a mere stump.” The women’s legs
shortened and spontaneously fractured, too.

Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkins / Deadly Glow

A dial painter with radium-induced cancer of the knee.

Eerily, those damaged bones also began to glow from the
radium embedded deep within them: the light that does not
lie. Sometimes, the moment a woman realized she had radium
poisoning was when she caught sight of herself in a mirror in
the middle of the night — for a ghost girl was reflected
there, shining with an unnatural luminosity that sealed her
fate.

For Martland had also realized that the poisoning was fatal.
And now that it was inside of them, there was no way of
removing the radium from the girls’ beleaguered bones.

Collection of Ross Mullner

Front and side views of a dial painter with a
radium-induced sarcoma of the chin.

The Fight

Despite the radium industry’s attempts to discredit
Martland’s pioneering work, it hadn’t reckoned with the
courage and tenacity of the radium girls themselves. They
started banding together to fight against the injustice. And
there was an altruistic motive to their battle — after all,
dial painters were still being employed all across the United
States. “It is not for myself I care,” Grace Fryer commented.
“I am thinking more of the hundreds of girls to whom this may
serve as an example.”

It was Grace who led their fight, determined to find a lawyer
even after countless attorneys turned her down, either
disbelieving the women’s claims, running scared from the
powerful radium corporations, or being unprepared to fight a
legal battle that demanded the overturn of existing
legislation. At that time, radium poisoning was not a
compensable disease — it hadn’t even been discovered until
the girls got sick — and the women were also stymied by the
statute of limitations, which ruled that victims of
occupational poisoning had to bring their legal cases within
two years. Radium poisoning was insidious, so most girls did
not start to sicken until at least five years after they
started work; they were trapped in a vicious legal circle
that could seemingly not be squared. But Grace was the
daughter of a union delegate, and she was determined to hold
a clearly guilty firm to account.

CHR, National Archives, Chicago

Eventually, in 1927, a smart young lawyer named Raymond Berry
accepted their case, and Grace (along with four colleagues)
found herself at the center of an internationally famous
courtroom drama. By now, however, time was running out: The
women had been given just four months to live, and the
company seemed intent on dragging out the legal proceedings.
As a consequence, Grace and her friends were forced to settle
out of court — but they had raised the profile of radium
poisoning, just as Grace had planned.

The New Jersey radium girls’ case was front-page news, and it
sent shockwaves across America. In Ottawa, Illinois, a dial
painter by the name of Catherine Wolfe read the coverage with
horror. “There were meetings at [our] plant that bordered on
riots,” she remembered. “The chill of fear was so depressing
that we could scarcely work.”

Yet the Illinois firm, Radium Dial, took a leaf out of USRC’s
book and denied responsibility. Although the firm’s medical
tests proved that the Illinois women were showing clear
symptoms of radium poisoning, it lied about the results. It
even placed a full-page ad in the local paper: “If we at any
time had reason to believe that any conditions of the work
endangered the health of our employees, we would at once have
suspended operations.” Its actions to hush up the scandal
went as far as interfering in the girls’ autopsies when the
Illinois workers began to die: Company officials actually
stole their radium-riddled bones in their callous
cover-up.

Making History

If the women weren’t killed by the same jaw problems that had
taken Mollie Maggia, they eventually suffered from sarcomas —
huge cancerous bone tumors that could grow anywhere on their
bodies. One dial painter, Irene La Porte, died from a massive
pelvic tumor that was said to be “larger than two footballs.”

The radium industry hadn’t reckoned with the courage and
tenacity of the radium girls themselves.

In 1938, Catherine Wolfe (Donohue after her marriage)
developed a grapefruit-sized tumor that bulged on her hip.
Like Mollie Maggia before her, she lost her teeth and had to
pick pieces of her jawbone out of her mouth; she constantly
held a patterned handkerchief to her jaw to absorb the
ever-seeping pus. She had also seen her friends dying before
her, and that rather steeled her spirit.

When Catherine started her fight for justice, it was the
mid-1930s: America was in the grip of the Great Depression.
Catherine and her friends were shunned by their community for
suing one of the few firms left standing. Though close to
death when her case went to court in 1938, Catherine ignored
her doctors’ advice and instead gave evidence from her
deathbed. In doing so, and with the help of her lawyer,
Leonard Grossman (who worked pro bono), she finally won
justice not only for herself, but for workers everywhere.

Chicago Daily Times / Sun-Times Media

The bedside hearing at Catherine Donohue’s home.

The Legacy

The radium girls’ case was one of the first in which an
employer was made responsible for the health of the company’s
employees. It led to life-saving regulations and, ultimately,
to the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health
Administration, which now operates nationally in the United
States to protect workers. Before OSHA was set up, 14,000
people died on the job every year; today, it is just over
4,500. The women also left a legacy to science that has been
termed “invaluable.”

But you won’t often read their names in the history books,
for today the individual radium girls have largely been
forgotten. Drawing on the women’s own words from their
diaries, letters, and court testimonies, my new book, The
Radium Girls
, attempts to redress the balance — because
it was through their strength, suffering, and sacrifice that
workers’ rights were won. We all benefit from their
courage.

Grace Fryer and Catherine Donohue — to name just two — are
women we need to honor and salute as fearless champions. They
shine through history with all that they achieved in their
too-short lives. And they shine in other ways, too. For
radium has a half-life of 1,600 years…and it is still
embedded in their bones. The ghost girls will be glowing in
their graves for a good while yet.



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