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The Tragic Case of the Radium Girls, and Their Impact on Labor Rights

This public injustice became a force for change.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Around the turn of the 20th century, there was a massive push for labor rights. Workers across the United States made a concentrated effort to improve their bargaining power and the standards of their workplaces. But what if they got hurt on the job and could no longer work? The right to compensation for workplace injuries is nothing new, but the form in which it exists today is in part a result of the tragic case of the radium girls, a group of women who worked for the U.S. Radium Corporation. 

It was the 1910s, and radium was all the rage. Since its 1898 discovery by Marie and Pierre Curie, the radioactive element had become highly valued for its self-luminescence and supposed medical applications. Many cosmetics, toothpastes, and over-the-counter medicines purported to contain radium, promising brighter skin, shinier teeth, and more energy. The U.S. Radium Corporation (USRC) turned a profit during World War I by selling radium-coated, glow-in-the-dark watch dials to the military. In 1917, they began marketing these watches to the general public under the brand name Undark.

USRC's upper management was well aware of the dangers inherent to handling radioactive material, making every effort to avoid touching it themselves. Across the United States and Canada, they hired around 4,000 workers, mostly women, for the delicate and tedious task of painting watch dials with radium. The 300 painters who worked at their Orange, New Jersey facility were expected to paint 250 dials a day for a penny and a half each.

The dial painters had to mix the paint themselves, then apply it to the miniscule watch dials with fine-tipped camel hair brushes. The brushes tended to lose their points quickly, so USRC instructed the painters to “lip, dip, paint”—in other words, to keep the brushes pointed by pressing them between their lips. Management assured the painters that the material was safe, so sometimes they amused themselves during their long shifts by coating their faces, nails, and teeth with the glowing paint. One worker, Grace Fryer, observed that when she blew her nose after a day at the factory, the handkerchief glowed green.

In 1922, dentists in and around Orange received a flood of new patients complaining of dental pain and loose teeth. Radium bonds to other elements in much the same way as calcium, so the body treats it as such and delivers it to the skeletal system. After exposing their patients to further radiation in the form of early x-rays, the dentists found their jawbones were dotted with holes. In the most severe cases, their jaws could become so brittle that they separated from the upper part of their skulls. This condition would later become known as “radium jaw.” By 1924, 50 women who worked at the Orange factory had reported illness, and 12 had died. 

The executives at USRC quickly realized that they had a problem on their hands. When painters in their employ suddenly died, they would contact their doctors and threaten them with legal action if they released their findings. Then they blackmailed the doctors into amending the causes of death to sexually transmitted infections like syphilis. This would destroy their employees' reputations, casting doubt on any concerns they had expressed. When Grace Fryer’s doctor theorized that her intensifying medical issues might have resulted from her work at the watch factory, USRC stepped in. They had Frederick Flynn, a USRC toxicologist with no medical qualifications, examine Fryer. He declared her to be in perfect health.

USRC president Arthur Roeder made an attempt to halt the growing concern in its tracks. He hired married couple Cecil and Katherine Drinker, researchers at the Harvard School of Public health, to look into conditions at the factories. The Drinkers toured USRC facilities and tested their employees. Of course, they found that almost all of them had uncommon blood conditions. USRC’s chief chemist, Dr. Edward Lehman, was in the habit of handling radium without gloves, and suffered from lesions on his hands as a result. He refused the Drinkers’ suggestions of protective equipment and died soon after.

Cecil and Katherine Drinker concluded that much of the USRC workforce, especially the dial painters, had ingested harmful and potentially fatal amounts of radioactive material. They sent Roeder a report of their findings with suggestions for improvement. Roeder was outraged at the idea, and threatened to sue if the report was ever published. The Drinkers acquiesced. Roeder, meanwhile, forged his own copy of the report wherein he claimed that the dial painters were found to be in excellent health. He forwarded that version to the New Jersey Department of Labor.

the radium girls
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  • Radium painters working in a factory with no protective equipment, 1922.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

But Alice Hamilton, one of the Drinkers’ colleagues at Harvard, had friends at the National Consumers League, which had already begun an independent investigation into working conditions at USRC. They had a copy of Roeder’s false report, and when Hamilton got wind of this, she informed the Drinkers. They promptly published their findings. 

Now that the truth was out, the affected workers started seeking justice. Many of them had been saddled with enormous medical bills, and some were no longer able to work. In 1925, Grace Fryer began searching for a lawyer. But the statute of limitations on workplace injuries was only two years, and Fryer had long since moved on to another job. Moreover, USRC was a big company that could afford to hire good lawyers, while Fryer was a working class individual with less power. It would take her two years to find someone willing to take on the case: Raymond Berry, a young attorney just getting his start in Newark. Four other dial painters joined the case: Edna Hussman, Albina Larice, Quinta McDonald, and Katherine Schaub. They each sought $250,000 in damages.

The lawsuit quickly became the talk of the town. Newspaper coverage, particularly by the New York World, drummed up great sympathy from the public. Joseph P. Knef, a dentist who had treated the dial painter Amelia Maggia, heard of the case and tested his late patient’s jawbone for radiation. He found it in abundance. The news even reached Marie Curie, who expressed her sympathy. She regrettably informed the victims that there was no hope of ever removing the radium from their bodies, but suggested they eat raw liver to stave off symptoms of radiation poisoning. Curie herself died due to complications from radiation exposure in 1934.

By their first in-court appearance in January 1928, all five of the radium girls were so weak they couldn’t raise their arms to take the oath. Fryer had lost all of her teeth, and needed a back brace in order to sit in a chair. The next hearing was scheduled for April, but by then the dial painters were too ill to appear in court. Meanwhile, many of USRC’s witnesses were busy summering in Europe. The judge adjourned the case until September. 

This proved to be an unpopular decision. The dial painters’ health was worsening by the day and it wasn't guaranteed they would even be alive in September. Berry and USRC decided to come to a settlement out of court, to the tune of $10,000 in damages, a $600 yearly annuity, and recompense of all medical bills for each of the radium girls—a mere fraction of what they had initially sought.

All of the radium girls passed away over the next decade, but their legacy endures to this day. A similar lawsuit followed in Illinois, wherein five women successfully sued the Radium Dial Company. Raymond Berry and Alice Hamilton helped negotiate better conditions for radium dial painters: the watch factories would begin providing their employees with protective equipment, and training them in safe handling of radioactive materials. In 1949, Congress passed a bill guaranteeing compensation for occupational diseases, and extending the statute of limitations. 

By the 1970s, radium watches were falling out of fashion in favor of the much safer tritium. (Self-luminous watch dials are still manufactured, but are usually made with non-radioactive strontium aluminate.) Although their profession is long since obsolete, we have the radium girls and their unwilling sacrifice to thank for our right to compensation for illnesses contracted in the workplace.