On December 21, 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the radioactive element radium (in the form of radium chloride), extracting it from uraninite. They first removed the uranium from the uraninite sample and then found that the remaining matter was still radioactive, so investigated further. Along with the barium in the remaining substance, they also detected spectral lines that were crimson carmine, which no one had yet documented or, apparently, observed. These spectral lines were being given off by radium chloride, which they managed to separate from the barium. Five days later, they presented their findings to the French Academy of Sciences.
Five years after that, they won a Nobel Prize in physics for their discovery, making Marie Curie the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. She went on to win a second Nobel Prize in 1911; this time in chemistry, with the help of André-Louis Debierne. The two successfully managed to isolate radium through electrolysis of radium chloride. This second Nobel Prize made her the first person to ever win two.
Radium was soon all the rage- bottled radium water was used as a health tonic, such as the popular Radithor brand “Certified Radioactive Water”; facial creams that included the element were used to “rejuvenate the skin”; the Radium Institute in New York City was giving out radium injections to those who had the money to pay for it; certain brands of toothpaste started including it; high-end spas began adding uranium ore to the water of their pools in an effort to capitalize and the radioactive craze created by the discovery of radium. Radium was even used as a treatment for those who had cancer after it was observed that exposing tumors to radium salts would shrink them.
Beyond medicinal uses, shortly after radium was discovered, it was found that if you mixed radium salts with zinc sulfide and a glue agent, the result would be a pale glowing paint thanks to the radium causing the zinc atoms to emit photons. This wasn’t particularly useful in the daylight, owing to the light emitted being very dim; but at night, the glow was readily apparent close-up.
This brings us to watches. A problem in the trenches of WWI had developed where soldiers crawling and wading around in the mud weren’t able to see their watch dials at night, and their pocket watches themselves simply weren’t suitable for this environment. To solve this, watchmakers started making men’s watches with straps, specifically designed to be worn, rather than placed in a pocket. (Previous to this, wrist watches were primarily only worn by women, with men outside of the military favoring pocket watches. After WWI, this all changed.)
The watch makers also began painting the watch dials with this special radium paint. The dimness of the glow was beneficial for the soldiers over a normal light as they could tell the time without giving away their position.
Enter U.S. Radium Corporation, who the U.S. military had given a contract to produce wrist watches with glowing hands for soldiers. Beyond the soldiers, these new watches soon became all the rage among the general public as well.
With the boom, many young women (4,000 in total employed by U.S. Radium alone from 1917-1926) were hired by various factories to paint the watch dials with this special radium-laced paint, with U.S. Radium’s version being named “Undark.”
It was good paying work for the day for young women who on account of their small hands were seen as perfectly suited to do the work. The girls earned 1.5 cents per dial painted (about 17 cents today). Not only that, as radium had been widely touted for its health benefits, getting to work with the stuff was seen by some as a perk, even though more and more scientists at this point had begun backtracking on this point. For the general public though, the dangers of radium weren’t yet as widely known.
Despite the fact that U.S. Radium chemists had been writing up reports on the risks of excessive exposure to radium, the girls were told the paint was completely safe, and even encouraged to use their lips and tongues to keep their brushes as fine tipped as possible for precisely painted dials.
Having been assured it was completely harmless, among other uses the girls also commonly painted their fingernails and even teeth with it, so that at night they would glow. Of course, what the girls seemingly didn’t notice was that the upper management and scientists at U.S. Radium were not so gung-ho about exposing themselves to radium. In fact, they used lead screens, masks, and other such protective barriers whenever working with it. They also were careful to avoid touching it themselves, always using tongs.
As you might imagine, not only U.S. Radium’s girls, but workers at other dial painting factories quickly started to develop odd medical issues that their doctors couldn’t explain. Frances Splettstocher, who had worked at a Waterbury, Connecticut dial painting factory, in 1925 developed anemia and began having jaw and tooth pain, along with arthritic symptoms. When her dentist attempted to remove one of the aching teeth, part of Splettstocher’s jaw ended up breaking away at the same time. Soon, her gums and cheek rotted away, ultimately resulting in a hole in her cheek. Her health continued to deteriorate and she was dead within a month of having her tooth pulled. Over in the Orange, New Jersey factory, four other girls had recently died and many more were ill with strikingly similar symptoms.
This all brings us to Grace Fryer, who in 1922 had her teeth inexplicably start to loosen and then later begin to fall out. After X-raying Grace, her doctor discovered her jawbone was riddled with tiny holes. Other doctors examined her in an attempt to find the underlying cause of these strange symptoms, which they began seeing more and more of in various young women in the town. They eventually realized all the women were either currently working at, or had once worked at a watch dial painting factory. It was then suggested to Grace that perhaps the health problems she was experiencing were related to her former employment in some way.
Grace then sought out the help of a specialist. That’s when Dr. Frederick Flynn from Columbia University came on the scene. After thoroughly examining Grace, he and a colleague of his, both claiming to be medical experts, declared there was absolutely nothing wrong with her. The problem was that Flynn was not a licensed physician, though was a toxicologist, who it turned out secretly worked for U.S. Radium. His colleague? He was one of the vice-presidents at U.S. Radium, unbeknownst to Grace.
U.S. Radium couldn’t keep the lid on their terrible secret much longer. That didn’t stop them from trying. They paid off doctors and dentists to claim the girls were suffering from the sexually transmitted disease syphilis (and generally having this listed as the cause of death when the girls died), with the hope that it would not only throw the media off the scent, but also sully the girls’ reputations. If the doctors who examined some of the girls were unwilling to make false claims, they simply paid them not to talk to the media.
A few years earlier, Cecil Drinker, a Harvard physiologist, was hired by U.S. Radium to come and write up a report on the conditions at the factory. Unfortunately, Drinker couldn’t be so easily paid off. His report after examining the girls and the factory was dire. Among other things, he had noted that,
Dust samples collected in the workroom from various locations and from chairs not used by the workers were all luminous in the dark room. Their hair, faces, hands, arms, necks, the dresses, the underclothes, even the corsets of the dial painters were luminous. One of the girls showed luminous spots on her legs and thighs. The back of another was luminous almost to the waist….
Besides also accurately painting a picture of the state of the girls’ health, he suggested a series of things that could be done to fix the underlying problem of the overexposure to radium.
Not only were all his suggestion ignored, but U.S. Radium took his report and re-wrote it, though still listing him as the author. In the new report filed with the New Jersey Department of Labor, it claimed that “every girl is in perfect condition.”
This brings us back to a few years later in 1925, when Drinker discovered that his report had been re-written. Needless to say, he wasn’t pleased. He then submitted his original report for publication. U.S. Radium threatened to sue him. He ignored them.
As the media exposure continued to grow, Grace Fryer decided to take legal action against U.S. Radium. Of course, suing a major defense contractor like U.S. Radium wasn’t easy. They had boatloads of money and connections with just about every level of government. Lawyers wanted no part in such a lawsuit. In fact, it took Grace a full two years to find a lawyer willing to take her case, all the while her health continued to decline.
Finally, in 1927, attorney Raymond Berry and the Consumers’ League of New Jersey on behalf of Grace and four other Radium Girls- Katherine Schaub, Edna Hussman, Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice- filed a suit against U.S. Radium seeking $250,000 in damages (about $3.4 million today).
U.S. Radium wasn’t giving up without a fight. At every turn they sought to delay the trial as much as possible with the hope that all the women in the case would die before an outcome could be reached, even at one point in the trial temporarily getting a fourteen month delay instituted before public outcry resulted in that delay being shortened to just a couple months. Despite public outrage over the delays and the plight of the women involved, the trial still crawled along at a painful pace.
Marie Curie herself chimed in on the issue, but had little comfort to give stating, “I would be only too happy to give any aid that I could, [but] there is absolutely no means of destroying the substance once it enters the human body.”
By the time the girls finally got a chance to appear in court in January of 1928, none of them were even able to raise their arms to take the oath, and two were bedridden. Grace could not sit up without the help of a back brace, and could no longer walk. After their testimonies, the case was once again postponed for a few months for no good reason.
Despite that one medical expert testified that all the girls in the case would be dead in a year from radium poisoning, in the next hearing in April, U.S. Radium convinced the judge to postpone the trial once again, owing to the fact that some of U.S. Radium’s expert witnesses were currently on vacation and would be for many months.
This move was called by journalist Walter Lippmann, “one of the most damnable travesties of justice that has ever come to our attention. It is an outrage that the company should attempt to keep these women from suing… There is no possible excuse for such a delay. The women are dying. If ever a case called for prompt adjudication, it is the case of five crippled women who are fighting for a few miserable dollars to ease their last days on Earth.”
In the end, the five girls whose medical bills were piling up as their bodies rapidly deteriorated, seeing the trial would likely not conclude before some of their deaths (indeed, all five were dead by the mid-1930s), decided to try settling out of court. U.S. Radium agreed, though managed to get a U.S. Radium stockholder, District Court Judge William Clark, assigned to be the mediator.
The girls ultimately agreed not to hold U.S. Radium liable for their health problems and in return received $10,000 each (about $135,000 each today). Further, U.S. Radium agreed to pay all their medical and legal expenses, as well as $600 each annually for as long as the girls lived.
So what was the company’s official position on this in the aftermath? They stated they had not settled because they weren’t in the right, but rather that the public was biased against them and they wouldn’t have been able to receive a fair trial. Further, U.S. Radium’s president, Clarence Lee, stated:
We unfortunately gave work to a great many people who were physically unfit to procure employment in other lines of industry. Cripples and persons similarly incapacitated were engaged. What was then considered an act of kindness on our part has since been turned against us.
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- So why did radium cause the bones of the afflicted women to develop a patchwork of holes, and ultimately rot away? It was later determined that radium will concentrate in bones and teeth, with the body treating it as a calcium substitute. Unlike calcium, which strengthens the bones, radium kills off the bone tissues, compounding the issue. It was estimated that the girls who worked at the factories had been exposed annually to thousands of times the maximum recommended exposure to radium.
- The primary reason cockroaches and many types of insects are so resistant to ionizing radiation is that their cells don’t divide that much between molting cycles. Cells are most susceptible to damage by ionizing radiation when they are dividing. Given that a typical cockroach only molts about once a week and its cells only divide around a 48 hour period during that week, about 3/4 of the cockroaches exposed would not be particularly susceptible to damage by ionizing radiation, at least, relative to those whose cells were currently dividing. That said, contrary to popular belief cockroaches would not survive an extreme nuclear fallout, though there are some things that would.
- Marie Curie’s notes from the 1890s are still considered too dangerous to handle without protection, due to the high levels of radioactivity. They are even stored in lead-lined boxes. Neither she nor her husband, of course, knew anything about that and handled radioactive items all the time in their research. She eventually paid the price for this, dying from aplastic anemia in 1934, resulting from long-term ionizing radiation exposure. Her husband was killed after being run over by a horse drawn carriage just a few years after Marie and Pierre had won their Nobel Prize together. Pierre Curie had been walking across the street during a very heavy downpour when he was hit by the carriage, resulting in his skull being fractured under the carriage’s wheel.
- Despite denials of any fault by U.S. Radium, after the lawsuit, they and other factories that dealt with radium-laced paint quickly changed the working conditions of the dial painting girls. The previously recommended “lip pointing” to keep a fine tip on the brushes was now strictly forbidden. Further, the girls were provided with various means of protection to minimize exposure to the paint. After these simple changes were instituted, the health issues among dial painters quickly disappeared, though it’s probable that at least some still got cancer later in life as a result of working with the radium paint. But, at the least, the problem was no longer systemic among most of the workers. The fact that the changes were so easily instituted and were a resounding success, along with the fact that the scientists and upper management at U.S. Radium had previously taken steps to protect themselves but not the simple ones for the girls, further outraged the general public.
- Even though the Radium Girls settled out of court and quickly died off, their lawsuit and the media storm it produced had a significant impact on the labor rights movement, including establishing a precedent for workers to be able to sue corporations for labor abuses; improving industrial safety standards to protect workers more; and later partially being used as a means to get a Congressional bill passed allowing for workers to be compensated for occupationally acquired diseases. In a report from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission concerning workers developing the atomic bomb, it was also noted that “If it hadn’t been for those dial painters thousands of workers might well have been, and might still be, in great danger.”
- The last surviving woman to have worked as a dial painter in the era in which the girls were told the radium-laden paint was completely safe only recently died. Mae Keane lived to 107, though did twice have cancer in her lifetime and lost all her teeth within a decade of working as a dial painter. She also suffered from gum problems the rest of her long life. She worked for Waterbury Clock Co. (now called Timex) at the age of 18 in 1924. Lucky for her, she hated the work, was slow at it, and further hated the gritty texture of the paint, so avoided sticking the brush in her mouth to point the tip. After just a summer there, at the “encouragement” of her boss (who it turns out accidentally saved her life), she found different employment. Keane died at the age of 107 on March 1, 2014.
- A couple of Marie Curies’ children have also been involved in the winning of a Nobel Prize. Her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 with her husband. She also had another daughter who was the director of UNICEF when it won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965.
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