In 1922, a bank teller named Grace Fryer became concerned when her teeth began to loosen and fall out for no discernible reason. Her troubles were compounded when her jaw became swollen and inflamed, so she sought the assistance of a doctor in diagnosing the inexplicable symptoms. Using a primitive X-ray machine, the physician discovered serious bone decay, the likes of which he had never seen. Her jawbone was honeycombed with small holes, in a random pattern reminiscent of moth-eaten fabric.
As a series of doctors attempted to solve Grace’s mysterious ailment, similar cases began to appear throughout her hometown of New Jersey. One dentist in particular took notice of the unusually high number of deteriorated jawbones among local women, and it took very little investigation to discover a common thread; all of the women had been employed by the same watch-painting factory at one time or another.
In 1902, twenty years prior to Grace’s mysterious ailment, inventor William J. Hammer left Paris with a curious souvenir. The famous scientists Pierre and Marie Curie had provided him with some samples of their radium salt crystals. Radioactivity was somewhat new to science, so its properties and dangers were not well understood; but the radium’s slight blue-green glow and natural warmth indicated that it was clearly a fascinating material. Hammer went on to combine his radium salt with glue and a compound called zinc sulfide which glowed in the presence of radiation. The result was glow-in-the-dark paint.
Hammer’s recipe was used by the US Radium Corporation during the First World War to produce Undark, a high-tech paint which allowed America’s infantrymen to read their wristwatches and instrument panels at night. They also marketed the pigment for non-military products such as house numbers, pistol sights, light switch plates, and glowing eyes for toy dolls. By this time the dangers of radium were better understood, but US Radium assured the public that their paint used the radioactive element in “such minute quantities that it is absolutely harmless.” While this was true of the products themselves, the amount of radium present in the dial-painting factory was much more dangerous, unbeknownst to the workers there.
US Radium employed hundreds of women at their factory in Orange, New Jersey, including Grace Fryer. Few companies at that time were willing to employ women, and the pay was much higher than most alternatives, so the company had little trouble finding employees to occupy the rows and rows of desks. They were required to paint delicate lines with fine-tipped brushes, applying the Undark to the tiny numbers and indicator hands of wristwatches. After a few strokes a brush tended to lose its shape, so the women’s managers encouraged them to use their lips and tongues to keep the tips of the camel hair brushes sharp and clean. The glowing paint was completely flavorless, and the supervisors assured them that rosy cheeks would be the only physical side effect to swallowing the radium-laced pigment. Cause for concern was further reduced by the fact that radium was being marketed as a medical elixir for treating all manner of ailments.
The owners and scientists at US Radium, familiar with the real hazards of radioactivity, naturally took extensive precautions to protect themselves. They knew that Undark’s key ingredient was approximately one million times more active than uranium, so company chemists often used lead screens, masks, and tongs when working with the paint. US Radium had even distributed literature to the medical community describing the “injurious effects” of radium. But inside the factory, where nearly every surface sparkled with radioluminescence, these dangers were unknown. For a lark, some of the women even painted their fingernails and teeth with radium paint on occasion, to surprise their boyfriends when the lights went out.
In 1925, three years after Grace’s health problems began, a doctor suggested that her jaw problems may have had something to do with her former job at US Radium. As she began to explore the possibility, a specialist from Columbia University named Frederick Flynn asked to examine her. Flynn declared her to be in fine health. It would be some time before anyone discovered that Flynn was not a doctor, nor was he licensed to practice medicine, rather he was a toxicologist on the US Radium payroll. A “colleague” who had been present during the examination— and who had confirmed the healthy diagnosis— turned out to be one of the vice-presidents of US Radium. Many of the Undark painters had been developing serious bone-related problems, particularly in the jaw, and the company had begun a concerted effort to conceal the cause of the disease. The mysterious deaths were often blamed on syphilis to undermine the womens’ reputations, and many doctors and dentists inexplicably cooperated with the powerful company’s disinformation campaign.
In the early 1920s, US Radium hired the Harvard physiology professor Cecil Drinker to study the working conditions in the factory. Drinker’s report was grave, indicating a heavily contaminated work force, and unusual blood conditions in virtually everyone who worked there. The report which the company provided to the New Jersey Department of Labor credited Cecil Drinker as the author, however the ominous descriptions of unhealthy conditions were replaced with glowing praise, stating that “every girl is in perfect condition.” Even worse, US Radium’s president disregarded all of the advice in Drinker’s original report, making none of the recommended changes to protect the workers.
The fraudulent report was discovered by a colleague of Drinker’s named Alice Hamilton in 1925. Her letter prompted Drinker to make the information public by publishing his original report in a scientific journal. US Radium executives were furious, and threatened legal action, but Drinker published his findings nonetheless. Among other things, his report stated:
“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….”
US Radium was a defense contractor with deep pockets and influential contacts, so it took Grace Fryer two years to find a lawyer willing to take on her former employer. A young attorney from Newark named Raymond Berry filed the suit in 1927, and four other radium-injured dial painters soon joined in. They sought $250,000 each in damages.
As the legal battle ensued, New York dentist Joseph P. Knef examined the jawbone from one of the deceased dial painters named Amelia Maggia. In the last few months of her life the bone had become so decayed that Dr. Knef had been forced to remove it from his patient. Her official cause of death had been listed as syphilis, but Knef suspected otherwise. He exposed the bone to dental film for a time, and then developed it. Patterns on the film indicated an absurd level of radiation, and he confirmed the findings with an electroscope.
As the weeks and months were consumed by the slow-moving court system, the women’s health rapidly deteriorated. At their first appearance in court in January 1928, two were bedridden, and none could raise their arms to take the oath. Grace Fryer, still described by reporters as “pretty,” was unable to walk, required a back brace to sit up, and had lost all of her teeth. The “Radium Girls” began appearing in headlines nationwide, and the grim descriptions of their hopeless condition reached Marie Curie in Paris. “I would be only too happy to give any aid that I could,” she said, adding, “there is absolutely no means of destroying the substance once it enters the human body.”
The women proved too ill to attend the following hearing, which occurred in April. Despite strenuous objections from the women’s lawyer, the judge adjourned the case until September because several US Radium witnesses were summering in Europe, and would consequently be unavailable. Walter Lippmann, the editor of the influential New York World newspaper, wrote of the judge’s decision, calling it a “damnable travesty of justice… 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 a later editorial, he wrote, “This is a heartless proceeding. It is unmanly, unjust and cruel. This is a case which calls not for fine-spun litigation but for simple, quick, direct justice.”
The national outrage over the delay prompted the courts to reschedule the hearing for early June, but days before the trial, Raymond Berry and US Radium agreed to allow U.S. District Court Judge William Clark to mediate an out-of-court settlement. Berry and the Radium Girls accepted their opponent’s offer reluctantly, despite learning that their mediator was a US Radium Corporation stockholder. Their situation was too desperate to refuse; the women were not expected to live much longer. Each woman would receive $10,000— equivalent to about $100,000 today— and have all of their medical and legal expenses paid. They would also receive a $600 per year annuity for as long as they lived. Unsurprisingly, few of the annuity payments were collected.
The last of the famous Radium Girls died in the 1930s, and many other former factory workers died of radium poisoning without finding justice. Later medical research would determine that radium behaves much like calcium inside the body, causing it to concentrate in the teeth and bones. By shaping their brushes with their lips as instructed by their knowledgeable supervisors, the dial painters had ingested anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand microcuries of radium per year. One tenth of a microcurie is now considered to be the maximum safe exposure. Marie Curie herself died of radiation-related ailments in 1934. Because radium has a half-life of 1,600 years, her lab notebooks are said to be too highly contaminated to be safely handled even today. Radium continued to be used to illuminate watches until about 1968, but under much safer conditions.
It is uncertain how many people were sickened or killed by Undark and similar radioactive pigments over the years, but US Radium alone employed an estimated 4,000 radium dial painters. Though they were not the only radium-painting business in the US, they were arguably the most evil. However one positive development did appear in the wake of the women’s legal struggle and subsequent media attention; In 1949 the US Congress passed a bill making all occupational diseases compensable, and extended the time during which workers could discover illnesses and make a claim. Thanks to the Radium Girls and their success in bringing attention to the deplorable conditions in US factories, industrial safety standards in the US were significantly tightened over the following years, an improvement which definitely spared countless others from similar fates.