|Employees of the U.S. Radium Corp. paint numbers on the faces of wristwatches using dangerous radioactive paint.|
I'd like to thank my sister Lexi for bringing this week's topic to my attention, and hope you find this tragic story as interesting as we did.
Beginning around the turn of the century in America, the chemical element radium was popularly seen as a scientific miracle that could cure a variety of ailments, including cancer, upon ingestion of the so-called "liquid sunshine." Because the magical substance glowed and fizzed, the radium craze saw its application in numerous other capacities, most notably in the production of glow-in-the-dark wrist watches. During the teens and the First World War period, the watches were largely manufactured for the U.S. military due to their obvious benefit in trench and combat conditions, before the 1920s gave way to their popularity as a hot new gadget among civilians.
The watches were manufactured in factories across America owned by the U.S. Radium Corp., which were predominantly staffed by working-class young women. Bill Kovarik describes the production conditions and process: "Racks of dials waiting to be painted sat next to each woman's chair. They mixed up glue, water and radium powder into a glowing greenish-white paint, and carefully applied it with a camel hair brush to the dial numbers. After a few strokes, the brushes would lose their shape, and the women couldn't paint accurately." He quotes former employee Grace Fryer: "'Our instructors told us to point them with our lips,' she said. 'I think I pointed mine with my lips about six times to every watch dial. It didn't taste funny. It didn't have any taste, and I didn't know it was harmful.'" The workers were thus regularly ingesting the radium as part of their job, which reflects how harmless it was thought to be at the time. In addition, they would even paint their nails and teeth with it to surprise their boyfriends when the lights went out.
Continuing with Grace's story, Kovarik describes how she came to realize that her time working with the glowing substance proved detrimental to her health:
"Grace quit the factory in 1920 for a better job as a bank teller. About two years later, her teeth started falling out and her jaw developed a painful abscess. The hazel eyes that had charmed her friends now clouded with pain. She consulted a series of doctors, but none had seen a problem like it. X-ray photos of her mouth and back showed the development of a serious bone decay. Finally, in July 1925, one doctor suggested that the problems may have been caused by her former occupation. As she began to investigate the possibility, Columbia University specialist Frederick Flynn, who said he was referred by friends, asked to examine her. The results, he said, showed that her health was as good as his. A consultant who happened to be present emphatically agreed. Later, Fryer found out that this examination was part of a campaign of misinformation started by the U.S. Radium Corporation. The Columbia specialist was not licensed to practice medicine -- he was an industrial toxicologist on contract with her former employer. The colleague had no medical training either -- he was a vice president of U.S. Radium."
The Corporation was thus an active conspirator in the illusion of radium's harmlessness, and we know today that it was fully aware of its dangerous side effects as recognized by scientists at the time. As with all significant historical moments, the intellectual and moral conditions of the time played a major role in the outcome of Fryer's and the Corporation's story. The realization that her health issues were related to the circumstances of her former employment coincided with the latter portion of the Progressive Movement in America, when intellectuals and activists undertook the effort to cure societal ills that had been brought about by rapid industrialization beginning in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. This meant increasing professionalization and the proliferation of organizations, in addition to a strong role played by women spearheading those initiatives. In Orange, NJ, the location of one of the Radium Corp. factories, a city health department official brought the New Jersey Consumers League into an investigation of the mysterious deaths of four radium factory workers between 1922 and 1924, who then enlisted other experts to contribute to the study.
Kovarik describes the lawsuit that followed from the investigation: "Although it meant flying in the face of some medical opinion, Grace Fryer decided to sue U.S. Radium, but it took her two years to find an attorney willing to take the case. On May 18, 1927, Raymond Berry, a young Newark attorney, took the case on contingency and filed a lawsuit in a New Jersey court on her behalf. Four other women with severe medical problems quickly joined the lawsuit. They were Edna Hussman, Katherine Schaub, and sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice. Each asked for $250,000 in compensation for medical expenses and pain. The five eventually became known in newspaper articles carried in papers throughout the U.S. and Europe as 'the Radium Girls.'"
Clipping from The Bee, Danville, Virginia, 1928
Another trend that was becoming prominent around the time of the radium girls story and Progressivism was the role of the media in influencing public opinion surrounding news events. A publicity blizzard surrounded the story, led by New York World editor Walter Lipmann, which outraged readers and shifted opinion in favour of the victims while pressurizing the U.S. Radium Corp. to settle the case. Kovarik describes how the story was able to reach French scientist Marie Curie, who had discovered radium: "Curie heard about the reaction and, on June 4, said: "I am not a doctor, so I cannot venture an opinion on whether the New Jersey girls will die. But from newspaper descriptions of the manner in which they worked, I think it imperative to change the method of using radium."Curie herself died of radium poisoning in 1934."
Eventually, an out-of-court settlement was reached between the Corp. and the radium girls, who received annual payments while they lived and had all medical and legal expenses paid by the company. In addition, a conference endorsed by numerous public officials including Eleanor Roosevelt called for the establishment of two committees: one to investigate existing conditions and another to recommend the best known means of protection for workers. A Public Health Service official, James P. Leake, commended the Consumers League and others who had worked on behalf of public health and worker safety. "By focusing public attention on some of these horrible examples," Leake said, "the broader problems of disease prevention... can be greatly reduced. It was so in the tetra-ethyl lead work." He added: "The martyrdom of a few may save many." Thus, while the five radium girls eventually succumbed to their exposure during the 1920s and 1930s, their experiences set a new precedent for legal working conditions in America in addition to a standard for public health.
If you're interested in some fascinating further reading, here is an article discussing a radium-exposed factory worker who miraculously lived to be 107 and died in 2014: http://www.npr.org/2014/12/28/373510029/saved-by-a-bad-taste-one-of-the-last-radium-girls-dies-at-107
All information courtesy of "The Radium Girls" by Bill Kovarik, which you can read in full here: http://www.rst2.edu/ties/radon/ramfordu/pdffiles/The%20Radium%20Girls.pdf
Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)