The Radium Girls were a group of some seventy female factory workers, mostly between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with glow-in-the-dark paint at the United States Radium factory in Orange, New Jersey around 1917. The brushes would lose shape after a few strokes, so the factory supervisors trained the girls to create a fine tip by twirling the brushes in their mouths, and shaping the points with their lips. This needed to be done every few brushstrokes. For fun, the girls also painted their nails, teeth and faces with the deadly paint produced at the factory; the women had been told the paint was harmless. (And in any event, the dial painting studios were so filled with the dust and residues from the paint that the women’s skin and hair actually glowed when they left work.) The owners and the scientists familiar with the effects of radium, however, carefully avoided any exposure to it themselves; chemists at the plant used lead screens, masks and tongs.
The women began getting sick and suffering from serious bone decay, including disintegration of their jaws. U.S. Radium and other watch-dial companies rejected claims that the afflicted workers were suffering from exposure to radium. At the urging of the companies, deaths of workers were attributed by medical professionals to other causes; syphilis was often cited in attempts to smear the reputations of the women. (In at least one occurrence, a girl worker went to a “physician” who examined her and then declared her to be perfectly healthy. An observer “physician” present in the room agreed with the conclusions. He was later revealed to be a Vice President of U.S. Radium Corporation. The examining “doctor”, only a toxicologist, later was shown to have no medical credentials.)
Five of the women challenged their employer in a court case, but by the time it came to trial all five were quite ill with radiation poisoning. When the first hearing came up in January of 1928, the women could not even raise their arms to take the oath. The next hearing was in April of 1928, but all of the women were too sick to attend. The company requested a delay of the case until the following September because most of their witnesses would be traveling to Florida or Europe for summer vacations, and would not be available to testify. (The judge, who was later exposed as a stockholder in the U.S. Radium Corporation, agreed.)
The case was settled in the fall of 1928, before the trial went to the jury. Payment for each of the Radium Girls was $10,000 (the equivalent of $127,589.47 in 2010 dollars) and a $600 per year annuity while they lived. All medical and legal expenses incurred would also be paid by the company. The five “Radium Girls” died in the 1920s and 1930s.The lawsuit and resulting publicity was a factor in the establishment of occupational disease labor law.
Radium Girls by Eleanor Swanson
“We sat at long tables side by side in a big
dusty room where we laughed and carried
on until they told us to pipe down and paint.
The running joke was how we glowed,
the handkerchiefs we sneezed into lighting
up our purses when we opened them at night,
our lips and nails, painted for our boyfriends
as a lark, simmering white as ash in a dark room.
“Would you die for science?” the reporter asked us,
Edna and me, the main ones in the papers.
Science? We mixed up glue, water and radium
powder into a glowing greenish white paint
and painted watch dials with a little
brush, one number after another, taking
one dial after another, all day long,
from the racks sitting next to our chairs.
After a few strokes, the brush lost its shape,
and our bosses told us to point it with
our lips. Was that science?
I quit the watch factory to work in a bank
and thought I’d gotten class, more money,
a better life, until I lost a tooth in back
and two in front and my jaw filled up with sores.
We sued: Edna, Katherine, Quinta, Larice and me,
but when we got to court, not one of us
could raise our arms to take the oath.
My teeth were gone by then. “Pretty Grace
Fryer,” they called me in the papers.
All of us were dying.
We heard the scientist in France, Marie
Curie, could not believe “the manner
in which we worked” and how we tasted
that pretty paint a hundred times a day.
Now, even our crumbling bones
will glow forever in the black earth.”
Note: Eleanor Swanson’s work has appeared in High Plains Literary Review, The Southern Review and Oberon, among others. Her manuscript, “A Thousand Bonds: Marie Curie and the Discovery of Radium,” was a finalist for the 2001 Paris Review Prize.