National Poetry Month: Eleanor Swanson and The Radium Girls

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 apppeared 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.

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21 Responses to National Poetry Month: Eleanor Swanson and The Radium Girls

  1. Melissa says:

    Wow. Just … wow.

    I am embarrassed to say I’ve never heard of the Radium Girls, so I thank you – very much – for this post.

  2. Julie P. says:

    What an amazing story! I wasn’t familiar with the Radium Girls either.

  3. Alyce says:

    That makes me so sad and angry at the same time. I wonder sometimes at the capacity for evil in humans all for the sake of money.

  4. Sandy says:

    I always can count on you to bring these types of stories to light. Unbelievable. And like Alyce, it really makes me mad to hear about the exploitation of these women and how their lives were destroyed.

  5. Barbara says:

    I don’t read poetry so I thought I would just skim through this post, but my god, what a story! I’m stunned, although I realize there are many stories like this where there was absolutely no consideration given to the fact of lives ruined. Those poor women.

  6. Excellent post thanks for sharing. I enjoy reading and writing poems very much. It’s very relaxing. Thanks again.

    An Easter Poem

  7. Staci says:

    I watched a program about the Radium Girls!

  8. zibilee says:

    I knew a little about the Radium Girls, but reading this poem was haunting. It’s amazing to think this actually happened, and there was so little the women could do about it. Thanks for sharing this post and poem with us. It was very informative and interesting.

  9. Oh beautiful post! Thanks for sharing this, I knew nothing about the radium Girls.

  10. Diane says:

    That is so sad about the Radium Girls. I actually read about this in The Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. (If you get the chance I suggest this book).

  11. Oh wow. I had never heard of this situation, though with the rampantly bad working conditions of that era, it doesn’t surprise me. What a haunting poem. Thanks for sharing.

  12. What a powerful poem and such a sad story. Thanks for bringing The Radium Girls to my attention.

  13. Valerie says:

    I learned about the radium girls years ago when my physics professor mentioned it in class , but didn’t know about the legal aspect (shameful how the proceedings went!) until just now from you. Having this history presented in poetical form is very powerful indeed.

  14. Thanks for posting.

  15. Jenners says:

    Where do you find these stories? I’d never heard of this but it sounds like such a travesty and a disgrace.

  16. Phaedosia says:

    What a great poem. I found out about the radium girls last month while reading Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss (amazing book–definitely read it). I’m going to print out this poem and keep it with my copy of that book. Thanks for sharing it!

    • “Radium Girls” is part of the collection A Thousand Bonds: Marie Curie and the Discovery of Radium.

      • Phaedosia says:

        I’m so glad to be introduced to your work, Ms. Swanson. Is A Thousand Bonds still in print? I would love to be able to purchase a copy. That book by Lauren Redniss got me interested in the life of Marie Curie and now your poem has really peaked my curiosity. Is your collection a series of narrative poems like this one? (Narrative poems are so compelling. . .) How did you land on this topic?

        (okay, now I’m just sounding like a nosy fangirl, I’ll stop. . .)

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