The Death of Luminous Dial Painters

Updated on March 5, 2020
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Painting luminous numbers on clock and watch faces was deemed to be women’s work. To make the dials glow in the dark the paint was mixed with the newly discovered miracle substance, radium. However, an unfortunate side effect of working with radium often turned out to be death by radiation poisoning. The casualties became known as Radium Girls.

Radium Girls at work.
Radium Girls at work. | Source

Painting Luminous Dials

They exhumed the remains of Amelia Maggia one autumn day in 1923. The 24-year-old had been buried five years earlier having succumbed, the death certificate said, to syphilis. Her friends and family knew it was a rubbish diagnosis and, when the lid of her coffin was removed, they had confirmation of their belief. What was left of Amelia Maggia was glowing.

During her brief working life, Amelia spent thousands of hours painting luminous numbers on clock and watch dials. She and her fellow workers were employed by the United States Radium Corporation in Newark, New Jersey.

The standard technique was to put a fine “point” on the camelhair brush between moistened lips and then dip it into the radium/paint mixture. After painting, the process was repeated―lip point, dip, paint. In so doing, the painters ingested small amounts of radium, poisoning themselves.


“My Beautiful Radium”

Marie Curie discovered the radium element in 1898. It was an extraordinary substance and soon was put to work by the medical community.

What Madame Curie called “My beautiful radium” was used to fight cancer (it still is in fact). But, there was so much more that radium could do said the physicians. It was the mysterious elixir that could cure constipation, arthritis, gout, and, of course, impotence.

It was promoted by health spas for the super rich in need of a cleansing. It could be taken by drinking radium infused water or, for the really adventurous, as a suppository. The old could be made young again and radium was even available mixed into perfume, toothpaste, and lipstick.

But wait, there’s more.

The Gazette-Journal in Reno, Nevada, opined that radium could turn base metals into gold. It could also make it possible for humans to communicate with other planets.

But, the “experts” promoting radium were mostly groping in the dark. They knew radium could destroy human tissue but that was about it.

What they didn’t know is that radium mimics calcium so it doesn’t pass through the body. It accumulates in bones and the radiation it releases destroys blood cells, bone marrow, and other tissue.

The Radium Girls

Women such as Amelia Maggia were hired by the thousands. They had what were highly coveted jobs. They were paid well, about $40,000 a year in today’s money. They sat at work benches in a convivial atmosphere with their workmates, and avoided the terrible drudgery of slogging it out in, say, a laundry.

The radium got onto their clothing so they glowed in the dark themselves and became known as the “ghost girls.” Some even painted their lips and put highlights in their hair for an extra frisson of sexiness. On the speakeasy dance floor the Radium Girls had their own gleaming radiance.

But, then some of them started to get sick.

Amelia Maggia’s teeth started to get loose and rot. When dentists pulled them the cavity would not heal and ulcers formed in her gums. One day, her jawbone just broke. Five years after starting work with radium she was dead.

Other co-workers were chronically fatigued, delivered stillborn babies, or died from extreme hemorrhaging. Nothing to worry about, said their employer. Working with radium was not dangerous. Anyway, the labour code of the time did not recognize radiation sickness as a compensable ailment.

However, the scientists and managers employed by the United States Radium Corporation were issued gloves and masks and worked behind screens. No such precautions were extended to the Radium Girls.

An Autopsy Reveals All

In 1925, the first male employee of the United States Radium Corporation died, so now it was important to take notice. An autopsy revealed the man’s bones contained radium.

The local medical examiner, Dr. Harrison Martland, became suspicious and started to examine some of the female workers. He found they were heavily dosed up with radium and the illnesses from which they suffered were incurable.

Lawsuits followed and the issue came to trial in 1927. Five women, alive but ill, asked for $250,000 apiece. That’s when they dug up Amelia Maggia and found that her body gave off a “soft luminescence.”

The company, now called the United States Radium Corporation, dragged out the proceedings with legal stonewalling. The women had few legal resources and so settled for $10,000 each and $600 a year for as long as they lived, which, of course, was not long. The company admitted no liability.

Other lawsuits were launched against other companies using radium, and the companies stalled as before. However, lawyer Leonard Grossman worked tirelessly without payment on the file for his client Catherine Donohue. After eight appeals by the radium companies in lower courts the issue landed in the Supreme Court. In October 1939, the court ruled in favour of the complainants and set a precedent in U.S. labour law.

Safety standards for people working with radioactive substances were vastly improved. The last watch with a luminous dial using radium was sold in 1968.

Bonus Factoids

  • Dr. Sabin Arnold von Sochocky invented the radium-based paint used on luminous dials. He died in November 1928 of aplastic anemia caused by exposure to radioactive substances. The discoverer of radium, Marie Curie, died of the same ailment in 1934 also caused by handling radioactive material.
  • Eben Byers was a wealthy industrialist who was advised by his doctor to drink Radithor to deal with chronic pain. It was a patent medicine containing radium that its creator claimed would cure a hundred ailments. Byers drank a bottle of the “radioactive water” daily until he died of radioactive poisoning in 1932 at the age of 51. A Wall Street Journal obituary was carried under the headline “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off.”

Radithor was a patent medicine that used advertising tag-lines such as “Perpetual Sunshine in a Bottle” and said right on the label that it contained “Radioactive Water.”
Radithor was a patent medicine that used advertising tag-lines such as “Perpetual Sunshine in a Bottle” and said right on the label that it contained “Radioactive Water.” | Source
  • Radium has a half-life of 1,600 years, so all the Radium Girls who died because of their work will still be glowing in their graves many centuries from now.
  • The Radium Dial Company of Ottawa, Illinois opened its factory in 1917. Its original building, still riddled with radium dust, was torn down in 1968 and the rubble used as fill in many sites in the area. The Environmental Protection Agency notes that “The Ottawa Radiation Areas site, located in LaSalle County, Illinois, consists of 16 areas contaminated by radioactive materials. The 16 areas are scattered throughout the city of Ottawa as well as locations outside the city.”

This statue was erected in Ottawa, Illinois in 2011 to honour the Radium Girls.
This statue was erected in Ottawa, Illinois in 2011 to honour the Radium Girls. | Source


  • “Skin Glowing From Radium, ‘Ghost Girls’ Died for a Greater Cause.” Gabrielle Fonrouge, New York Post, March 22, 2017.
  • “Radium Girls: The Dark Times of Luminous Watches.” Jacopa Prisco, CNN, December 19, 2017.
  • “The Radium Girls - Still Glowing in Their Coffins.” Maggie Fergusson, The Spectator, undated.
  • “ ‘Radium Girls’ Remembered for Role in Shaping US Labor Law.” Kane Farabaugh, Voice of America, September 1, 2011.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 

      2 years ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      Thanks, Rupert for the information. It is very sad that such young persons lost their lives early, including the founder of the elements.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)