The Death of Luminous Dial Painters
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.
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 (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
The women such as Amelia Maggia were hired by the thousands. They had what were highly coveted jobs. They 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 haemorrhaging. 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 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 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.
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.”
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.”
- “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.