The Radium paint girls some doomed to death in factory

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Grand Tyme Master
Founding Member
Jul 17, 2014
Very tragic stories about these women.
The forgotten factory girls killed by radioactive poisoning

14 JUNE 2016 • 9:44AM

Ordinary women in 1920s America. All they wanted was the chance to shine. Be careful what you wish for. 'The first thing we asked was, "Does this stuff hurt you?" And they said, "No." The company said that it wasn't dangerous, that we didn't need to be afraid.' 1917. As a war raged across the world, young American women flocked to work, painting watches, clocks and military dials with a special luminous substance made from radium. It was a fun job, lucrative and glamorous - the girls themselves shone brightly in the dark, covered head to toe in the dust from the paint. They were the radium girls. As the years passed, the women began to suffer from mysterious and crippling illnesses. The very thing that had made them feel alive - their work - was in fact slowly killing them: they had been poisoned by the radium paint. Yet their employers denied all responsibility. And so, in the face of unimaginable suffering - in the face of death - these courageous women refused to accept their fate quietly, and instead became determined to fight for justice. Drawing on previously unpublished sources - including diaries, letters and court transcripts, as well as original interviews with the women's relatives - The Radium Girls is an intimate narrative account of an unforgettable true story. It is the powerful tale of a group of ordinary women from the Roaring Twenties, who themselves learned how to roar.


Against the clock: a factory worker using luminous paint in 1932

14 JUNE 2016 • 9:44AM
'I was asked to paint dials," 15-year-old Katherine Schaub wrote in the spring of 1917, just as the United States was entering the First World War. "I said I would like to try it."
Dial-painting was the hot new profession for working-class women in the US: a lucrative, artistic and glamorous job that gave the mostly young employees a chance to work with the recently discovered wonder element, radium, as well as "do their bit" for the war effort.
They used luminous radium paint to make the numbers on watches, clocks and aeronautical dials glow brightly in the dark. And they were instructed to suck their paintbrushes, to make a fine point for the precise handiwork.

Speaking to a lawyer years later, dial-painter Mae Cubberley remembered: "The first thing we asked was, 'Does this stuff hurt you?' But [my boss] said no. He said that it wasn't dangerous."

Women were told radium face cream would make their beauty 'really shine'

That wasn't true. Radium was known to be hazardous - other employees, handling larger amounts, wore lead aprons - but the radium firms insisted that small amounts were beneficial to health. In fact, a whole industry was built around this claim.
As preposterous as it sounds today, retailers in Britain and America sold dozens of grocery products, such as butter, milk and chocolate, that had been laced with radium to improve customers' wellbeing.
Shoppers in British stores were sold radium-infused face creams, eyeshadows, soaps and lipsticks that promised to make their beauty "really shine". There were radium energy tablets and even radium-laced lingerie to improve consumers' sex lives.


A 1930s advert for Caradium, a radium-laced hair restorer
Manufacturers funded research that supported their claims - and ignored independent studies that proved the opposite. So when the dial-painters asked their bosses if it was safe to lip-point, they said yes. They told the girls that radium would make them good-looking. So the women picked up their brushes and placed them in their mouths - over and over and over again.
I knew nothing about this shocking story until two years ago, when I was asked to direct a play about the so-called "radium girls" and their long fight - in the face of deadly radiation poisoning - to force their employers to admit negligence.

Dentists said one girl's teeth looked 'moth-eaten'

The show - These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich - played in fringe venues in London, but I felt the women's battle for justice deserved a wider audience. I resolved to piece together the full sequence of events and now, after an extensive research trip to America - where I tracked down and interviewed the women's families and gained unprecedented access to diaries, letters and court testimonies - my book is about to be published.
The women's story begins in Newark, New Jersey.
Four years after the First World War, 24-year-old Mollie Maggia, a former employee at a dial-painting factory, died what her sister called "a painful and terrible death". She was the first factory girl to die, but others followed, and more women began to feel sick. Katherine Schaub's teeth started falling out - they looked "moth-eaten", dentists said. Other dial-painters began to suffer spontaneous fractures.


A dial-painter with a radium-induced sarcoma of the chin
Yet the doctors the women consulted were perplexed. With radium viewed as a wonder drug, the toxic element was not believed to be at fault. Then, in 1925, a pioneering doctor, Harrison Martland, proved the connection between the women's work and their illnesses after discovering that radium had deposited in the women's bones.
This diagnosis should have resulted in the suspension of dial-painting nationwide. But the radium firms were making far too much money to allow the fate of a few lowly dial-painters to disrupt business.
"I still feel that we have to find the cause," wrote Arthur Roeder, president of the United States Radium Corporation. The companies were adamant they would accept no responsibility.

In New Jersey, the women's illnesses had an understandable effect on the profession's popularity: dial-painting declined. But 800 miles away in Ottawa, Illinois, where a new studio had opened, the painters were unaware of the problems - and their employers did not inform them of the now-established danger.
Something had to be done. Grace Fryer was the dial-painter most committed to the cause: a principled young woman, she battled for years to find a lawyer who would take their case. In 1928, Grace, Katherine and Mollie's sisters Albina and Quinta finally faced the firm that had poisoned them in court, filing a lawsuit for $250,000 each (equivalent to $3.4m today).


Dial painters at a company social, including Mollie Maggia (third from right)
Their case was brought by a young lawyer just out of Harvard, Raymond H. Berry, and it made international headlines. Though these women were persuaded to settle out of court - they had been given only months to live - their lawsuit had major repercussions, not just in New Jersey, where it led to improvements in worker-safety laws, but nationwide. For, at last, the dial-painters in Ottawa learnt of the danger.

"The girls became wild," remembered one, Catherine Wolfe. "The chill of fear was so depressing we could scarcely work."
But their employers at Radium Dial even now reassured them that their work was safe, telling the Ottawa women there was no danger because they used a different type of radium. By the time the Illinois women tried to file suit, Depression had gripped America. Despite the evidence against Radium Dial, no one was in the mood to hold to account one of the few employers left who had not gone bankrupt. Wolfe and her friends were shunned by their community for seeking justice.

They signed with Leonard Grossman, a 46-year-old lawyer who, according to his son, "had a passion for people who were in trouble". With Grossman's assistance, the women finally won their case in 1938. The judge condemned the radium company for "gross negligence".
In their fight for justice, the dial-painters faced powerful opponents who betrayed and lied to them. Their determination to stand up for their rights lead to many legal changes that protected other workers.

Katherine Schaub, the 15-year-old girl who had been so excited to pick up her paintbrush in 1917, had dreamt of becoming a famous writer when she grew up, but fate had a different kind of fame in store for her. She died in 1933, aged 30. Her courage and sacrifice shines brighter through history than any luminous dial.




422-432 Alden Street
Essex County, New Jersey
Pates pfConstruction:
Present Use:
Present Owner:
USGS Orange, New Jersey Quadrangle,
Universal Transverse Mercator Coordinates:
City ofOrange, New Jersey
The U.S. Radium Corporation site, including the surviving structural
components dating to the period 1917-1926, were associated with
nationally significant developments in health and safety standards, the
ability ofwoman reformers to secure protection for workers handling
radioactive materials, and tools used to detect and measure radioisotopes.
Beginning in 1920, radium dial painters at the plant began
reporting health problems later associated with radium exposure and
many died over the next decade. There were no publicly recognized
health or safety problems identified or standards established for handling
radioactive materials at this time. The dead woman, and others who
survived, became the first known victims ofindustrial radium poisoning.
The survivors subsequent efforts to seek redress, in alliance with the
Consumer's League, played a major role in the establishment of
legislative protection for workers against industrial diseases. Equally
important, scientific investigation ofthese dial painters, and of other
victims ofradium poisoning, led to the establishment ofhealth standards
used to protect workers in radioactive environments and to the
emergence ofhuman radiobiology as a field ofstudy. These
investigations had military as well as civilian implications. Even before
official standards ofworkplace radiation exposure were established after
World War II, data from dial painters' cases were a major source in the
health and safety codes developed for the wartime Manhattan Project.

422-432 Alden Street
Orange New Jersey Essex County

Radium Girls U.S.RADIUM CORPORATION 422-432 Alden Street Orange Essex County New Jersey



Radium Girls' Remembered for Role in Shaping US Labor Law

September 01, 2011 8:00 PM


Madeline Piller (L), who started the interest in the 'Radium Girls' five years ago - and whose father created the statue - and two original workers from the factory, Pauline 'Toots' Fuller (C) and June Menne (R), after the statue is unveiled, September 2.

Mae Keane, Whose Job Brought Radium to Her Lips, Dies at 107

The Radium Girls
They paid with their lives. Their final fight was for justice.
By Kate Moore
Ordinary women in 1920s America.

All they wanted was the chance to shine.

Be careful what you wish for.

The Radium Girls' story began as the First World War was raging across the globe. Radium-luminous dials were in great demand - needed for airplanes, submarines, warships and soldiers' watches. Dial-painting was a glamorous and artistic profession. Radium was the 'wonder drug', used internally and externally for all sorts of ailments, and added to everything from children's sandboxes to women's beauty products. The dialpainters were told it would make their cheeks rosy. The work was well-paid and the women 'lucky' enough to secure jobs ranked among the top 5% of female wage-earners.

And the radium did make the women glow. A Harvard study described the workers as 'luminous', stating: 'The hair, faces, hands, arms, necks, the dresses, the underclothes, even the corsets, were luminous ... they glowed like ghosts in the dark.' Using it as a beauty product they slicked it through their hair to streak it with an incandescent glow; painting it onto their eyelids and fingernails.

But after a few years their aspirational dreams started to fade and infections set in. Aches and pains that simply wouldn't go away. Wounds that didn't heal. Tissue rots around their teeth, and the jaws themselves, too, deteriorate: calcium bone crumbling into useless smithereens. Yet still the dial companies deny that the paint is poisonous, that the work is harmful in any way.

The women go into fast decline as the radium poisoning sets in - and no one seems able to stop it. Amidst the horror of a certain death, these women must find the courage to fight for justice and force the courts to pronounce radium as a toxic subject to protect other women from being harmed - before it's too late.

They must make every second count. But time is running out.

A sad, but very true, piece of history. Thanks for the post, Mike.:good:
Wow, interesting stuff, How sad. This reminds me of the shoe fitting fluoroscopes from the 1930s that people would put their feet in, but they were being dosed with huge amounts of radiation.
Fascinating story - thanks for posting it. It's amazing how radiation was treated back when people didn't know much about it.

To think that we complain about Tritnite not glowing bright and long enough. At least it doesn't make anyone sick!
Fascinating story - thanks for posting it. It's amazing how radiation was treated back when people didn't know much about it.

To think that we complain about Tritnite not glowing bright and long enough. At least it doesn't make anyone sick!

You're Welcome. Super-Luminova does not make anyone sick either. I can honestly say if I look at Tritnite it has made me sick to my stomach a few times. I'm not 100% sure, but I'll go out on a limb that if the Chinese workers who apply Tritnite would tip the brushes the same way the Radium girls did all bets are off about not making anyone sick.
Thanks for sharing this story. Just another sad story of companies putting profits in front if workers safety:(. The town of Ottawa is close to me and I pass through there frequently in the summer months. I had no idea about this part of the towns history.

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No matter how many times I read or watch something about these women. It's always intriguing yet disheartening.

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I remember reading this last year. Very sad

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Many a people have been maimed and/or killed from stuff we knew little about or lied about. Sad....
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