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Facts You Should Know About the Radium Girls

Facts You Should Know About the Radium Girls

It is common knowledge today that radium is a highly radioactive element, and thus, must be handled with utmost caution. However, during the early 1900s, the potency of this material was just being discovered and was misrepresented to the hundreds of women who worked as watch dial radium painters all over the United States.
Rohini Mohan
Did You Know?
Marie Skłodowska-Curie, the discoverer of radium and plutonium, died of aplastic anemia because of long-term exposure to radiation.
The Radium Girls was the name given to five women factory workers who worked for the now infamous 'United States Radium Corporation'. Grace Fryer, Edna Hussman, sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice, and Katherine Schaub, came to be known as the "Radium Girls" by the media and public. This incident took place in the 'City of Orange', New Jersey in 1917.
Lured with the prospect of earning a penny and a half per dial (250 dials a day-per person), over 70 women were employed to paint watch dials with the highly radioactive glow-in-the-dark/luminous paint, 'Undark'.
This Historyplex article discusses how the Radium Girls not only transformed labor laws that existed until then, but also changed the science relating to health physics (the physics of radiation protection).
Events that Led to Radiation Poisoning
Shockingly, the corporation misinformed the workers that the paint was harmless.

Additionally, these women were asked to lick their camel hair paintbrushes to retain a fine point necessary for painting the watch dial. This very act led to the unintentional ingestion of intolerable amounts of deathly radium.

Furthermore, the workers would often playfully paint their faces, fingernails, and teeth with the light green luminous paint.

On the other hand, the company that voluntarily allowed its workers to get poisoned, made sure that its owners and scientists wore protective gear at all times while working in the factory and used lead screens to block out the radiation.

The scientists were also provided with masks and tongs that protected them from close handling of the radioactive radium-based paint.

While the female workers were intentionally kept in the dark about the health hazards, the company's medical staff and owners were specifically informed about the injurious effects of this metallic element, through company-published safety instructions and literature.
United States Radium Corporation Facts
Having been founded as Radium Luminous Material Corporation, in 1914, the company's name was changed to United States Radium Corporation.

This company was founded by Dr. Sabin Arnold von Sochocky and Dr. George S. Willis, who began by producing radium through carnotite ore.

They produced radioluminescent paint that contained radium salt, glue, and zinc sulfide.

They procured the recipe for the paint from William J. Hammer, who had become an active promoter of radium, ever since it was introduced to him by scientists Marie and Pierre Curie in 1902.

U.S. Radium was assigned a defense contract that required it to supply watches with luminous dials so that the watches could be read in the dark.
Who were the Radium Girls?
Many of the women workers who had worked at the factory in the past or were currently employed during 1917, began to show severe signs of radiation poisoning and fell seriously ill. While some women were diagnosed with anemia, more and more women were complaining of decaying and falling teeth, jaw pain, and necrosis of the jawbone.

The necrosis of the jawbone became so prominent in the city of Orange that the condition was termed as radium jaw.

Grace Fryer, a bank teller and past employee at the radium factory, began experiencing severe jaw pain in 1923. By 1924 and several similar cases later, Fryer's dentist, Dr. H.S Martland ascertained the ingestion of radium paint by the workers from for the United States Radium Corporation, as the leading cause for the necrosis and resulting cancerous tumor on the jaw.

Grace Fryer along with four other past workers Edna Hussman, sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice, and Katherine Schaub searched for two years before they found a lawyer who was willing to represent their case of 'intentional and negligent radium poisoning' in court. The joint suit was filed by Raymond Berry on May 18, 1927, on behalf of Grace Fryer and the four other victims on contingency.

A damage of USD 250,000 was demanded for each of the five 'Radium girls' who had already suffered irreparable loss to their health, lifestyle, and financial losses due to never-ending medical bills.

The case was allowed to be heard despite having lapsed its two years limitation period, as was prescribed by the New Jersey statute of limitation. However, considering the fact that this was a rare case and that Ms. Grace was refused representation for two years since she was made aware of her condition, her case was taken into consideration.

During the hearing of the case, many slanderous claims were made against the victims, through campaigns funded by the U.S. Radium and affiliate companies. One such campaign of disinformation went on to claim that the deaths of the female workers was due to syphilis―a sexually transmitted disease―thereby maligning the character and reputation of the victims.

Several doctors and researchers went so far as to refuse the release of data that could have strengthened the case of the victims.
Legal Impact
This lawsuit was the first of its kind and paved the path for not only widening the scope of labor laws and enacting stricter labor safety regulations, it also established legal precedents in the field of occupational diseases and healthcare.

The case was settled in favor of the 'Radium Girls' in 1928, and awarded USD 10,000 along with USD 600 annual annuity to each of the five women. The company was made to pay for all the medical and legal expenses incurred by each of the victims during the course of the trial.
Although radium continued to be used in watch dials until 1960s, it was made mandatory for all radium factory workers to wear protective gear at all times, and never ingest the radioactive paint or inhale its fumes.