The “Radium Girls” Discounted by Public Health Officials

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This photo from 1922, shows young women  painting watch dials with radium.

By REECE PASCOE

“Doctor, I don’t feel good.”

“Don’t fret. You’re perfectly healthy.”

“Doctor, I can see my bones at night.”

“Don’t worry that’s a sign of health.”

“Doctor, part of my jaw broke off.”

“Well, it’s just your diet.”

“Doctor, I can barely walk.”

“Well, you need more sun.”

“Doctor, you say I have two weeks left to live.”

“Well, you should have taken better care of yourself.”

Whether you call it gaslighting, medical malfeasance, sheer ignorance, or evil, many young girls faced serious illness in the 1920s and 30s.  This is the story of the radium girls.

In 1898, Marie Curie discovered radium, a radioactive element. Five years later, she said the element could harm and potentially kill humans. But newspapers touted it as a wonder drug or ‘greatest find of history’.

Dr. Sabin von Sochocky invented glow in the dark paint using radium in 1913 and the following year, the American Medical Association put radium on the list of ‘New and nonofficial remedies.’ Many beauty companies added radium to soaps and creams.

The radium girls, most of whom were in their late teens, found employment as clock dial painters at the Radium Dial Company (Ottawa, Illinois and Waterbury, Connecticut) and the U.S. Radium Corporation (Orange, New Jersey).

They would use the glow in the dark paint on dials and with the advent of the great war, many more girls were employed.

They would “lip, dip, and paint.” They would lick the brush to a point, then they would dip it into the paint, and then paint the clock dials. Rise and repeat lip, dip, paint. They had to be accurate with their painting and the only way they could do that is to lick the brush every time or they would get fired.

At the time these girls thought it was a good thing, radium was a good thing, it was healthy, everyone said so. for the first weeks they girls felt great, better then good. They had more energy, they glowed in the dark, they felt on top of the world.

This 1919 ad in Vogue touted radium as a beauty product.

Then symptoms and illness hit the women. Many went to doctors and dentists with different symptoms, but no one was able to connect a pattern. Then, the young women started to die.

In 1923, Dr. Szamatolski posed an idea that the paint was killing the girls. He was discounted because everyone knew it couldn’t be the paint because radium was a wonder drug.

Two years later, Dr. Harrison Martland published a study that proved that the girls’ illnesses were connected to radium.

The dial company knew something was wrong but would not admit it was the radium. They blamed the illnesses on the girls, and often tried to smear the reputations of the women by attributing symptoms to syphilis.

The company changes the radium isotope in the paint.  Instead of a half-life of 16,000 years, the new isotope disintegrated after seven years.

In 1928, the clock companies run a news story saying everything was safe. It wasn’t. Girls kept dying.

The company quietly settled with many girls in court in exchange for silence. Once case was brought in 1927-28 and in another lawsuit was settled in 1935.

The lawsuits seemed pointless because there were no laws on the books that protected the girls against poisoning.  Radium was killing them, but the company swore it was safe and had doctors who backed that idea.

Dr. Fredrick Flinn was the company’s doctor that oversaw all checkups. He told the girls that they were healthy, and they were responsible for their illness. He also told the courts that radium was safe.

It later came out that Dr. Flinn was not a medical doctor but had a doctorate in philosophy.

One woman who worked in the clock factory suffered a sarcoma of the jaw.

To avoid scrutiny, the company changed locations, but the same thing happened. The girls got sick, even though the company said that they were healthy. Girls continued dying.

While fighting one legal battle, one of the girls held up part of her jawbone to show the jury. They would eventually win the case, but it took years.

Who knew radium was dangerous?

Marie Curie

Marie Curie knew it and she tried to tell people, Sabin knew it and didn’t say a thing about it, the company knew it and actively said otherwise. A few doctors tried to say something but were shut down immediately by the company. Profits mattered more than workers’ health.

Did they die in vain? These radium girls were lied to, deceived and tricked, but they saved countless lives in the end, especially during the nuclear arms race.

They were researched and tested on, which lead to many of the regulations and safety protocols revolving around radioactive material today.

The right of individual workers to sue for damages from corporations due to labor abuse was established.

Curie, 66, died in 1934, or aplastic anemia from exposure to radiation in her research and from radiological work at field hospitals during World War I.

(Author Kate Moore’s book “The Radium Girls,” chronicles the saga.)

 

Newspapers at the time brought attention to the “Radium Girls.”

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