On Labor Day, I celebrated by having a blissful day out of the office, sleeping in and then curling up with Kate Moore’s book The Radium Girls. Little had I considered how appropriate reading Radium Girls was as a celebration and remembrance of those who advocated for recognition, compensation, and improved labor laws before they were killed by occupational hazards.
Near the start of the 20th Century, Marie and Pierre Curie announced the discovery of two elements, including radium. Early, sequential research showed that radium could shrink tumors, and from there, radium became the “wonder drug.” Radium was the next health trend, a glowing predecessor to the 21st Century’s liquid cleanse obsession, only much, much more deadly. Although expensive, radium was added to tonics, paint, and even lingerie as one YouTuber cheekily points out. Songs were written about the wonder of radium. Affluent others relaxed in radiation spas.
Of course, some of the radium craze may have been a marketing scam. Radium products sold for premium prices. As a company, why not take advantage of this fad? For a consumer, this may have been one case where it’d been better to have a scam than to get the real product. As science has since proven, radiation eats away at the body. It may be useful when targeting specific cancerous areas, but overexposure to healthy tissues may conger the very cancers that it is supposed to prevent and may cause other fatal maladies.
Nevertheless, the capitalists and those longing for immortality were quick to jump on the radium bandwagon.
While glow-in-the-dark watches were part of the craze, their production took off with WWI. A war was going on, and soldiers needed help in the darkest of places. A glow-in-the-dark watch wasn’t as good as a flashlight, but knowing the time could be helpful when coordinating military efforts (or maddening as the seconds in the trenches ticked away…) The United States Radium Corporation (USRC) in NJ, Radium Dial Company in IL, Waterbury Watch Company in CT, and other companies that followed capitalized on the luminous qualities of radium that satisfied a wartime need. These companies were also able to easily attract young women who wanted to do their part for the war effort and were also lured by radium—they could help their troops and live a long(er) life thanks to their employment.
Or so they thought.
Most of the women remained healthy during their time employed by the radium corporations, mostly because their employment was short. Very few of the women entered the plants thinking this was a lifelong career. Some wanted to support their families; others were biding their time before they married. Painting the intricate numbers on watches was a means; no one thought of it as their life or total being.
With every passing day, the women breathed in the radium. It splattered their clothes and hair and got stuck under their nails. Then there was the amount of radium that entered their bodies orally. A continuous refrain during Moore’s book is “Lip. Dip. Paint.” The workers pursed their lips as if to blow as kiss, pulling their paintbrush bristles into a tiny point. These bristles already had paint on them—paint loaded with radium.
The workers were never told that this a dangerous practice. There wasn’t even so much as a warning that they needed to wipe the paint off of their lips. Moore mentions that in one plant women during their breaks would intentionally paint their nails and lips for a night on the town. How beautiful their glowing bodies would seem to their potential partners!
On average, the employees started to exhibit aches and other symptoms years after they left the plant. As Maggie Ferguson (2016) writes, “The first legal suit against USRC was filed in September 1925, but when it came to getting justice the radium companies held all the trump cards.” The company had money for legal representation that could fight against the women’s claims that their symptoms, which baffled doctors, and were often linked to other diseases. The workers developed sarcomas, non-healing gum wounds, anemia, bone loss, unexplained aches, compressed vertebrae, shortening on one leg, etc. One of the most distressing image that lingers in this reader's head is how the women’s gum would recede, exposing porous jaw bone that simply snapped out of the women’s mouths with the softest touch. Pain mitigation was a must as no one could figure out a way to slow the disease.
It tooks years, curious doctors and dentists, perseverance, and lawyers willing to take on uncertain cases to bring about justice for the dial workers.
Lawyers (pro bono in several cases) had to argue against statute of limitation laws and find loopholes to show that radium poisoning should be a compensable disease, while corporate lawyers easily argued that the women weren’t “harmed on the job” because their diseases arrived much later and weren’t payable anyways—they always left out about the part that radium itself was just discovered so radium poisoning was equally as new. It wasn’t until the bodies of many dead dial workers were autopsied and laid to rest and many of their co-workers were crippled and pained that the corporate lawyers lost the upper hand, although as readers see in Moore’s book that didn’t stop them from trying to weasel out of agreed upon compensation.
Moore’s book finishes with a recap of how many lives the original glowing ghost girls saved because of their lawsuits, willingness to be interviewed and medically inspected, and foresight to document their experience in writing. Their struggles inspired new legislation, widened compensable workplace occupational hazards, and saved the lives of the next round of wartime dial painters during WWII and beyond. As one headline notes, the dial workers are “still glowing in their coffins,” although their rosy faces have long been silenced, and their story will continue as a cautionary tale of corporate greed, coverups, litigation, and workplace hazards.
Ferguson, Maggie. “The Radium Girls—Still Glowing in Their Coffins.” The Spectator. June 11, 2016. https://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/06/the-radium-girls-still-glowing-in-their-coffins/
Moore, Kate. The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women. London: Simon & Schuster UK, 2016.
Steiner, Mark E. and Kenneth A. Deville. “New Jersey Radium Dial Workers and the Dynamics of Occupational Disease Litigation in the Early Twentieth Century.” Missouri Law Review 62, no. 2 (1997): Article 2.