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The Glowing Graves of the Radium Girls.

Updated on June 9, 2017
A radium girl painting clock dials in a factory.
A radium girl painting clock dials in a factory.

World War I and the Boom of Undark Radium

The year was 1917, 100 years ago. The United States finally enters World War I, the Great War. It's a war that would significantly change the course of humanity and war itself. This was an era of great experimentation of technology and chemicals both on the battlefield and off. The demand for military weapons and equipment was off the scale. Each US company eventually found a niche market in the war effort. Enter the Radium Luminous Material Corporation, what would later become the infamous US Radium Corporation.

Three years earlier, the company began large scale radium mining in order to create 'UnDark' luminous paints. These glow in the dark pigments were used to create luminous clock dials. With war now raging, these pigments were used on aircraft dials and other instruments. The folks responsible for painting the dials were largely young women. With the men off fighting in the trenches, factory jobs were plentiful for them. Hundreds flocked to the factories where they were trained and set up to hand paint radium 'UnDark' paint on hundreds of clocks and instrument dials for the war effort.

Even before the war began, dial painting was an 'elite' job for working class women, paying nearly three times as the average female worker. A painter had financial freedom never before seen in American Women. It was highly sought after, in part because of glow. At the end of work day, the girls literally glowed, covered with the UnDark paint. The girls were trained to fine point their paint brushes using their lips. Each time, they were swallow a bit of the glowing paint.

A typical 1920s advertisement praising Radium as a safe element.
A typical 1920s advertisement praising Radium as a safe element.

Was it safe?

Radiation was largely unknown at the time and the health effects were equally as misunderstood. Most, if not all ,of the research conduced at the time was carried out by the very companies that profited from the element. The element was known to cause health problems ever since its discovery in the 1890s. Therefore any harmful side effects where quietly suppressed from the public. Industry wide, radium was promoted as safe in small doses, even beneficial. People bought into the propaganda and many drank water laced with radium amongst other radium potions.


1920s - The First Deaths

Fast forward to the 1920s. By now the Great War had ended and many of the original radium girls had moved on to other forms of employment or settled down to family life. United States Radium Corporation, renamed, was the industry leader, still employing hundreds of young girls who hand painting those dials. However, many were now starting to feel the deadly effects of radium poisoning.

A girl named Mollie Maggia was amongst the first to experience serious health problems from radium poisoning. The lick and dab painting technique engrained in her had caused her teeth to fall out, one by one. The empty sockets degenerated into painful bleeding ulcers that wouldn't stop oozing. Eventually her jaw literally began to fall apart, the bone crumbling into pieces, the muscle and skin around it reduced to a painful, bloody mess.This became known as Radium Jaw as more and more of the girls experience the same horrific condition a few years or even months later. The poisoning spread to her limbs destroying bones and muscles and finally stricken Mollie to her bed unable to walk.

Eventually the disease would claim her life when it ate away at her veins and she bled to death at age 24. Her doctors were baffled. Mollie Maggia became the first confirmed death of a girl to have worked in a radium factory. One by one, her co-workers would follow her to the grave under very similar painful conditions.

The Cover Up

United States Radium Corp vehemently denied any responsibility in the girls' deaths for two solid years. According to her death certificate, Mollie Maggia's death was syphilis. This gave the company ammunition to further deny responsibility. It wouldn't be until 1924 when business began to drop out of paranoia did US Radium finally commission an independent study into the women's deaths. Not surprisingly, the study conducted by Harvard physiologist Cecil Drinker, returned a positive link between the girls deaths and radium paint. He found that nearly the entire workforce exhibited abnormalities in their blood, suggesting a terrifying idea that the company had poisoned everyone there.

When Drinker presented the report to US Radium executives, there was immediate outrage. Instead of accepting the results, the US Radium president attempted to suppress the reports. By now the New Jersey Department of Labor was beginning their own investigation demanding all documentation regarding the studies. US Radium quietly doctored Drinker's original report, removing every bit of harmful information regarding work conditions and the health of their employees. The doctored report they gave to the government sang praise of US Radium's facilities and safety standard issuing the company and everyone in it a clean bill of health.

The Department of Labor believed the report. With its pockets deep in government contracts, it would appear that US Radium had successfully covered up its dangerous work conditions. In an age with few laws protecting workers, especially women, little hope remained for justice.

Those dying from radium poisoning were not just fighting a greedy corporation bent on profits but the long held belief that radium was safe. For decades it was marketed as a miracle product that benefited health. Most were either intimidated or simply unmoved. US Radium, Radium Dial and other companies seemed off the hook.

Some were undeterred in their work for justice. Over the next several years, doctors examined the bones of Mollie Maggia, exhumed five years after her death. They discovered that the isotope had embedded itself deep in the bone tissue. The bones literally glowed. This caused cellular degeneration in the surrounding tissues where everything decayed, bone, muscle, skin due to radiation. Bone would honeycomb and crumble. Tumorous masses of skin and muscle grew out of control. Eventually the circulatory system would deteriorate to the point of fatal hemorrhaging.

Grace Frier VS. US Radium

In New Jersey, Grace Frier would lead the fight for justice. Banding together with four other girls all experiencing the same health problems they eventually found a lawyer willing to take on their case and fight the establishment. Enter Raymond Berry, fresh from law school, filed suit against US Radium's Orange Facility on behalf of the girls in 1927 for $250,000 each in damages ($3.5 million today).

Time favored the corporation. When Grace Frier appeared in court for testimony, she was bed ridden and couldn't even raise her arm to take the oath. All girls were only given months to live by that time so US Radium simply dragged on legal proceedings in the hope the plaintiffs would pass before going to trial. Eventually the judge adjourned the case for several months while US Radium summoned witnesses.

What US Radium didn't expect was the media spectacle the case became. 'The Radium Girls' became front page news across the country, a drama that riveted the public. They were enamored with the struggle of these young girls and quickly sided with them against US Radium. Vilified were the company and the judge presiding over the case. The outcry prompted the judge to pull the case forward but time was already running out and forced US Radium to offer a settlement. The girls reluctantly agreed to US Radium's offer; $10,000 each, medical and legal bills covered and a $600/year annuity. It was a fraction of what they were seeking and ultimately was just enough to cover funeral expenses in the end.


The Radium Girls made front page news across the country.
The Radium Girls made front page news across the country.

Catherine Wolfe VS Radium Dial Corp.

1938, Illinois. Ten years since the US Radium case. Another former radium girl was fighting for justice against another big radium firm, Radium Dial Co. Years earlier Catherine Wolfie had worked for the radium conglomerate painting radium on tiny watch dials. Now her teeth were falling out.

The problem, Catherine was fighting one of the few firms left standing now that the Great Depression ravaged the American economy. The US Radium facility in Orange, New Jersey, did not survive the Grace Frier lawsuit after the press ruined its reputation. Several more radium companies did not survive the depression. Radium Dial Co. managed to stay in business despite these odds. Now some folks criticized this former employee of attempting to destroy one of the few employers around. By now now the toxic effects of radium were well Nevertheless, Radium Dial Co. equally match US Radium in its poisonous work conditions and Catherine Wolfe remained undeterred.

Catherine's lawyer, Leonard Grossman, worked pro bono and was against the ticking clock as his client grew weaker and weaker. The press ran a field day printing photos of Catherine giving testimony while bed ridden. Like US Radium, these images destroyed Radium Dial Co.'s reputation. Before the trial concluded, Radium Dial Co seised its operations in an attempt to evade an inevitable guilty verdict. Despite its attempts to evade justice, the company was found guilty of poisoning its workforce.

Catherine Wolfie as she appeared during the trial.
Catherine Wolfie as she appeared during the trial. | Source

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Legacy

Manufacturing was forever changed after the Radium Girls had their days in court. Laws were passed that protected workers and worker compensation. The fallout also created the first radiation safety laws. Workers could now sue companies for damages due to labor abuse and negligence.

Both US Radium and Radium Dial Co. were irrevocably changed. Both were forced to change their names and downsize in the wake of the firestorm. World War II kept both in business for another decade or so but the 1950s and 60s saw the luminous industry shift away from radium use when it no longer became profitable to mine it. Eventually both would close by the 1970s. Ironically their facilities were quarantined by the EPA and designated superfund clean up sites due to the radioactive waste that has permeated into the ground. Today radioactive waste disposal is still being performed both in Orange, New Jersey and Ottawa, Illinois.

Antique radium clocks that still glow even today.
Antique radium clocks that still glow even today.

Radioactive Antiques

In an ironic lasting legacy, there are still tens of thousands of radium clocks, watches, appliances and even furniture still around. With a radioactive half-life of 1,300 years, many of these devices are expected to continue to glow for the foreseeable future. The EPA classes these objects as radioactive antiques and advises that anyone with a radium clock make no attempt to open or disassemble them. Even though the paint is over 100 years old, radium can still be cause health problems if it makes contact with the human body.

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    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 3 weeks ago from United States

      Such an interesting article. Thanks for sharing!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 3 weeks ago from the short journey

      Though I've read about the radium girls before your approach shed new light on their cases. And the thought that this was only, merely, simply 100 years ago made me wonder what people will look back to this time period and wonder at in 100 years. I'm pretty sure I've seen some of those clocks, but not in a long time.

    • mactavers profile image

      mactavers 3 weeks ago

      Thanks for a great Hub. In Northern AZ and Nevada, people are still receiving settlements over deaths caused by the Nevada bomb testings for WW2'

    • Stephen C Barnes profile image

      Stephen Barnes 3 weeks ago from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador

      Fascinating World War I sidebar that I was unaware of. Just proves the point that not all casualties of war are on the battlefield, or even on the continent where the war is being fought for that matter.

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