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June 11, 2021

The Radium Girls: The Living Dead Women in the 1920s

The Radium Girls were female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with self-luminous paint.

From 1917 to 1926, U.S. Radium Corporation, originally called the Radium Luminous Material Corporation, was engaged in the extraction and purification of radium from carnotite ore to produce luminous paints, which were marketed under the brand name “Undark”. The ore was mined from the Paradox Valley in Colorado and other “Undark mines” in Utah. As a defense contractor, U.S. Radium was a major supplier of radioluminescent watches to the military. Their plant in Orange, New Jersey, employed as many as three hundred workers, mainly women, to paint radium-lit watch faces and instruments, misleading them that it was safe.

Radium Girls work in a factory of the United States Radium Corporation, circa 1922. All women or girls using radium paint with no protection or warnings.

U.S. Radium Corporation hired approximately 70 women to perform various tasks including handling radium, while the owners and the scientists familiar with the effects of radium carefully avoided any exposure to it themselves; chemists at the plant used lead screens, masks and tongs. U.S. Radium had distributed literature to the medical community describing the “injurious effects” of radium. In spite of this knowledge, a number of similar deaths had occurred by 1925, including the company’s chief chemist, Dr. Edwin E. Leman, and several female workers. The similar circumstances of their deaths prompted investigations to be undertaken by Dr. Harrison Martland, County Physician of Newark.

An estimated 4,000 workers were hired by corporations in the U.S. and Canada to paint watch faces with radium. At USRC, each of the painters mixed her own paint in a small crucible, and then used camel hair brushes to apply the glowing paint onto dials. The then-current rate of pay, for painting 250 dials a day, was about a penny and a half per dial (equivalent to $0.303 in 2020). The brushes would lose shape after a few strokes, so the U.S. Radium supervisors encouraged their workers to point the brushes with their lips, or use their tongues to keep them sharp. Because the true nature of the radium had been kept from them, the Radium Girls painted their nails, teeth, and faces for fun with the deadly paint produced at the factory. Many of the workers became sick; it is unknown how many died from exposure to radiation.

Women painting alarm clock faces with radium in 1932, Ingersoll factory, January 1932. Workers would often lick the paintbrush to achieve a finer point — directly ingesting the radium. (Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images)

Among the first to see numerous problems among dial painters were dentists. Dental pain, loose teeth, lesions and ulcers, and the failure of tooth extractions to heal were some of these conditions. Many of the women later began to suffer from anemia, bone fractures, and necrosis of the jaw, a condition now known as radium jaw. The women also suffered from suppression of menstruation, and sterility. It is thought that the X-ray machines used by the medical investigators may have contributed to some of the sickened workers’ ill-health by subjecting them to additional radiation. It turned out at least one of the examinations was a ruse, part of a campaign of disinformation started by the defense contractor. U.S. Radium and other watch-dial companies rejected claims that the afflicted workers were suffering from exposure to radium. For some time, doctors, dentists, and researchers complied with requests from the companies not to release their data.

In 1923, the first dial painter died, and before her death, her jaw fell away from her skull. By 1924, 50 women who had worked at the plant were ill, and a dozen had died. At the urging of the companies, worker deaths were attributed by medical professionals to other causes. Syphilis, a notorious sexually transmitted infection at the time, was often cited in attempts to smear the reputations of the women.

Charlotte Purcell, one of the painters, demonstrates the lip-pointing technique that they used to get the brushes to a fine point. (Chicago Daily Times)

Front and side views of a dial painter with a radium-induced sarcoma of the chin. (Collection of Ross Mullner)

“‘Living Death’ Victims,” The Times-News (Hendersonville, NC), February 14, 1938.


The inventor of radium dial paint, Dr Sabin A. Von Sochocky, died in November 1928, becoming the 16th known victim of poisoning by radium dial paint. He had gotten sick from radium in his hands, not the jaw, but the circumstances of his death helped the Radium Girls in court.

In New Jersey, the story of the abuse perpetrated against the workers is distinguished from most such cases by the fact that the ensuing litigation was covered widely by the media. Plant worker Grace Fryer decided to sue, but it took two years for her to find a lawyer willing to take on U.S. Radium. Even after the women found a lawyer, the litigation process moved slowly. At their first appearance in court on January 1928, two women were bedridden and none of them could raise their arms to take an oath. A total of five factory workers – Grace Fryer, Edna Hussman, Katherine Schaub, and sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice – dubbed the Radium Girls, joined the suit. The litigation and media sensation surrounding the case established legal precedents and triggered the enactment of regulations governing labor safety standards, including a baseline of “provable suffering”.

Nine women among fourteen plaintiffs seeking compensation from Radium Dial Company for asserted permanent injury suffered as a result of poisoning contracted through work painting radium on watch dials, Feb. 11, 1938. (AP Photo/Carl Linde)

After Catherine Donohue (lying down) collapsed in the court room, the lawyers went to her house for a bedside hearing. (Chicago Daily Times)

In Illinois, employees began asking for compensation for their medical and dental bills as early as 1927 but were refused by management. The demand for money by sick and dying former employees continued into the mid 1930s before a suit before the Illinois Industrial Commission (IIC) was brought. In 1937 five women found an attorney by the name of Leonard Grossman, that would represent them in front of the commission, but by this time, Radium Dial had closed, moving to New York. The IIC did retain a $10,000 deposit left by Radium Dial when it disclosed to the IIC that they could not find any insurance to cover the cost of indemnifying the company against employee suits. In the spring of 1938, the IIC ruled in favor of the women. The attorney representing the interests of Radium Dial appealed hoping to get the verdict overturned, and again the commission judge, –George B. Marvel, found for the women. Radium Dial appealed over and over, taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court and on October 23, 1939, the court decided not to hear the appeal and the lower ruling was upheld. In the end, this case had been won eight times before Radium Dial was finally forced to pay.

The Radium Girls’ saga holds an important place in the history of both the field of health physics and the labor rights movement. The right of individual workers to sue for damages from corporations due to labor abuse was established as a result of the Radium Girls case. In the wake of the case, industrial safety standards were demonstrably enhanced for many decades.




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