Lost Curiosities: Painters’ Tragedy

Radium Girls work in a factory of the United States Radium Corporation. Courtesy City of Orange, New Jersey.
Radium Girls work in a factory of the United States Radium Corporation. Courtesy City of Orange, New Jersey.

Last month, we touched on the “romance of radium.”  Now it’s time to explore the dark side of this element that caused such awe during its initial discovery.  For Americans to realize the dangers behind this science, it took the sicknesses and death of several young women, now known as the “radium girls.”

The Radium Mystique

In the 1920s, radium was thought of as a miracle of science.  Advertisers everywhere sought to harness its allure.  It was used in items from chocolate to lipstick, put in tonics, and used in paint and other substances to create a “glow in the dark effect.”  It was so intriguing that products were named for it whether or not radium was used in the production–the consumer could purchase everything from “radium butter” to “radium silk lingerie.”

World War I added to the radium mystique and also set the stage for one of its tragedies.  During the war, soldiers wore watches with dials that glowed in the dark.  The paint was made by mixing water-based glue with a yellow powder, the powder itself a blend of radium and zinc sulfide.  Americans loved the watches and there was quickly a post-war demand that a number of East Coast factories sought to satisfy.

Dancing in the Dark?

Young women (typically between the ages of 18-25) met the need for watch dial painters.  Dubbed “radium girls,” these women practiced “lip-pointing” or placing their brushes between their lips to give them more of a point to paint with.  When they discovered that it made their lips glow in the dark, the painters weren’t dismayed.  Unaware of the danger, many playfully painted their fingernails with the paint or decorated their clothing.  One nude dancer, Joan Meller, picked up the trend in New York as well, powdering her entire body with radium so that it would glow during her act.

Being a radium painter was a desirable job for a woman in the 1920s as well.  Factories paid between 1.5 to 8 cents per dial painted.  While a slow painter might only finish 30 dials in a day, the fastest women were able to complete 300.  This made the best employees, however, the ones most likely to succumb to the effects of the paint mixture.

When the painters first began showing signs of ill effects because of their work, most were misdiagnosed.  Typically radium sickness (later known as radium necrosis) presented itself with signs of anemia or strange symptoms involving tooth and jaw problems.  When teeth were removed, the socket didn’t heal but became infected.  Bone and skin tissue died around the socket, causing parts of the jaw to rot away which eventually led to death in the sufferer.  Diagnosis for these problems ranged from trench mouth to syphilis as sick painters consulted with doctors and dentists to find out what was happening to them.

Seeking Justice

In 1925, a Radium Girl named Grace Fryer decided to sue one of the companies, U.S. Radium, for damages caused by her exposure to radium.  It took two years for her to find a lawyer who would represent the case and in that time, four other women came forward to be part of the suit: Quinta McDonald, Albina Larice, Katherine Schaub, and Edna Hussman.  By 1926, four other workers had already died of radium-related illnesses and when one of the bodies was exhumed because of the trial, it was found to be highly radioactive.

Many claims by radium painters had been settled out of court with the watch factories.  These settlements frequently came with a clause requiring the worker to remain quiet and avoid litigation.  The clock companies held power as well that may have intimidated a number of female workers: by 1927, they had used their influence to reform the workers’ compensation act.  Workers now only had 3 years to file a claim against their employers, rather than the 5 they had previously been granted.  This atmosphere was the one that Grace and her fellow radium girls stepped into.

U.S. Radium fought to delay the trial.  They were successful in obtaining a 14-month adjournment, enough time to make critically ill plaintiffs barely able to face the stand.  By January of 1928, when the trial convened, three of the five women (including Grace) were bedridden.  Most of them were too weak from radium-related illnesses to raise their arms to take the oath.  Four months later, they were too sick to attend and in June, a settlement was negotiated by U.S. District Court Judge William Clark.  The settlement awarded each woman $10,000, a pension of $600 per year, and reimbursement of medical and legal expenses.  U.S. Radium claimed that they were settling the case not because of the harm they had done but because they could not get a fair trial. A few weeks after the settlement was in place, Fryer’s attorney learned that Judge Clark was not only a district court judge but also a shareholder for U.S. Radium.

The fate of most of the other watch dial painters has sunk into obscurity.  The last-known painter, Mae Keane, died in early 2014.  Only 18 when she took a job as a painter, she may have survived her career simply because she was no good at it.  Thinking the paint tasted bitter, she refused to lip-point and was told by her supervisor to find another job shortly after she began because of her low performance.  In spite of her short tenure, however, Keane still lost all of her teeth by the 1930s and suffered gum pain all of her life.  She survived breast and colon cancer, never certain whether or not her radium exposure had an impact.

Hugo Gernsback was one of those who sought to bring the truth about radium to the public eye.  Courtesy Modern Mechanix (1932).
Hugo Gernsback was one of those who sought to bring the truth about radium to the public eye. Courtesy Modern Mechanix (1932).

As a result of the lawsuit, however, the dangers of radioactivity were brought into the public eye.  Articles began to spring up discussing whether and how the substances should be used.  When the atomic bomb was developed in the 1940s, the events in the radium trials led directly to safety precautions for those working on nuclear projects.  Although it was too late for the painters themselves, the lessons that they learned preserved the lives of others in the end.

To Dig Deeper

As always, a search in the Google news archive will provide a number of interesting articles about the trials and also about the painters themselves.  A few books have been written about the Radium Girls over the years.  Radium Girls by Claudia Clark is one such resource, as is Deadly Glow by Ross Mullner.  A 1987 documentary, “Radium City,” also touches on this story, revealing that even as late as the 1980s (and probably still today), the graves of many of these watch painters remain radioactive.


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