The Radium Girls
It was 1921 when 17-year –old Frances Splettstocher landed a job at the Waterbury Clock Company on Cherry Street in Waterbury, New Jersey, Connecticut. It was a glamorous job, for she and her young colleagues worked with radium – the wonder substance of the new century. The girls used their keen eyes and nimble fingers to paint tiny numbers on glow-in-the-dark watches that were all the rage at the moment. World War I soldiers had worn the futuristic devices in the trenches, and now in peacetime everyone wanted one, so Splettstocher and dozens like her were hired to help produce millions of the watches during the early 1920s.
Many of the women pressed their brushes between their lips before dipping them in the radium-laced paint to give their small brushes a nice, fine point. The gritty-textured paint tasted no worse than Elmer’s glue, but it had a strange effect: It made their mouths glow in the dark. This didn’t bother the girls, who stole moments at work to paint their dress buttons and fingernails, and glowing rings on their fingers. “They loved their jobs,” said Claudia Clark, author of a book about the dial-painters called “Radium Girls”. “These were the best jobs working-class girls could get.”
But some would pay for these jobs with their lives.
Even as Splettstocher and her friends bent over long workbenches painting dials, evidence was mounting that this naturally occurring radioactive element had a dark side. But few listened. Even when young women painting dials in Waterbury and places like Orange, New Jersey and Ottawa, Illinois, began to develop horrific symptoms, no one wanted to hear that radium was the cause.
Recognition of the dial workers came much later, when they helped scientists understand the long-term effects of radiation, and their suffering led to safety measures for World War II atomic-bomb workers. The suffering and deaths of these workers greatly increased the world’s knowledge of the hazards of radioactivity, ultimately saving countless lives of future generations.
Despite their contributions, the dial painters have largely been forgotten.
Working side-by-side at long tables, the girls mixed water-based glue with yellow powder – a blend of radium and zinc sulfide. The energy, or radiation, emitted by radium made the zinc crystals flash, giving the illusion of glowing. Then it was time to paint, and at eight cents per dial, the faster they painted, the more money they earned. Some women finished only 30 dials per day, while the best painted 300. Most of the women pointed their brush between their lips before moving from one dial to the next, ingesting a little paint each time. “The sad thing is that the best employees, the good workers, were the most likely to get sick.
The symptoms that would afflict them later were unimaginable to the early dial painters. The devastation of Hiroshima was years away, and America was in love with the rare white metal discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie on the cusp of the 20th century. These women were told radium would put a glow in their cheeks, and there was little reason to doubt it. The few voices noting radium’s potential dangers were drowned out by louder voices hailing this naturally occurring radioactive substance which tirelessly releases energy as a sensation, a key to the future. Doctors recommended it for everything from arthritis to impotence to senility. Dr. J. Evertt Field administrated thousand of radium injections to wealthy patients at his Radium Institute in New York City. Some claimed the miracle element was the legendary fountain of youth, and A few even claimed radium was the source of life itself.
Frances Splettstocher lived on Oak Street, less than a mile from the Waterbury Clock Company, with her mother, father, three sisters and three brothers. She had been painting dials for four years when, in 1925, she developed anemia, a low blood-iron condition that left her extremely weak. The left side of her face felt tender and painful to touch, and she had a severe sore throat. When her teeth and jaw began to ache, she saw a dentist. The dentist tried to relieve her pain by pulling a tooth, but part of her jaw came with it. The tissue in her mouth then began to rot until she had a hole in her cheek.
Frances, in excruciating pain, died a month after falling ill. She was 21 years old and “had a large circle of friends, to whom the news of her death brings deep sorrow,” read her obituary in the Waterbury Republican on February 22, 1925. Her funeral was held at the Church of St. Stanislus. She is buried in Calvary Cemetery.
Frances was the first dial painter to die in Waterbury , and her family, friends and physician were horrified and utterly mystified by her symptoms, but she was not alone in experiencing them. Just 100 miles away in Orange, New Jersey, four dial painters had died and eight were ill with equally strange symptoms, often involving severe tooth and jaw problems. When dentists removed their teeth, the socket did not heal, but became infected; eventually the bone and skin tissue around it would die, a condition known as necrosis.
Parts of the women’s jaws rotted away, and had to be surgically removed. Many of the girls also had anemia, and experienced arthritis-like joint pain. Some, like Elizabeth Dunn, suffered from spontaneous bone fractures of her arms and legs. In 1925, Elizabeth tripped on a dance floor and broke her leg without falling to the ground. She died from jaw necrosis in 1927, the second Connecticut dial-painter to die.
Now we understand what happened when the women swallowed radium: since it’s chemically similar to calcium, radium masqueraded as calcium in the bones. But instead of strengthening bones as calcium does, radium slowly kills bone tissue. The women suffered from dental problems because in the jaw, it’s easy for dead bone to be contaminated with bacteria. By swallowing radium, the women were giving alpha particles easy access to their bodies’ soft interior.
Of the three types of radiation emitted by radium – alpha and beta particles, and gamma rays – alpha particles are the least dangerous outside the body. They are so bulky and weak they can’t penetrate a piece of paper, let alone skin. But once inside they can’t get out, and release all their energy inside the body, especially affecting blood, the liver and spleen.
Initially, doctors and dentists repeatedly misdiagnosed the women’s conditions as trench mouth, ulcers, and even syphilis. But eventually they began to catch on that the dial painters’ illnesses were somehow connected to their work.
This happened in New Jersey, where dial-painting operations got started several years before Waterbury’s. In March 1925, just a month after Frances died, a group of dial painters filed a suit against Orange, New Jersey dial-painting studio called U.S. Radium. And in September 1925, a research study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association linked the maladies of the New Jersey dial painters to radium poisoning. Waterbury Clock never admitted Frances’s illness was linked to her job, but after her death in February and the New Jersey publicity in March, the company issued a new rule: no lip-pointing.
Frances’s father, who also worked at the clock company, told a visiting official that “though he was sure” radium poisoning had killed his daughter, “he dare not make any kick about it” because he wanted to keep his job, according to” Radium Girls”. It would be two years before the next dial painters, Elizabeth Dunn and Helen Wall, died in Waterbury.
By this time, no one could deny radium was the cause. From 1926 to 1936 the Waterbury Clock Company spent almost $90,000 on settlements, support and medical costs for sixteen women, and it put aside a reserve of $10,000 a year to cover future costs, according to” Radium Girls”.
Little is known about the Connecticut dial painters compared to their counterparts in New Jersey and Illinois because no newspaper stories were written about them. Their cases never reached the courts and were never referred to the state Board of Health. They were settled privately, and a company-hired doctor treated the women.
In 1922, a bank teller named Grace Fryer became concerned when her teeth began to loosen and fall out for no discernible reason. Her troubles were compounded when her jaw became swollen and inflamed, so she sought the assistance of a doctor in diagnosing the inexplicable symptoms. Using a primitive X-ray machine, the physician discovered serious bone decay, the likes of which he had never seen. Her jawbone was honeycombed with small holes, in a random pattern reminiscent of moth-eaten fabric.
As a series of doctors attempted to solve Grace’s mysterious ailment, similar cases began to appear throughout her hometown of New Jersey. One dentist in particular took notice of the unusually high number of deteriorated jawbones among local women, and it took very little investigation to discover a common thread; all of the women had been employed by the same watch-painting factory at one time or another.
In 1902, twenty years prior to Grace’s mysterious ailment, inventor William J. Hammer left Paris with a curious souvenir. The famous scientists Pierre and Marie Curie had provided him with some samples of their radium salt crystals. Radioactivity was somewhat new to science, so its properties and dangers were not well understood; but the radium’s slight blue-green glow and natural warmth indicated that it was clearly a fascinating material. Hammer went on to combine his radium salt with glue and a compound called zinc sulfide which glowed in the presence of radiation. The result was glow-in-the-dark paint.
Hammer’s recipe was used by the US Radium Corporation during the First World War to produce Undark, a high-tech paint which allowed America’s infantrymen to read their wristwatches and instrument panels at night. They also marketed the pigment for non-military products such as house numbers, pistol sights, light switch plates, and glowing eyes for toy dolls. By this time the dangers of radium were better understood, but US Radium assured the public that their paint used the radioactive element in “such minute quantities that it is absolutely harmless.” While this was true of the products themselves, the amount of radium present in the dial-painting factory was much more dangerous, unbeknownst to the workers there.
US Radium employed hundreds of women at their factory in Orange, New Jersey, including Grace Fryer. Few companies at that time were willing to employ women, and the pay was much higher than most alternatives, so the company had little trouble finding employees to occupy the rows and rows of desks. They were required to paint delicate lines with fine-tipped brushes, applying the Undark to the tiny numbers and indicator hands of wristwatches. After a few strokes a brush tended to lose its shape, so the women’s managers encouraged them to use their lips and tongues to keep the tips of the camel hair brushes sharp and clean. The glowing paint was completely flavourless, and the supervisors assured them that rosy cheeks would be the only physical side effect to swallowing the radium-laced pigment. Cause for concern was further reduced by the fact that radium was being marketed as a medical elixir for treating all manner of ailments.
The owners and scientists at US Radium, familiar with the real hazards of radioactivity, naturally took extensive precautions to protect themselves. They knew that Undark’s key ingredient was approximately one million times more active than uranium, so company chemists often used lead screens, masks, and tongs when working with the paint. US Radium had even distributed literature to the medical community describing the “injurious effects” of radium. But inside the factory, where nearly every surface sparkled with radio luminescence, these dangers were unknown. For a lark, some of the women even painted their fingernails and teeth with radium paint on occasion, to surprise their boyfriends when the lights went out.
In 1925, three years after Grace’s health problems began, a doctor suggested that her jaw problems may have had something to do with her former job at US Radium. As she began to explore the possibility, a specialist from Columbia University named Frederick Flynn asked to examine her. Flynn declared her to be in fine health. It would be some time before anyone discovered that Flynn was not a doctor, nor was he licensed to practice medicine, rather he was a toxicologist on the US Radium payroll. A “colleague” who had been present during the examination— and who had confirmed the healthy diagnosis— turned out to be one of the vice-presidents of US Radium. Many of the Undark painters had been developing serious bone-related problems, particularly in the jaw, and the company had begun a concerted effort to conceal the cause of the disease. The mysterious deaths were often blamed on syphilis to undermine the womens’ reputations, and many doctors and dentists inexplicably cooperated with the powerful company’s disinformation campaign.
In the early 1920s, US Radium hired the Harvard physiology professor Cecil Drinker to study the working conditions in the factory. Drinker’s report was grave, indicating a heavily contaminated work force, and unusual blood conditions in virtually everyone who worked there. The report which the company provided to the New Jersey Department of Labor credited Cecil Drinker as the author, however the ominous descriptions of unhealthy conditions were replaced with glowing praise, stating that “every girl is in perfect condition.” Even worse, US Radium’s president disregarded all of the advice in Drinker’s original report, making none of the recommended changes to protect the workers.
The fraudulent report was discovered by a colleague of Drinker’s named Alice Hamilton in 1925. Her letter prompted Drinker to make the information public by publishing his original report in a scientific journal. US Radium executives were furious, and threatened legal action, but Drinker published his findings nonetheless. Among other things, his report stated:
“Dust samples collected in the workroom from various locations and from chairs not used by the workers were all luminous in the dark room. Their hair, faces, hands, arms, necks, the dresses, the underclothes, even the corsets of the dial painters were luminous. One of the girls showed luminous spots on her legs and thighs. The back of another was luminous almost to the waist….”
US Radium was a defense contractor with deep pockets and influential contacts, so it took Grace Fryer two years to find a lawyer willing to take on her former employer. A young attorney from Newark named Raymond Berry filed the suit in 1927, and four other radium-injured dial painters soon joined in. They sought $250,000 each in damages.
As the legal battle ensued, New York dentist Joseph P. Knef examined the jawbone from one of the deceased dial painters named Amelia Maggia. In the last few months of her life the bone had become so decayed that Dr. Knef had been forced to remove it from his patient. Her official cause of death had been listed as syphilis, but Knef suspected otherwise. He exposed the bone to dental film for a time, and then developed it. Patterns on the film indicated an absurd level of radiation, and he confirmed the findings with an electroscope.
As the weeks and months were consumed by the slow-moving court system, the women’s health rapidly deteriorated. At their first appearance in court in January 1928, two were bedridden, and none could raise their arms to take the oath. Grace Fryer, still described by reporters as “pretty,” was unable to walk, required a back brace to sit up, and had lost all of her teeth. The “Radium Girls” began appearing in headlines nationwide, and the grim descriptions of their hopeless condition reached Marie Curie in Paris. “I would be only too happy to give any aid that I could,” she said, adding, “there is absolutely no means of destroying the substance once it enters the human body.”
The women proved too ill to attend the following hearing, which occurred in April. Despite strenuous objections from the women’s lawyer, the judge adjourned the case until September because several US Radium witnesses were summering in Europe, and would consequently be unavailable. Walter Lippmann, the editor of the influential New York World newspaper, wrote of the judge’s decision, calling it a “damnable travesty of justice… There is no possible excuse for such a delay. The women are dying. If ever a case called for prompt adjudication, it is the case of five crippled women who are fighting for a few miserable dollars to ease their last days on earth.” In a later editorial, he wrote, “This is a heartless proceeding. It is unmanly, unjust and cruel. This is a case which calls not for fine-spun litigation but for simple, quick, direct justice.”
The national outrage over the delay prompted the courts to reschedule the hearing for early June, but days before the trial, Raymond Berry and US Radium agreed to allow U.S. District Court Judge William Clark to mediate an out-of-court settlement. Berry and the Radium Girls accepted their opponent’s offer reluctantly, despite learning that their mediator was a US Radium Corporation stockholder. Their situation was too desperate to refuse; the women were not expected to live much longer. Each woman would receive $10,000— equivalent to about $100,000 today— and have all of their medical and legal expenses paid. They would also receive a $600 per year annuity for as long as they lived. Unsurprisingly, few of the annuity payments were collected.
The last of the famous Radium Girls died in the 1930s, and many other former factory workers died of radium poisoning without finding justice. Later medical research would determine that radium behaves much like calcium inside the body, causing it to concentrate in the teeth and bones. By shaping their brushes with their lips as instructed by their knowledgeable supervisors, the dial painters had ingested anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand microcuries of radium per year. One tenth of a microcurie is now considered to be the maximum safe exposure. Marie Curie herself died of radiation-related ailments in 1934. Because radium has a half-life of 1,600 years, her lab notebooks are said to be too highly contaminated to be safely handled even today. Radium continued to be used to illuminate watches until about 1968, but under much safer conditions.
It is uncertain how many people were sickened or killed by Undark and similar radioactive pigments over the years, but US Radium alone employed an estimated 4,000 radium dial painters. Though they were not the only radium-painting business in the US, they were arguably the most evil. However one positive development did appear in the wake of the women’s legal struggle and subsequent media attention; In 1949 the US Congress passed a bill making all occupational diseases compensable, and extended the time during which workers could discover illnesses and make a claim. Thanks to the Radium Girls and their success in bringing attention to the deplorable conditions in US factories, industrial safety standards in the US were significantly tightened over the following years, an improvement which definitely spared countless others from similar fates.
Scientists at Argonne National Laboratories now say that hiring women to apply radium paint under poor sanitary conditions was no act of kindness; it led to the deaths of 30 women in Connecticut, 35 in Illinois and 41 in New Jersey.
Some of these women died young from horrific effects of radium poisoning, while others survived for years, but died later from bone or sinus cancer, or leukemia, or developed painful bone lesions.
A large number of dial painters lived their lives apparently unharmed by their radiation exposure. Perhaps their exposure was lower because they didn’t point their brush and swallow paint, or perhaps they were just lucky.
Cancer from radiation is a random event, Of thousands of cells struck by radiation, only a rare one will develop cancerous changes – the unlucky one hit in a certain way, by a shot from the ‘radiation shotgun’.
Dial painting became much safer over time. Lip pointing was forbidden, and the women were encouraged to wear hairnets, and use rubber gloves and fume hoods. Obviously these things helped; no cancers in dial painters hired after 1927 are officially blamed on radiation. (Actually, some researchers suspect radiation did cause cancers in later dial painters, but it’s much trickier to prove a link exists between lower doses of radiation and cancer.)
The dial painters played a crucial role as canaries in the coal mine. Their suffering motivated atomic bomb workers in the 1940s to take safety precautions they might not have taken otherwise.
Still, few know the story of the dial painters today. No monuments have ever been erected to honour their memory. Even in the cities where the tragedies took place, local histories fail to mention them.
In the end Frances Splettstocher, Katherine Schaub, Catherine Donohue and Grace Fryer, and numerous other early dial painters endured crumbling bones and rotting tissue and died horrible deaths all for dollar wristwatches.