The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
As March marks the annual celebration of Women’s History Month, the contributions of the Radium Girls, who sacrificed their bodily autonomy unknowingly for the prosperity of big corporations who fed them lies to continue ingesting radium for glow-in-the-dark watch dials, is often forgotten.
The young girls set historical milestones of worker rights within the 1920s that remain widely unknown and overlooked by society.
The early History
Marie Curie, a two-time winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, claimed her first Nobel Peace Prize in 1898 for her discovery of the element radium with her husband, Pierre. The boom of household items containing radium began hitting shelves in 1902, claiming that adding radium provided positive health effects such as increased energy. Scientists in the 1900s began treating superficials forms of cancer with radium exposure. Radium became a catalyst for cancer treatment and research, claiming radium was the end-all-be-all for any health ailments.
“Radium is displaying new and useful powers with every step in its development,” a 1903 feature announced in the Chicago Daily Tribune. “There are men who affirm that … in fact, this yellow atom, so insignificant in appearance, eventually will prove one of the greatest boons to ailing mankind that ever was discovered.”
Businesses everywhere started including small amounts of radium in water, face creams, cereals, and anything corporations could get their hands on to satisfy the consumer craze. Scientists with specialties in radium and its composition began spewing false data to willing audiences, telling their audience the adverse effects of Radium were close to none. Dr. Luther Gable showcased his lectures across the country with a drink called ‘Radium Highball’ that featured grapes, lemon juices, and a splash of radium. Gable offered the drink to audience members, eager to believe the claims the Doctor spouted.
However, some scientists in the community believed radium was not the miraculous cure they once thought. Since corporations began acquiring radium at the beginning of the 1900s, scientists against radium were unable to gain traction in the community because citizens with pre-existing conditions wanted so badly to believe radium would cure them.
Near the end of WW1, in 1917, the United States Radium Company patented ‘Undark,’ a radium paint that appeared to glow in the dark thanks to radium’s composition to remain stable when painted on objects. The company opened a factory in East Orange, New Jersey where they employed 70 girls, all no older than eighteen (not to mention most of these girls were illegal immigrants) to mix radium powder and paint to create luminous watch dials. Their job description included painting the dials with fine-tipped brushes. The girls were encouraged to straighten the brush with their tongues, constantly ingesting radium on a daily basis. While the girls questioned this practice and their future health, the company assured them ingesting the radium would cause no harm.
The young girls blindly embraced their jobs, swatching their teeth and eyelids with radium that made their teeth and skin shimmer. East Orange featured the girls in their town newspaper, calling them ‘artists.’ The girls were easily spotted in public thanks to the radium particles within the factory. The girl’s hair and clothes glowed white and shiny even after they left at the day’s end.
The health problems occurred in 1920. After three years of ingesting radium, some of the girls complained of jaw aches and pain. Girls reported symptoms of toothache, decaying teeth, gum disease and lockjaw. Dentists were the first to see the adverse effects of radium, some having to pull teeth and others removing the patient’s bottom jaw completely. ‘Radium Jaw’ became the new term for the decline of the Radium Girls’ health. The United States Watch Company covered up the death of the girls, telling the media the women died of syphilis because of their extramarital affairs.
The United States Radium Corporation began investigating deaths two years later. In 1925, Grace Fryer, who was one of the first Radium Girls sued the company. The case made headlines across the country, baffled at the widespread lies from the company. The case was finally settled in 1928, ruling in favor of the women.
The girl’s contribution to American history and labor laws came at a deadly cost. While they received immense compensation and rightful death certificates, the legacy of radium was changed forever. The scientists that once attested radium as the ultimate cure died of cancer in the 1930s from radium.
When you sit down to review chemical safety at your job, thank the Radium Girls for their sacrifice. They deserve gratitude.