Glowing in the Dark
The women of the United States Radium Corporation were misled and left to die by a system that viewed them as unimportant — but these women fought back.
Discovered in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie, radium is an element that is extracted in trace amounts from uranium ore that, despite being radioactive, quickly became a sensation. America in particular adopted radium as a premium product of its day — a single gram could cost as much as $120,000 — and it became a plaything for the rich and powerful, selling in health-promoting tonics, make-up, and cleaning products. There were radium spas, radium milk, even radium underwear. All made from an element Pierre Curie once said he ‘would not care to trust himself in a room with a pure kilo [of it]… as it would burn all the skin off his body, destroy his eyesight and probably kill him.’
But its potential dangers didn’t interest Americans, they handled radium with a youthful naivety — charmed by that eerie glow. ‘I can feel the sparkles inside my anatomy,’ wrote one prescient enthusiast.
As the United States prepared to enter the war in Europe, a number of practical uses for radium emerged: it became important for interpreting compasses at night, seeing down gunsights, and, most pertinently, reading watch dials in the dark.
Doctors Sabin von Sochocky and George Willis founded the Radium Luminous Material Corporation (later the United States Radium Corporation) in 1914. Their primary product being luminous paint with which the USRC facilities supplied a steady stream of instrument dials and clock faces — all painted by an increasing number of young women.
And they were young — very young. Most were in their late teens and early-twenties, but many encouraged their siblings to lie about their ages and apply so that women as young as fourteen were working in the New Jersey studios.
For the dial-painters, many of whom came from poorer backgrounds, the high wages offered an enormous change — a woman working in a factory at the time might expect to take home around $8 a week, but dial painters earned, on average, $20. They could sample expensive tastes, wear the latest trends, and go dancing every weekend. The money meant independence. Not long before USRC’s founding, New York State granted women the vote — New Jersey would ratify a similar bill in 1920 — and it was against this backdrop of empowerment that many of these women found financial autonomy for the first time.
That is not to say they did not work hard. Most women they knew wanted to paint dials and lagging behind, wasting material, even being too chatty could result in dismissal. So, the buzzwords were speed and accuracy. To this end, the girls were taught to ‘lip-point’ — to put their brush between their lips to bring it to a fine point. Some girls did so between each number, some every two or three, others were less frequent. But every woman in the studio, regardless of their proficiency or pace, put their brushes in their mouths hundreds of times a day.
USRC’s paint was made up of radium salt and zinc sulphate. This created a powder that made a thin paste when mixed with an adhesive, the dust went everywhere. It floated in the air like tiny fireflies and settled in the girls’ hair and on their clothes. And though the dial-painters were expressly told not to waste the material, they would often play with it. They painted patterns on their faces and teeth, heading into the darkroom where they could disappear and emit glowing strokes in the black. The same light followed them home. Some revelled in it, reassured that radium was perfectly safe, and took the wraith-glow out on the town until they were dubbed ‘ghost girls’, while others noticed that their clothes shone when hung up at night. Unmistakable though the dial-painters were in their finery, it was the iridescent halos that followed them that really set them apart.
And while the women of USRC frolicked in the radium, its executives took care to protect themselves with gloves, glasses, even screens. They did their best to keep the radium at bay while instructing their female employees to put it in their mouths. ‘They shoot to kill when it comes to cattle thieves in Illinois,’ Mary Doty later wrote in the Chicago Daily Times, ‘and fish and fowl are safeguarded by stringent laws — but womenfolk come cheap.’
The Price of Progress
Persistent toothache was the first sign of trouble for many dial-painters. Years of lip-pointing had given the radium a foothold in their jaws. The removal of offending teeth mysteriously only made things worse: the wounds never healed and instead gave way to a more insidious infection. The more teeth were pulled, the more the strange infection spread.
When Marguerite Carlough had hers pulled in 1923, her doctor was shocked when her jawbone came out too. Hazel Vincent’s ‘own mouth felt like a stranger’ once the majority of her teeth were gone. Katherine Schaub always had a vivid imagination and having watched her cousin, Irene Rudolph, succumb to similar symptoms she grew terrified when her tooth first began to ache. But while the girls’ doctors worried over their teeth and jaws, the radium quickly worked its way through the rest of their bodies.
Calcium makes up around 2% of an adult’s body weight, 99% of which is found in our bones. When calcium enters the body it is thus fast-tracked into our bones where it can make them stronger. Radium belongs in the same group of metals and has a remarkably similar chemical structure to calcium. Upon ingestion, around 80% of radium is excreted from the body but the remaining 20% filters into the bloodstream from where it is deposited into the bones by a body that believes it to be calcium. And though alpha radiation is all around us and, unable to penetrate our skin, relatively harmless, when an element such as radium invades the body there’s nothing to stop its alpha particles running rampant — damaging cells and DNA, leading to necrosis and even cancer.
The dangers radium posed to the human body — and its role in a recent spate of mysterious illnesses in New Jersey women — was reported to USRC president, Arthur Roeder, in 1924 when the company commissioned an investigation by doctors Cecil and Katherine Drinker. The report stated, ‘We believe that the trouble which has occurred is due to radium.’ The conclusion blindsided Roeder, who assumed he was funding another biased study that would refute the women’s claims of sickness. Aware of the implications on USRC, Roeder suppressed the report — threatening the Drinkers with litigation should they attempt to publish it themselves.
Despite this, plenty of doctors were starting to realise that radium — and USRC — was to blame. In 1925, Sabin von Sochocky wrote to Dr Frederick Hoffmann commenting that, ‘the disease in question is, without doubt, an occupational disease.’ But without scholarship like the Drinker Report, there was no information for the women’s doctors to go on and, in a time in which communication between doctors was minimal, many were still in the dark.
Still, medical opinion slowly turned to radium as the cause of the women’s distress and Roeder and USRC tried to deflect attention back onto the dial-painters. Some women’s autopsies were carried out by company doctors and the results withheld from their families. Mollie Maggia’s death was listed as syphilis and the company was quick to suggest that young, affluent women had thus become sick independent of their occupation. And as Roeder tried to wrestle the narrative into a position for USRC, young women were dropping all over New Jersey. Helen Quinlan was twenty-two when she died of supposed Vincent’s Angina while Irene Rudolph’s cause of death was stated as phosphorous poisoning — a diagnosis listed as ‘not decisive.’
This confusion made it easy for Roeder to obfuscate in the face of demands from doctors, employees, and even the Department of Labor — after Katherine Schaub made a direct complaint — for explanations. Never mind that USRC founder, Dr George Willis, was in increasingly ill-health since leaving the company; it didn’t matter that many doctors were labelling these mysterious conditions as caused by the ‘influence of radium’ — nobody took action. A world of men turned their backs on these women as radium made honeycombs of their bones, certain they would die off before anything could come back to them.
Grace Fryer was born on 14th March 1899 and started working for USRC in 1917. In The Radium Girls, Kate Moore describes her as ‘brilliant. She was smart. She was determined and forthright and strong and special.’
She wasn’t the first to bring litigation against USRC, but she was certainly the most resolute. It took two years to find a lawyer willing to take her case. With the statute of limitations for industrial injury being only five months in New Jersey and symptoms of radium poisoning — a condition not even covered in existing occupational injury laws — sometimes taking years to manifest, no one saw much hope of victory.
Although radium was eating away at her jaw and back, Grace Fryer persisted until, in 1927, she hired Raymond Berry. Where others saw a lost cause, Berry saw a major fault in the system that was letting young women die without holding those responsible to account.
USRC, for their part, expressed shock that any of their employees would imply they were culpable, while at the same time quietly citing the statute of limitations to show that, even if there was any truth to the women’s claims, USRC was protected by state and federal law.
Berry wasn’t interested. He took the case to the Court of Chancery — where one may appeal to the court’s conscience and present a case within the principles of equity rather than those of the law. And with his help Grace, Katherine Schaub, Edna Husmann, Quinta McDonald, and Albina Larice filed the strongest case against USRC thus far. They sought $250,000 in damages, most of which would go towards paying the women’s soaring medical fees while the rest would provide for their families and, eventually, pay for their own funerals.
In the meantime, the company worked to discredit anyone who might threaten them. They hired Dr Frederick Flinn to examine the dial-painters on the company’s behalf. Although it later emerged that Flinn was a doctor of philosophy rather than medicine, he not only examined the women and their X-rays but also directed their doctors in treatment. Of those women that responded to his offer of investigation by reporting they were too unwell to attend, he said:
‘[If they weren’t] willing to come to my home or my office I certainly wasn’t going to put myself out; [girls] of that class didn’t appreciate it when you did try to aid [them].’
Though even he wasn’t immune to doubt; to Cecil Drinker he wrote: ‘I cannot but feel that the paint is to blame for the girls’ conditions.’
But this wasn’t simply a battle against the United States Radium Corporation, it was a fight to overturn existing legislation and the statute of limitations that USRC was counting on to protect them.
Recognising the threat Berry’s case posed, USRC moved quickly to undermine the women, to discredit their husbands and doctors — even Berry himself. They claimed that no one had instructed the dial-painters to put brushes in their mouths while also pointing out that Mollie Maggia — whose remains were used to prove the presence of radium in these women — died from syphilis, not radium.
Importantly public opinion was turning. The Drinkers published their report in 1925 despite USRC’s threats and at the same time Doctors Harrison Martland and Sabin von Sochocky had developed a number of tests to show the presence of radium within the dial-painters. Now cases were starting to appear at a dial company in Ottawa.
With evidence against them mounting, USRC now stalled for time. The dial-painters were in a bad way — their legs broke beneath them and a simple knock or fall was enough to shatter a hip. So the company’s lawyers called for delays and recesses in the hope the problem would simply go away. And though some delays did result, the presiding judge, William Clark, refused all of USRC’s requests in deference to the girls’ conditions.
Though support was growing for the dial-painters, as America slid into Depression there were also those who criticised them — who resented anyone fighting those that provided them employment now that so many were out of work. It is important, however, to consider that these criticisms came from those who physically could work — who could dance without shattering a knee or walk without a back brace holding them together. By 1927, more than fifty women had died as a result of radium poisoning and whatever obstacles or censure emerged Grace Fryer was determined to see it through. ‘It is not for myself I care,’ she said. ‘I am thinking more of the hundreds of girls to whom this may serve as an example.’
In January 1928, the women began to testify — even though none of them could raise their hands to swear the oath. The dial-painters then took the court and its onlookers through their stories: their upbringing, their time at USRC, and their subsequent struggles.
If one man was sympathetic to these labours, it was Judge William Clark. He agreed with Berry that the statute of limitations should only come into effect once symptoms emerged and, with the validity of the dial-painters’ claims secured, he carefully guided the women through their testimonies while halting USRC lawyers’ attempts to slow proceedings and bully the girls.
When Arthur Roeder took the stand, he presented little more than a string of vague denials. He claimed von Sochocky never told him radium could be harmful, that the first time he had heard of it was when women started falling ill. ‘I don’t recall any instance of an operator putting a brush in her mouth,’ he said.
‘What was the first case you heard of?’ Berry put to him.
‘I don’t remember the name.’
As the case became more of a public spectacle, the dial-painters became minor celebrities. With the support this elicited, Berry was confident. But as they watched the women wilt under the pressure of their own sickness both he and Judge Clark questioned whether a settlement could not be reached? On 4th June 1928, USRC capitulated.
It was a remarkable victory, not just over USRC but over a legal system that for years had been woefully inept in the face of occupational disease and injury. Despite this the company attempted to renege on the settlements, however, by 1939 the Supreme Court had quashed their last appeal and, in so doing, secured compensation for anyone affected by radium poisoning.
Tragically, although the dead could not benefit, one charity was done: their death certificates were amended so that Mollie Maggia’s original record of syphilis was erased, as was Helen Quinlan’s Vincent’s Angina, and Irene Rudolph’s phosphorous poisoning. Thanks to Grace Fryer it was now a matter of record: the radium industry killed these women.
The dial painters of Orange, New Jersey had achieved something remarkable: a monumental strike against moneyed industry. But it didn’t remove the radium from their bones. Quinta McDonald survived another year, she was only twenty-nine. Katherine Schaub was thirty-one when she died in 1933. Edna Husmann followed in 1938, aged thirty-seven. Albina Larice lived longer than all of them, passing in 1946 at the age of fifty-one. Grace Fryer, who had refused to give up when everyone told her no and who defeated the United States Radium Corporation from inside a steel back brace, died in 1933 — she was thirty-four.
It’s impossible to count the lives these women saved. The sanctions brought against USRC impelled radium companies across America to implement major reforms for the safety of their workers. The public nature of the case dimmed America’s enthusiasm for the atomic age and events such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukishima Daiichi only cemented the dangers of nuclear power. But we also feel the influence of the dial-painters today. In the wake of the ruling against USRC, the plight of the American worker became clearer and occupational injury law more pertinent, leading to the foundation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1971, which has seen the number of workplace deaths decline dramatically and saves thousands of lives a year.
The half-life of radium is 1600 years. Marie Curie’s notes from the 1890s still remain too dangerous to handle and are stored in lead-lined boxes at Bibliothèque National in Paris. It is testament to the terrible virility of radioactivity that, despite the incredible legacy of the dial-painters of New Jersey, it is radium that will persist; that long after we’re all gone their bones will still be very much alive with radiation.
1. Kate Moore, The Radium Girls (Simon & Schuster, 2016)
2. Radium City, dir. Carole Langer (Carole Langer Productions, 1987)
3. Georgie Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff, Lick the Clock (My Favourite Murder, 2018)
This piece was originally published in issue 148 of The Historian, published on the 26th April 2021.
Cover Image: Daily Herald Archive/SSPL via Getty Images