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The Radium Girls

by Zz

            Eighty women sit in a large room full of long tables. Sunbeams slanting in through the open windows illuminate a cheerful scene. The women are intent on their work, carefully dipping their paintbrushes into a glowing pale green paint and tracing the dial number on a watch. Every few strokes a woman raises her paintbrush to her lips to bring it to a point for more precision. They talk quietly amongst themselves. One woman jokingly paints her fingernails with the luminous paint and laughs. These women believe that they are lucky: they have a secure job with relatively high pay.

            Unbeknownst to them, every time they place the brush between their lips, they deposit radioactive radium into their bodies. Today, we know that their futures will not be easy. Within a year or two many women will develop tumors and then be painfully killed by the radium poison. When they seek the aid of the company that they painted for they will be turned down, left to fend for themselves.

            These women worked in factories in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois. Several brave women chose to stand up, and sue the company. They were called the Radium Girls. Their story is not well known, and it raises many questions. Why were the women not warned of the dangers of radium? How did the company mislead them? How did set in motion a chain of laws that changed occupational health as we know it? To fully understand the tragedy of the Radium Girl’s story one must learn the conditions during the 1920s, delve into the stories of the young women and explore their fight for compensation. Only then can one realize the full extent of the Radium Girl’s impact on occupational health.


In the 1900’s, industrial diseases were all too common. Workers were so used to these diseases that they spoke about them with colloquial nicknames. People who made hats got sick from mercury poisoning, and this was called “hatters shakes”. “Painter’s colic” was a disease housepainters would get from working with lead paint. “Brass founder’s ague” struck brass founders when they breathed metal oxide fumes. Diseases caused by work were an accepted fact of life. In 1914, three million of the 34 million workers in America were documented as being sick from industrial poisoning.  The problem of industrial diseases only worsened over time as American production demands increased. (Clark, 19-22)

With the outbreak of World War I, even more chemicals were introduced to American workers. There were shortages of chemicals formally purchased from Germany, so American industry started to produce more of these chemicals. For example, American plants now manufactured ingredients such as benzene to make explosives. When exposed to many small amounts of benzene over time, workers became anemic and suffered from repressed respiration. Companies prepared for peacetime by finding other uses for the chemicals they made. After the war, benzene was used in paints, rubber, shoes, gasoline, and dry cleaning. This meant that many more workers than ever before were exposed to this toxic chemical compound. In New Jersey, many workers were exposed to benzene through rubber. (Clark, 21- 22)

Unfortunately, benzene poisoning was not the only toxin that people in New Jersey had to worry about. Dr. Henry Kessler, a doctor in the New Jersey said, “The area within a twenty-five mile radius of Newark is the most important area in the world from the stand-point of occupational health hazards.”  He was referring to the three industrial poisoning episodes that occurred in New Jersey, in the 1920’s alone. The first poisoning was from benzene, a toxic chemical used in rubber among other things. The second was from tetraethyl lead, which was a gas additive.  General Motor’s refinery workers in a plant in New Jersey got sick with hallucinations and some died after working with the gas. The third industrial disease was caused by radium, a radioactive chemical used in luminous paint. All these diseases are just some of the many troubles that workers suffered during the 20th century. (Clark, 22) 

            Women suffered disproportionally from these industrial diseases. One reason for this was that women often worked “lighter” jobs, which meant that instead of hauling around heavy objects for construction, they worked in factories mixing ingredients. In the instance of benzene poisoning, women worked in shoe factories, rubber factories, and tin can factories. These jobs involved rubber dissolved in benzene, so the women got sick from benzene first. Alice Hamilton, an expert in the field of occupational health, listed three reasons for higher rates of industrial disease in women. First of all, few women were in unions so they could get little protection from diseases by pressuring companies to change their practices. Also, women were generally paid less the men, and so they lived in inferior housing with less nourishment. Those factors made them more susceptible to disease. Furthermore, women workers were younger and smaller on average than male workers, and so smaller doses of poison would affect them more. This is not to say that men were immune to industrial disease, in fact the suffered a great deal as well. (Clark, 23-24)

Women and men responded to dangers in their jobs in many ways. Prior to the 19th century, workers did not respond much to threats to their health. Angela Nugent, a historian, said, “Organized labor rarely sustained a coordinated campaign […] to address the hazards of their trades.” It is not known why workers did little to protest work conditions prior to the 19th century. Perhaps workers had lowered expectations in life, or the struggle to find a job to house, clothe and feed themselves may have deterred them from protesting their jobs. Whatever the case might be, workers started to organize more in the 19th century. Workers formed societies to help each other and pressured companies to limit work hours for people in dangerous jobs. Some, though not all, unions negotiated for health and safety concerns of their members.  Miners and railroad workers in particular were noted to organize many strikes and protests supporting their rights. Many workers simply hoped for the best and relied on employer’s kindness. The government was considered a last resort. Samuel Gompers, the leader of the American Federation of Labor, among others thought that government just helped businessmen, and not workers. He thought that workers should rely on their own power. Workers were usually unsuccessful in their varied efforts towards reform, but they kept trying.  (Clark, page 25-27)

Predictably, employers responded to worker protests by denying responsibility for worker’s health issues. There were many different ways in which employers defended themselves.  One way employers defended themselves in court was with “contributory negligence”, which said that the workers caused their injuries. Another line of defense was the “fellow servant doctrine”, which held fellow employees responsible for injuries. The most popular defense was “assumed risk”, which said that employees should have accepted dangerous conditions with their job, and therefore cannot hold their employers responsible for their injuries. However, for many cases, there was a form of a protection net for workers that also served to keep the employers out of court. This protection net was called workers’ compensation. This system required the employers pay a tax to a state fund, which was then given in compensation to workers who got injured during their jobs. There was a set list of injuries and their given compensation amounts, so there could be no dispute. Employers agreed to this system because it would give workers less money than they would get in court worker juries wouldn’t take pity on workers. Workers settled with this system because at least they were guaranteed some form of payment. Unfortunately, industrial diseases were not included in early compensations lists.  (Clark, page 25-27)

The Radium Girls: The Beginning

The whole drama of the Radium Girls was brought about by one small object: the wristwatch. The wristwatch was invented in World War I for men who worked in trenches. They need wristwatches so they could glance at the time quickly. Glow-in-the dark painted numbers on the dial became crucial for soldiers to see the time at night. As painting skills improved, these new watches became a fad with civilians back in America. To get the finely detailed numbers to be painted with glowing paint, hundreds of young women and girls were employed in factories painting the numbers with radium paint.  These young women needed to make money while their husbands and fathers were off at war.

The largest dial-painting factory was called United States Radium Corporation. There are three main centers of dial painting:  Orange, New Jersey, Waterbury, Connecticut, and Ottawa, Illinois. At the factory, women would carefully mix the radium paint and then bring the brush to their lips to make the tip finer. This technique was called lip pointing, and it allowed dial-painters to paint with more precision. Workers traveled from Orange to Waterbury to teach this method. This simple act of bringing the paintbrush to their lips had tragic consequences for the dial-painters. The radium deposited in their body slowly weakened their bones and built cancers. Radium is particularly dangerous because it forms chemical bonds in the same way that calcium does. The body can mistake it for calcium and absorb it into the bones. Then the radiation from the radium is at closer range. (Denise, 1)

Hardly anyone at the time knew that radium was harmful, except for some scientists. In fact, at the start of the 1900’s, radium was seen as a miracle cure.  One medicine of the time was called “Radithor”, and it had enough radium in it to kill the hundreds of people who faithfully drank it daily. While the dial painters were unwittingly accumulating large quantities of radium in their bones, chemists in other parts of United States Radium used lead screens, masks, and tongs to protect themselves from radium poisoning. United States Radium even had a publication for doctors and nurses containing information on radium’s dangers, but the company did not warn their employees about the danger. The women painted their nails with the paint, and some even painted their teeth, for the exciting glow in the dark effect. (Neuzil, Kovarik, 39-40)

One such dial painter, Grace Fryer, started work at dial painting factory in 1917. She quit in 1920 and started to work as a bank teller. In 1922, her teeth started falling out due to decay in the jaw. She went to a long series of doctors, none of whom were helpful. Three years later, a doctor suggested that dial painting might have caused her illness. Once she started to investigate this, a doctor offered to examine her. He, as well as a consultant, told her that she was fine and perfectly healthy. It turns out that the so-called doctor was an employee of United States Radium, and the consultant was the vice president of United States Radium. This was part of the campaign of misinformation spread by the radium company. (Neuzil, Kovarik, 34-36)

After Grace had been searching for help for quite some time, some people and organizations stepped in to help. The first was called the Consumers’ League, an organization that fought for an end to child labor, a safe workplace and minimum pay and decent working hours for women After hearing of some complaints, a city health official in Orange, NJ had brought the Consumers League into an investigation. The chairman of the Consumers’ League, Katherine Wiley, brought in a statistical expert and contacted Alice Hamilton, a Harvard university professor. Alice Hamilton was an active health reformist, who had previously worked on the issue of tetraethyl lead in gasoline. Alice Hamilton and a colleague at Harvard decided to research the conditions at United States Radium. Her colleague, Cecil Drinker, found a heavily contaminated work force, and that most workers had unusual blood conditions. In his report Drinker wrote, “Their [the dial painter’s] 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”. Drinker suggested that United States Radium change their practices in order that the dial painters would not be exposed to so much radium, but the president of the company ignored him. The president also ignored the Consumers League’s requests for change.  (Neuzil, Kovarik, 36-38)

Grace Fryer decided to sue United States Radium but it took her two years to find an attorney willing to take the case. She was not eligible for worker’s compensation, because radium poisoning was a new disease so it was not on the list. The Consumers’ League helped her find a lawyer named Raymond Berry who was willing to take on the case. After she filed suit, four other women joined the case. These women became known as the “Radium Girls.”

The Radium Girls: The Lawsuit

There were several problems that Berry had to work through in order to form a case for the Radium Girls.  First of all, there was a lack of law that said there was a clear duty to provide a healthy workplace for one’s employees. Also, the statute of limitations said that there was a two year time period after which the victim could not file suit. The dial painters had to prove that they had been harmed, and because they suffered from chemical exposure it was difficult to prove that their injuries were a result of the poisonings. United States Radium attempted to delay cases because they hoped to wait out the radium girls, who would die soon.  (Clark, 126)

While Berry and the company fought in court, medical examiners from New Jersey and New York were looking into the suspicious deaths of other dial painters. Most of the deceased dial-painters death certificates said that they had died of causes like mouth ulcers and syphilis.  There had been other failed attempts at suits in the past but the dial painters had never won anything. As news of this new suit reached across the country, dial painters in Connecticut filed claims for compensation. The dial painters in Connecticut settled very quickly for a low sum of money, but the New Jersey dial painters appealed to courts, receiving wide publicity.

The first court hearing was not until January 1928. The women could not raise their arms to take the oath because they were so sick. By April they women were not physically able to attend a second hearing in court; time was running out. United States Radium continued to try to delay until September.

Journalism and media publicity caught on to the story of the Radium Girls. Perhaps because they were young and female, the public was greatly moved by the story of these innocent victims. The newspapers often exaggerated the story, and the women were portrayed as martyrs, who kept smiling despite their pain. In reality women were a little more bitter. Most were unable to bear children, and this seemed to many as the worst fate for a woman. Walter Lippman, a journalist and editor with the New York World, was very influential in getting the Radium Girls public. In the May 10, 1928 editorial, he wrote “the 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..." Clearly, he was horrified that the radium company was delaying the trial. All this publicity pressured United States Radium into renewing the case. (Clark, 129-133)

Trial was rescheduled to early June 1928 because of Berry, public outrage, and Walter Lippmann’s media coverage. Legal system was shifting in favor the victims, so just days before the case was scheduled to take place, United States Radium decided to settle with the Radium Girls. Each woman would receive $10,000 and a $600 per year annuity while they lived. Also, the company would also pay all medical and legal expenses for the women. Berry believed that this was not entirely fair, because the Radium girls would not be around for very long to receive the money from United States Radium. It was found out later that the judge who mediated the settlement was a stockholder in United States Radium Corporation, so he was biased. (Neuzil, Kovarik, 40-42) (Clark, 123, 125)


            Though the case of the Radium Girls was small in the history of the legal system it did have a significant impact on occupational health. After the case, radium businesses improved their safety records and created healthier workplace. The state of New Jersey prohibited dial painting entirely, though no othser state did. The publicity from the case spread the word about the dangers of lip pointing, which brought about reform. The Public Health Service suggested safety guidelines for radium companies, and although the guidelines were largely ignored. (Clark, page 208-209)

There was also much progress made in legislation that supported industrial health reform. From 1920s on the Consumers’ League continued to fight for industrial health and safety. In 1944, the Consumers’ League and Alice Hamilton lobbied for passing a bill with compensation for all industrial diseases. It was passed with restrictions but the restrictions were repealed by 1951. In 1958, New Jersey passed legislation to control radioactive substances. In early 1960s, Consumers’ League worked with labor unions to require reporting of radioactive spills. In these cases, the Consumers’ league consistently made references to the work with the New Jersey dial painters.  (Clark, page 208-209) 

After the 1920s, some government organizations were set up to aid workers. Frances Perkins created the Bureau of Labor Standards in 1934. This was the first federal agency created to promote safety and health for workers. The bureau pressured the state governments to improve their administration of workplace safety and health laws.  In 1971, United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an agency in the United States Department of Labor, was established. It was established under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which was signed by President Nixon. The goal of the administration was to make sure that employers gave employees a safe working environment free from recognized hazards. It still trains government employees, doctors, nurses, workers and employers in reducing workplace hazards. (U.S. Department of Labor, 3-7)

It was not until much after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was formed that the story of the dial painting factories came to an end. Immediately following the banning of dial-painting factories in New Jersey, United States Radium closed down. However, the mess the company left behind was not cleaned up until 2004.  Over 220,000 cubic yards of surrounding soil had been contaminated by radium from the dial painting company. People in the town of Orange, New Jersey built their homes on top of the contaminated soil and suffered the affects of the radioactive radium. The cleanup, which was run by the Environmental Protection Agency, cost about 218 million dollars and lasted for thirteen years. Another radium factory in Ottawa, Illinois declared bankruptcy and stopped running in 1936. In 1937, a “new” company, with the same president as the Illinois factory, started up in Ottawa. This new company, called Luminous Processes operated under the same sloppy health standards as its predecessors. In 1976, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission fined the company for sloppy practices. Two years later, the factory was ordered to close. Luminous packed up its trucks to Georgia to be free of the jurisdiction of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but the commission caught the trucks and confiscated the equipment. Finally, the dial-painting companies were stopped. (Caroom, 1)


            The Radium Girls’ tale began with the luminous dial hands of a watch. The women painted these watches in return for money, but they got much more than that.  Short years after painting, most became sick as their bones weakened and cancers grew. Like many workers at the time, the women fought back against the radium that threatened their lives and the companies that had introduced them to the poison. With the aid of the Consumers’ League, Alice Hamilton, and Walter Lippmann among many others, the Radium Girl’s were able to secure for themselves recognition for their disease and a small amount of money. At a time when industrial diseases were considered an accepted part of life, the recognition served to make people realize that industrial diseases were wrong and should not be simply accepted.

            All of the events described above took place decades ago. After so many years progress should have been made to put right the many hardships that workers must suffer. And yet today, amid all the technological innovation and advancement of the 21st century, workers are still subjected to awful conditions. Only this year, news came out about the harsh conditions under which the workers assembling iPhones and iPads in China labor.  Employees work overtime, often for seven days a week and they live in crowded dorms. Last year, two explosions at iPad factories due to hazardous chemicals killed a total of four people and injured 77. Clearly, the workers’ world is far from perfect. (Duhigg, Barboza, 1)  

How can we help the dial painters and iPad builders today? We can learn how to solve worker’s problems in the modern times from the Radium Girl’s fight for acknowledgement. There needs to be a system with organizations in place to help workers, media strong enough to spread the word about their problems, lawyers to defend them, and resources for them to turn to. Only when all workers are free to use such a system can their issues be solved.

Works Cited

Caroom, Elliot. “EPA wraps up long cleanup of U.S. Radium pollution in Essex County.” Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <‌news/‌local/‌index.ssf/‌2009/‌05/‌epa_wraps_up_long_cleanup_of_u.html>.

Clark, Claudia. Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935. London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Print.

Duhigg, Charles, and David Barboza. “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad.” The New York TImes 25 Jan. 2012: n. pag. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <‌2012/‌01/‌26/‌business/‌ieconomy-apples-ipad-and-the-human-costs-for-workers-in-china.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all>.

Grady, Denise. “A Glow in the Dark, and a Lesson in Scientific Peril.” The New York Times Company, 6 Oct. 1998. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <‌1998/‌10/‌06/‌science/‌a-glow-in-the-dark-and-a-lesson-in-scientific-peril.html?pagewanted=all>.  

Neuzil, Mark, and William Kovarik. Mass Media and Environmental Conflict: America’s Green Crusades. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc., 1996. Print.

Reflections on OSHA’s History. U.S. Departement of Labor, 2009. N. pag. PDF file.