American History · biography · history

The “Shining” Women and the Battle for Workers Health Rights: Part 1

In 1917, a new factory opened in New Jersey. It advertised that it was hiring young women of the local community. For a working-class woman, this was a great opportunity. The pay was above average and it was a skilled job where a young woman could gain experience. The advertised job was a dial painter. They would paint the faces of luminous watches (the numbers and hands of the clock). The paint that was used caused the watch face to glow in the dark. This was extremely useful for those in military service at this time. It was a very technical job as the watch faces were small and a fine pointed brush would have to be used. Women’s hands were smaller, so they were coveted for this detailed job. The girls were a paid commission per dial completed. Some of the top performers were able to make three times what their own fathers made. It seemed like a dream come true to many women which attributed to the high demand for employment at the company. Girls would quickly start to recommend family and friends to join them at the factory.

One of the most exciting things about this new job was that one worked closely with Radium. At this time, radium was the wonder drug and one of the most valuable substances on Earth. The media hailed this as the “miracle pill”. It was effective in cancer treatments and was sold in pharmacies in a pill form to cure just about anything. It was even included in toothpastes and cosmetics. The girls would become known as “ghost girls”. The dust from the radium would coat their clothes, hair, skin, etc. and give them an ethereal glow. The women would purposely wear their nice clothing to work at the factory so they would glow as they went out dancing later that night. Everyone was jealous of the girls who worked at the radium factory.

New York Herald 1921
New York Tribune, 1918

Yet, as we now know in 2020s, this was a ticking time bomb. Radium had been discovered about 20 years before this factory opened in 1917. It was discovered by Marie Curie and Pierre Curie. Dr. Sabin von Sochocky studied under the Curies and invented the luminous paint in 1913. He made so much money on this paint that he founded Radium Luminous Materials Corporation and established a large studio in Orange, New Jersey. The Curies and von Sochocky knew the potential dangers of radium. Dr. von Sochocky had suffered burns himself and had lost the tip of his index finger from it (he would later die due to his work with the element). Marie Curie would pass away herself from radium exposure. Yet, they saw the good that outweighed the bad (especially with the cancer treatments) and the potential to make a lot of money.

Radium Girls Of Orange, New Jersey. - STREET TO THE LEFT

In 1917, Congress voted for the United States to join World War I and the demand for the luminous watches boomed. Radium Luminous Materials Corporation needed workers and would hire hundreds of women during the period of the war. The young women were usually teenagers or in their early twenties (Katherine Schaub was 14 years old when she was first hired). They were full of life and laughter and excited for this new opportunity. They were excited to become one of the “ghost girls” who wore their radium glow like a status symbol. They were excited to help in the war effort as well and help their brothers, boyfriends, cousins, fathers, etc. who they knew were being shipped off to war.  It was also a very social atmosphere as the women worked close together and made strong friendships. They would eat lunch together (at their work station covered in radium dust) and go out together after the work was done. They had fun gossiping or scratching notes to the soldiers into the watches (some got letters back!). There were new girls coming into the factory all the time. At the height of the war boom, 375 young women had been recruited.

The women had to be careful and precise as they painted the small parts of the watch dials. They could not waste this valuable paint and would be fired for it if they were found lacking. They also needed to be fast and efficient to make the commission per dial. The brush needed to be fine and pointed. The women were instructed to use their lips to do this. The women would dab a small amount of “the material” into their dish and mix the paint. Often, the paint would leave remnants on their hands. Then they would bring the brush to their lips to shape the brush to a fine point. They would dip the brush into the radium paint and then paint the dial. They would do this over and over as they painted hundreds of dials daily. They did not wash the brush in between dials so they were putting some of the hardened materials into their mouths each time they put the brush to their lip. They were not afraid though. The company ensured them that radium was safe and there was no harm. After all, the media hailed it as the “wonder drug”. They were in the healthiest place they could be! This practice would come to be known as lip pointing.

A Dark And Sad Story: Radium Girls - onedio.co

Grace Fryer was doing her normal job at the factory one day when she noticed that Dr. Sabin von Sochocky was watching her. It was extremely rare that the company leader ever came to the actual factory. As he watched her complete her lip pointing procedure, he specifically commented to her, “do not do this as you will get sick.” He then left and never followed up. Fryer thought this was a peculiar thing to have happened and it contradicted everything her floor manager or the company had told her. Meanwhile, Katherine Schaub was breaking out into pimples (more than normal) and went to see a doctor about it. He treated her acne, but also noticed there was a change in her blood and questioned if she worked with phosphorus (a different chemical than what the girls were using but was known to be poisonous at this time). Both Katherine and Grace were concerned and at different times had both brought this up to their managers and the company. This escalated with more girls becoming worried so the co-founder, George Willis, came to the factory from New York with a reputable doctor to lecture the girls about how radium was completely safe. This alleviated their fears. They trusted the medical professional and their company and felt safe working at the studio.

The war ended on November 11, 1918. After the war, many of the original women moved on to be married or to find new job opportunities. Others were forced to move on due to the changes in the company. The demand was still high for the dials and luminous paint, even in peacetime. The paint was in demand for products beyond watches as well. The company changed their business model and sold the paint to smaller companies. This would be where they made the most of their money now. They reduced the size of their dial painter force as they had very few in-house painters now. By 1920, less than 100 dial painters remained in the Orange studio. In 1921, the company was sold by von Schocky and George Willis to be taken over by Arthur Roeder. This is when it became United States Radium Corporation.

Mollie Maggia was still working at the factory in the 1920s as a dial painter. She discovered one day that she had developed a toothache and had the tooth extracted at her dentist. A while passed, but she still had an intense pain. The extraction site was not healing. It also seemed that other teeth were loose in her mouth. She went to see another dentist, but they could not make heads or tails of what was happening to Mollie. She had more teeth extracted, but those did not heal either and instead painful ulcers formed in their place. It seemed every treatment she had just made it worse. She could barely talk with the other girls at the factory and the pain spread throughout her jaw, to her ears, to her hips and feet. All she could think about was the agonizing pain she was in daily and was forced to leave her job and hire a nurse. One day, to their mutual horror, her dentist (Dr. Knef) gently touched her jaw to analyze her pain and the jawbone itself broke against his touch. He literally removed the bone from her mouth right then and there. She began to deteriorate faster now.

Mollie became severely anemic and, in September 1922, she hemorrhaged and passed away. Mollie was only 24 years old and this whole process had taken less than a year. It baffled her dentist and doctors. They attributed this to syphilis and wrote that on her death certificate which left Mollie Maggia and her family with the shame associated with that disease. In reality, radium poisoning had killed her. Yet, the papers was still telling people to pop radium pills like candy. It was a cure all.

After Mollie, many other girls who had worked in the factory began to follow and experienced very similar symptoms and pain. Mouth/tooth pain that would not heal after operations, ulcers and pus forming in their mouths, severe and debilitating pain in their bones, and developing anemia to name a few. All these girls, who had just been teenagers when they worked at the factory, now they were deteriorating and dying in their early twenties. All the death certificates said completely different things. Unfortunately, the different doctors they went too had not shared this information with each other and were not able to form the connection at this time.

Fear was spreading among the women who had worked at the factory or were currently working there. They watched their friends getting sick and dying. There was a clear connection between their occupation and the women who were getting sick. The women and their dentists/doctors were now beginning to make the connections, but the company continued to deny. It eventually got to a point that United States Radium Corporation was losing employees and were losing applicants for the once popular position of a dial painter. A concerned citizen had reported them to the Department of Labor and Hazel Vincent’s mother (another girl who was suffering from illness) wrote to the company and threatened to sue for compensation. Dr. Barry, a local dentist who treated many of the girls, was throwing out ultimatums that the girls had to quit their job for him to treat them (he had suspected that this must be a form of occupational illness and was trying to prevent more damage). The company hired Dr. Cecil Drinker and his wife, Dr. Katherine Drinker, who were well known professors of physiology at Harvard. In 1924, the Drinkers began a full and comprehensive study of the plant. USRC were hoping that this study would disprove any suspicion that their company and the radium they used caused this. The Drinkers took blood samples from some of the dial painters and did tooth examinations. They also noticed that in a darkroom, the young women themselves were glowing. Every inch of their skin was glowing and it could not be washed off. They also visited the women who had left the plant and were seeing Dr. Barry.

A health officer wrote to Katherine Wiley, who was currently the president of the Consumers League. This was a league set up to fight for better working conditions for women. The officer begged for assistance in getting the authorities and the government involved in what was happening (as previously, despite numerous attempts at communication, the authorities were uninterested in the women’s plight). Wiley began her own investigation immediately. She visited the many of the women including, Marguerite Carlough, who had to be attended to 2-3 times per day by her dentist, Dr. Knef, due to the severity of her condition. Not only were these women suffering physically, but also financially. These women were from working class families who could not keep up with the burden of their medical bills. The families were deeply in debt. Women like Quinta McDonald were not able to care for their children anymore as the bone damage was so severe. They could no longer move efficiently or quickly. Quinta was 24 years old and used a cane to get around. Wiley knew that recently there was a new law that allowed individuals to file legal claims against companies due to industrial diseases, but they were only the diseases on a certain list. No one had any idea this was radium poisoning and it certainly was not on that list.

The Drinkers test results came back on June 3, 1924. It stated that the trouble was due to radium as it was a bone seeking material. The element is programmed to be delivered directly to the bones and it will burrow deep. Yet, this is not what USRC released. The company publicly announced that every girl was in perfect health. There was even later evidence that the company and President Roeder may have forged a report. The actual report was not published until August 1925.

Quinta McDonald, Edna Hussman, Albina Larice, Katherine Schaub and Grace Fryer 1928

Marguerite Carlough knew she was not going to live, but she needed to do something for her families sake. She hired a lawyer and on Feb 5, 1925 she took action against United States Radium Corporation. USRC business went from bad to worse with this lawsuit pending and they could not hire anyone for their positions in the studio. The family of Hazel Kuser joined the lawsuit as well. She had passed away just a few months ago at the age of 25. She had had multiple blood transfusions in an attempt to save her and when other girls from the factory saw her, they stated she was unrecognizable with her face swollen and leaking. Her devoted husband and his family had ruined themselves financially just to try and help Hazel and now it was time to take action to avenge her.

Dr. Harrison Martland, the new Chief Medical Examiner, showed interest in the dial painters plight. He was the first to create tests that could determine radioactivity in a human while they were still alive (previously they could only after the individual was deceased after turning their bones into a powder). One was a gamma ray test and the second was a breath test where the patient blew through a series of bottles. It was difficult for the girls to complete the breath tests due to their weakness, but they pushed hard to complete it. After some of the girls had taken these tests, all of the results confirmed radium poisoning. When Marguarite took the test, in 50 minutes she was showing 99.7 subdivisions (in a normal reading, it would only be 8.5 subdivisions in the same amount of time). The radium was slowly drilling holes in her jaw. This was an incurable disease. One could not change or alter the deposits of radium in the body. The radium companies insisted that there was such a small quantity of radium in the materials that it was safe, but in reality, the women had been slowly poisoning themselves each time they lifted the brush to their mouth. After years and years of working at the factory, lifting the brush to their lips 4-5 times per dial, the radium added up in their system. Dr. von Sochocky also admitted that he felt the girls illness was from radium poisoning (his comments to Grace had not been wrong) and when he took the breath test, he had the highest radiation of them all. When asked why he did nothing before, he claimed it was because he was not involved in that aspect of the company.

Katherine Wiley was still working hard to get the true Dr. Drinker report published and was working towards getting radium poisoning on the list of industrial diseases. It helped that with Dr. Martland’s tests, they now had solid proof of radiation poisoning. The women were corpses compared to the lively young girls they once were just a few years earlier. They were deteriorating quickly and could not lead a normal life as other women in their early 20s did. Dr. Martland did face opposition though, mainly by USRC’s fake doctor, Dr. Flinn (later found to have been only a doctor of philosophy), arguing that the women were perfectly healthy (despite their jaws and body literally falling apart before him) and it was not the radium.

Kathryn Schaub and Grace Fryer in Newspaper (while sick) | Radium girls, Oh  the humanity, Women's history

Marguerite passed away on December 26, 1925 at 24 years old. Her case and Hazel’s was settled outside of court with the families receiving a small amount of compensation. President Roeder resigned (likely due to it coming out that the Drinkers report was forged) and the company received new leadership. Grace Fryer and Katherine Schaub (two women who had worked together as dial painters during the war) hired a young lawyer (one who would actually take their case) named Raymond Berry. Grace’s case was the first to be filed in 1927. The poor girl was 27 years old and in a back brace as her spine had been shattered by the radium. Following Grace’s lead, five other women step forward and had their lawsuits filed with Berry as their lawyer. In summer of 1927, Grace Fryer, Katherine Schaub, Quinta McDonald, Albina Larice, and Edna Hussman started their attack on USRC. Berry compelled the Drinkers and other doctors who were involved to take the stand to support their case. In October of 1927, they also exhumed Mollie Maggia’s bones. They found the inside of the coffin glowed and her bones proved that she had died of radium poisoning (clearing her name of the syphilis accusation). Berry also uncovered the fraud of Dr. Flinn by USRC. Each of the women, despite being so weak, tired and fragile, each bravely took the stand and told their story. As their trial went on, the women were receiving support from the public. The public wrote them letters and ate up the photo shoots and articles interviewing the women. Some of the girls pledged their bodies to science for future study to help workers of the future.

Despite a rough fight put up by USRC, the women settled. They would receive a lump sum of $10,000 and a pension of $600 a year for life (this is about $8,316). USRC would also be responsible for past and future medical expenses and court costs. The women were able to take this money and help their families/invest the money for the future.

Unfortunately, it would still be a constant battle with USRC who found anyway they could to not pay for the medical expenses of the women. They had not expected some of the women to live longer than a year. They argued over every bill they received. They also subjected the women to their own medical exams by the company doctors, always searching for a way to disprove them. The radium disease began developed in a different way. It started to form bone tumors (sarcoma). Quinta McDonald would pass away in 1929 from this. This would show up in many of the later cases of the women.

Even after their settlement in court, it continued to be a fight for these women physically, mentally, and against the corporation they once worked for. Yet, their fight would not go unnoticed in other parts of the country. They were the inspiration for other women and other dial painters to take up the fight for some real change. In part 2, I will examine the girls of Ottawa, Illinois and their fight ten years later for the same things. They would be fighting against corporate greed and for workers safety rights. Their sacrifice would help future generations.

I would definitely recommend Kate Moore’s book to read about some of these women and what they went through more in depth. They are so inspirational!

Sources:

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women By Kate Moore

https://www.britannica.com/story/radium-girls-the-women-who-fought-for-their-lives-in-a-killer-workplace

https://blogs.loc.gov/headlinesandheroes/2019/03/radium-girls-living-dead-women/

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