The Doors of Justice are barred to the “Doomed Radium Victims,” and notes explain that it is due to “statute of limitations, summer vacation, postponement,” in this May 20, 1928 New York World editorial cartoon.
(By Bill Kovarik and Mark Neuzil, from Mass Media and Environmental Conflict (Sage, 1996), p. 32-52.)
Grace Fryer and the other women at the radium factory in Orange, New Jersey, had no idea that they were being poisoned.
It was a little strange, Fryer said, that when she blew her nose, her handkerchief glowed in the dark. But everyone knew the stuff was harmless. The women even painted their nails and their teeth to surprise their boyfriends when the lights went out. They all had a good laugh, then got back to work, painting a glow-in-the-dark radium compound on the dials of watches, clocks, altimeters and other instruments.
Grace started working in the spring of 1917 with 70 other women in a large, dusty room filled with long tables. Racks of dials waiting to be painted sat next to each woman’s chair. They mixed up glue, water and radium powder into a glowing greenish-white paint, and carefully applied it with a camel hair brush to the dial numbers. After a few strokes, the brushes would lose their shape, and the women couldn’t paint accurately. “Our instructors told us to point them with our lips,” she said. “I think I pointed mine with my lips about six times to every watch dial. It didn’t taste funny. It didn’t have any taste, and I didn’t know it was harmful.” (1)
Nobody knew it was harmful, except the owners of the U.S. Radium Corporation and scientists who were familiar with the effects of radium. Those days, most people thought radium was some kind of miracle elixir that could cure cancer and many other medical problems.
Grace quit the factory in 1920 for a better job as a bank teller. About two years later, her teeth started falling out and her jaw developed a painful abscess. The hazel eyes that had charmed her friends now clouded with pain. She consulted a series of doctors, but none had seen a problem like it. X-ray photos of her mouth and back showed the development of a serious bone decay. Finally, in July 1925, one doctor suggested that the problems may have been caused by her former occupation.
As she began to investigate the possibility, Columbia University specialist Frederick Flynn, who said he was referred by friends, asked to examine her. The results, he said, showed that her health was as good as his. A consultant who happened to be present emphatically agreed. Later, Fryer found out that this examination was part of a campaign of misinformation started by the U.S. Radium Corporation. The Columbia specialist was not licensed to practice medicine — he was an industrial toxicologist on contract with her former employer. The colleague had no medical training either — he was a vice president of U.S. Radium. 2
The large dusty room in the Orange, N.J. radium dial factory in the mid-1920s. (Argonne National Labs)
Grace Fryer probably would have been another unknown victim of a bizarre new occupational disease if it had not been for an organization called the Consumers League and journalist Walter Lippmann, the editor of the New York World. Formed in 1899, the Consumers League fought for an end to child labor, a safe workplace and minimum pay and decent working hours for women.3 Lippmann was a crusading journalist and former muckraker who edited a powerful New York newspaper at a time when New York newspapers were the most influential in the country.
The Consumers League
The request of a city health department official in Orange, New Jersey, brought the Consumers League into an investigation of the suspicious deaths of four radium factory workers between 1922 and 1924. The request was not unprecedented, since league officials had been involved in many official state and federal investigations. The causes of death in the Orange cases were listed as phosphorous
poisoning, mouth ulcers and syphilis, but factory workers suspected that the dial painting ingredients had something to do with it.
New Jersey Consumers League chairman Katherine Wiley brought in a statistical expert and also contacted Alice Hamilton, a Harvard University authority on workers’ health issues. Hamilton was on the league’s national board, and as it turned out, she was already involved in another aspect of the same case.
A few years earlier, a colleague at Harvard, physiology professor Cecil Drinker, had been asked to study the working conditions at U.S. Radium and report back to the company. Drinker found a heavily contaminated work force, unusual blood conditions in virtually everyone, and advanced radium necrosis in several workers.
Close-up of a dial painters work station, Ottawa, Ill, probably between 1922 – 1930. (Courtesy Argonne National Lab).
During the investigation, Drinker noticed that U.S. Radium’s chemist, Edward Lehman, had serious lesions on his hands. When Drinker spoke to him about the danger in the careless and unprotected the way he handled the radium, he “scoffed at the possibility of future damage,” Drinker said. “This attitude was characteristic of those in authority throughout the plant. There seemed to be an utter lack of realization of the dangers inherent in the material which was being manufactured.”4 Lehman died a year later.
Drinker’s June 1924 report recommended changes in procedures to protect the workers, but Arthur Roeder, president of U.S. Radium, resisted the suggestions. In correspondence with Drinker, Roeder raised several points that disputed the findings and promised to send along facts to back up the assertions, which he never did. At the same time, Roeder refused to give the Harvard professor permission to publish his findings about the new radium disease at the plant, insisting that Drinker had agreed to confidentiality. Eventually, U.S. Radium threatened legal action against Drinker.5
Roeder was also in correspondence with Wiley at the Consumers League. Wiley wanted U.S. Radium to pay some of the medical expenses for Grace Fryer and the other employees having problems. Roeder said that Fryer’s condition had nothing to do with radium, saying it must be “phospho jaw or something very similar to it.” He also accused Wiley of acting in bad faith, saying that a small amount of data from the company was shared with the league in confidence, and he claimed Wiley betrayed his confidence.6
In April 1925, Alice Hamilton wrote to Katherine R. Drinker, also a Ph.D. and a partner with her husband Cecil in their U.S. Radium investigation. The letter, on Hull House stationery, said:
“… Mr. Roeder is not giving you and Dr. Drinker a very square deal. I had heard before that he tells everyone he is absolutely safe because he has a report from you exonerating him from any possible responsibility in the illness of the girls, but now it looks as if he has gone still farther… [The New Jersey Department of Labor] has a copy of your report and it shows that ‘every girl is in perfect condition.’ Do you suppose Roeder could do such as thing as to issue a forged report in your name?” 7
After Hamilton’s letter, Cecil Drinker realized why Roeder had been stalling him and trying to keep his report from being published. Drinker then sent his original report to the Department of Labor and made arrangements to publish it in a scientific journal, despite U.S. Radium’s threats. Meanwhile, a Consumer League consultant trumped the Drinkers by reading a radium necrosis paper at the American Medical Association conference.8 Drinker finally published the paper later that year, concluding:
“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….”9
Alice Hamilton, MD, Harvard professor of public health, who exposed injustice and occupational hazards of the Radium Girls, lead workers and many others.
This casual attitude toward the green radium powder was not matched in other parts of the factory, especially the laboratory, where chemists typically used lead screens, masks and tongs. Yet the company management “in no way screened, protected or warned the dial painters,” Fryer’s attorney, Raymond Berry, charged.
The “radium girls,” like many other factory workers at the time, were expendable.
Even if some US Radium officials were oblivious, the scientific and medical literature contained plenty of information about the hazards of radium. Even one of U.S. Radium’s own publications, distributed to hospitals and doctors’ offices, contained a section with dozens of references labeled “Radium Dangers — Injurious Effects.” Some of the references datedback to 1906.
Although the hazards of radium were well recognized in scientific literature, the popular press saw radium as a scientific miracle with enormous curative powers. The “radium craze” in America and Europe, which began around 1903, familiarized the public with the word “radium.”
Radithor, a miracle cure for — and cause of — cancer. (Argonne National Lab).
One historian said: “The spectacular properties of this element and its envisioned uses were heralded without restraint in newspapers, magazines and books and by lecturers, poets, novelists, choreographers, bartenders, society matrons, croupiers, physicians and the United States government.” Stomach cancer could be cured, it was imagined, by drinking a radium concoction that bathed the affected parts in “liquid sunshine.” 10
One of the medical drinks sold over the counter until 1931, “Radithor,” contained enough radium to kill hundreds or possibly thousands of unsuspecting health enthusiasts who drank it regularly for several years.11 An overview of newspaper and magazine articles on radium in the first decades of the 20th century found their tone strongly positive.12
Even when hazards emerged in mainstream press coverage, the benefits usually outweighed the dangers. For instance, the death of French scientist Jean Alban Bergonié provoked a spate of news articles extolling the “martyrs to science” who died experimenting with the element. The New York World counted 140 scientists who, like Bergonié, had given their lives for humanity. The sacrifice had been worthwhile, the newspaper said:
“Nowadays, tested precautions make the manipulation of radium or the use of x-rays as innocuous to both operator and patient as the pounding of a typewriter… The exploration has cost many lives and untold agonies, but the martyrs would undoubtedly be the first to assert that the gain in knowledge had been worth the price. Both discoveries are now thoroughly established as safe, healing agencies of the utmost value.”13
Many scientists felt threatened by the idea that radium could cause, rather than cure, cancer. “If radium has unknown dangers, it might seriously injure the therapeutic use of radium,” Charles Norris, chief medical examiner of New York, wrote Raymond Berry during Fryer’s lawsuit.14 An mining agent and former partner in U.S. Radium also wrote to Berry: “Thousands in Germany have been taking radium salts, admixed with bicarbonate of soda, as a vital stimulant,”
he said. The bone afflictions of the “radium girls” was probably produced by the glue or another ingredient, but “radium could not produce the results ascribed to it.”15
Although it meant flying in the face of some medical opinion, Grace Fryer decided to sue U.S. Radium, but it took her two years to find an attorney willing to take the case. On May 18, 1927, Raymond Berry, a young Newark attorney, took the case on contingency and filed a lawsuit in a New Jersey court on her behalf. Four other women with severe medical problems quickly joined the lawsuit. They were Edna Hussman, Katherine Schaub, and sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice. Each asked for $250,000 in compensation for medical expenses and pain.
The five dying women became known in newspaper articles throughout the world as “the Radium Girls.”
The first legal hurdle was New Jersey’s two-year statute of limitations. Berry contended that the statute applied from the moment the women learned about the source of their problems, not from the date they quit working for U.S. Radium. Berry alleged that U.S. Radium’s misrepresentation of scientific opinion and campaign of misinformation was the reason that the women were not informed and did not take legal action within the statute of limitations. US Radium company attorneys responded by attacking Berry’s character and threatening charges before the bar association.
While Berry and the company skirmished in court, medical examiners from New Jersey and New York continued to investigate the suspicious deaths of plant workers. Amelia Maggia, a former dial painter and sister of two of the Radium Girls, McDonald and Larice, died in 1922 from what was said to be syphilis and was buried in Rosemont Cemetery in Orange.
She had been treated by a New York dentist, Joseph P. Knef, who had removed Maggia’s decayed jawbone some months before she died. “Before Miss Maggia’s death I became suspicious that she might be suffering from some occupational disease,” Knef said. At first he suspected phosphorous, which produced the notorious “phossy jaw” necrosis common among match makers in the early 18th century.
“I asked the radium people for the formula of their compound, but this was refused,” Knef said. “After the girl’s death so many other persons were sent to me with almost similar symptoms that I became more suspicious, and took up the study of radium with an expert.”16 In 1924, Knef wrapped the jawbone in unexposed dental film for a week and then developed the film. He also checked the bone with an electroscope to confirm its radioactivity and then wrote a paper with the Essex County medical examiner identifying radium necrosis. 17
In the words of a Newark, N.J., newspaper: “Dr. Knef then described how radium, hailed as a boon to mankind in treatment of cancer and other diseases, becomes a subtle death-dealing menace.”
An autopsy could confirm Knef’s findings, and after a formal request by the Maggia sisters and Raymond Berry, Amelia’s body was exhumed on October 16, 1927. The autopsy confirmed that her bones were highly radioactive. Clearly, Maggia had not died of syphilis, but of the new and mysterious necrosis that was also killing her sisters. In a way, it was a relief, since contracting a venereal disease like syphilis was considered disgraceful. And yet, now the radium girls also knew that they were in for an early, prolonged and very painful death.
The Media Coverage
The larger media outlets began picking up the story of the New Jersey women after it was legitimized in a courtroom setting — a formal structure for news gathering. Most of the news media dove in with a mix of sensationalism and muckraking that accelerated and expanded the controversy.
Catharine Donohue of Ottowa, Illinois lays dying in July, 1937.
She had just won her court case. The reporting here is mild compared to the way many of the Radium Girls were treated. But from their point of view, sensationalized exploitation of suffering was needed to force justice from industry and the unsympathetic courts. So in that sense, even the worst of the press could be the best of friends. This clip is from an excellent contribution by Len Grossman.
For instance, in the fall of 1927, an enterprising Star Eagle reporter found that U.S. Radium had reached out-of-court settlements with the families of other radium workers in 1926, paying a total of $13,000 in three cases. 18
The news media suddenly found the story irresistible. Headlines included: “Woman Awaiting Death Tells How Radium Poison Slowly, Painfully Kills”20 and “Would You Die for Science? Some Would.”21
The newspapers followed the twists and turns in the case, particularly the suffering of the women, the disappearing hope for a cure and the company’s defense. One of the macabre fascinations with the “Radium Girls” story was how — assuming the women won the lawsuit — one might spend a quarter million dollars with only a year to live. One enterprising newspaper asked 10 randomly selected women what they would do. Most of the responses involved spending sprees and charity donations.22
Legal maneuvers took most of 1927, and the medical condition of the five women worsened considerably. The two sisters were bedridden, and Grace Fryer had lost all of her teeth and could not sit up without the use of a back brace, much less walk.
At the first court hearing on January 11, 1928, the women could not raise their arms to take the oath. All five of the “Radium Girls” were dying.
“When pretty Grace Fryer took the witness stand, she said her health had been good until after she had been employed at the radium plant,” one news account said. Fryer and the others bravely tried to keep smiling, but friends and spectators in the courtroom wept. Edna Hussman told the court about the financial troubles the medical bills were causing: “I cannot even keep my little home, our bungalow,” she said. “I know I will not live much longer, for now I cannot sleep at night for the pains.” She was content, however, because her children would be cared for by relatives. 19
By April, the women were not physically or mentally able to attend a second hearing in court. Their attorney was caustic: “When you have heard that you are going to die, that there is no hope — and every newspaper you pick up prints what really amounts to your obituary — there is nothing else,” Berry said.23
French scientist Marie Curie, the discoverer of radium, read about the case and told papers in her home country that she had never heard of anything like it, “not even in wartime when countless factories were employed in work dealing with radium.” French radium workers used small sticks with cotton wadding rather than paintbrushes, she said. Although the five New Jersey women could eat raw liver to help counteract the anemia-like effects of radiation sickness, they should not hope for a cure for radium poisoning.
“I would be only too happy to give any aid that I could,” Curie said. However, “there is absolutely no means of destroying the substance once it enters the human body.”24 A local newspaper said Madame Curie had “affirmed the doom already sounded by leading medical authorities who have examined the girls.” The predictable reaction, the paper said, was that “some of the victims were prostrated with grief last night when they received the news.”25
Curie heard about the reaction and, on June 4, said: “I am not a doctor, so I cannot venture an opinion on whether the New Jersey girls will die. But from newspaper descriptions of the manner in which they worked, I think it imperative to change the method of using radium.”26 Curie herself would die of radium poisoning only a few years later, in 1934.
Time was running out, and Berry, Wiley, Hamilton and others had long been concerned that legal maneuvering would delay justice until well after the women were dead. As anticipated, U.S. Radium did not hesitate to use delaying tactics. After the hearing on April 25, 1928, the Chancery court judge adjourned the case until September despite Berry’s strenuous objections. Berry reminded the judge that the women were dying, and might not live until September. Berry also
found lawyers with cases scheduled in less than a month who were willing to take a September court date to give the “Radium Girls” their day in court. But U.S. Radium attorneys said that their own witnesses would not be available as many were going to Europe for the summer on vacation, and the judge insisted on continuing the case until September.
Walter Lippmann and the New York Press
The blizzard of publicity surrounding the case worried some medical consultants. “Can you get the [newspapers] to agree to keep the women out of the paper henceforth?” one doctor wrote Berry. “We all agreed that this should be done and that the publicity has had a bad effect on the patients. One was quoted as seeing her body glow as she stood before a mirror…”27 Another doctor wrote: “I would certainly not like to have anything the matter with me and be told every few weeks that I was going to die… Surely you realize what the psychological effect of that would be.”28 Berry protested: “I am absolutely unconnected, in any way, with newspaper articles which are published. I have endeavored to discourage publicity…”29
Walter Lippmann, editor of the New York World, who helped the Radium Girls without exploiting their suffering.
In spite of the sensationalism, a moment arrived in the case when the “Radium Girls” needed a champion. Their physical condition was deteriorating and their financial situation was pitiful. Time was running out.
The task of getting sympathetic publicity fell to Alice Hamilton, who had carefully laid out a strategy in the previous months with the editor of one of the nation’s most powerful newspapers of the time, the New York World. An avowedly liberal newspaper founded by Joseph Pulitzer, the World championed public health causes as part of its mission to “never lack sympathy with the poor [and] always remain devoted to the public welfare.”30 Hamilton’s long-time friend was World editor Walter Lippmann; he had already worked with Hamilton, ensuring that coverage of the Ethyl leaded gasoline controversy in 1925 included both sides of the story, including large amounts of copy from university scientists critical of Standard Oil company. 31
Hamilton wrote to Lippmann in 1927 as a first step. “There is a situation at present which seems to me to be in need of the sort of help which the World gave in the tetra-ethyl affair,” Hamilton wrote.32 Lippmann said he would look into it, and then wrote to Berry: “Dr. Hamilton has asked The World to interest itself in this case and has told me that you have the necessary documents. I should appreciate it if you could let me see them.”33
While Lippmann studied the documents, the New Jersey judge continued the case until September, and like many others, he found this infuriating. Lippmann stepped out of his normally cool and sober editorial pulpit to say, in a May 10, 1928 editorial, that the decision to delay the trial was 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…”34
At this point, Frederick B. Flynn, the Columbia University consultant for U.S. Radium, called a press conference and proclaimed that the women could survive and that he found no radioactivity in his tests. When the press turned to Berry, he refused to comment, saying he would “prefer to try the case in court.”35 But Lippmann was furious.
“To dispute whether they can live four months or four years while lawyers wrangle over technicalities is to make the case more stupendously horrible than ever. The whole thing becomes a legal nightmare when, in order to obtain justice, five women have to go to court and prove that they are dying while lawyers and experts on the other side to go the newspapers to prove that they may live somewhat longer… 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.”36
Lippmann’s editorials, Berry’s maneuverings, the behind-the-scenes public relations work of Hamilton and others, and the accumulating outrage as represented in headlines convinced the New Jersey court system, and a trial was rescheduled for early June 1928.
Thousands of sympathy letters and quack remedies arrived at the women’s homes and the office of their attorney. Inject tannin, said one. Drink Venecine health juice, said another. Drink “mazoon,” an old world cure-all, said a third, but the author did not include the recipe for the potion.
The New York Graphic wrote to offer the services of its editor Bernarr MacFadden, the “famous nature healer.” He would work for free, the Graphic letter said, in exchange for publicity rights. “Since the medical doctors have given you up, you have nothing to lose and much to again by trying natural methods… Of course, we would expect you to be willing to cooperate with us to the fullest extent and to allow us to give full publicity to the case.”37
The Settlement and Its Aftermath
With Lippmann and the newspapers outraged and public opinion building in favor of the victims, pressure to settle the case built on U.S. Radium. In early June, a federal judge volunteered to mediate the dispute and help reach an out-of-court settlement. Days before the case was to go to trial, Berry and the five “Radium Girls” agreed that each would receive $10,000 and a $600 per year annuity while they lived, and that all medical and legal expenses incurred would also be paid by the company. The agreement also stipulated payment for all future medical expenses, which would be determined by an impartial panel of physicians.
Berry was not entirely happy with the settlement, feeling that “the corporation gets a great advantage,” although he knew that the women’s situation had grown desperate. He was also skeptical of the mediator, U.S. District Court Judge William Clark. “He is, I am sure, a very honorable man and genuinely interested in social problems,” but he is “a man whose circumstances in life place him
in the employer’s camp.” Berry was informed that Judge Clark was a stockholder in the U.S. Radium Corporation.38
Meanwhile, the national president of the Consumers League, Florence Kelly, wrote to Alice Hamilton saying she was “haunted” by the “cold blooded murder in industry” that was taking place in the radium case. Kelly led other state chapters of the Consumers League in checking other radium dial plants, including those in Pennsylvania and Illinois.
Along with investigating other plants, Kelly and Hamilton agreed that another step needed to be taken. In a meeting in New York City, the medical examiners for New York and New Jersey sat down with Hamilton, Kelly and Berry. The group agreed on a strategy for proposing a general conference on radium factory safety standards to Surgeon General Hugh Cumming of the U.S. Public Health Service.
The medical examiners signed a letter proposing the conference, and the New York World supported it editorially. Kelly and her colleague, Josephine Goldmark, visited Lippmann and Goldmark wrote this account of the meeting:39
“The day we visited him in his small office high up in the dome of the old World building was not wholly propitious for detailing our plans. The political campaign of 1928 was in full swing and just at the moment when we reached his office, Mr. Lippmann, as I recollect it, was receiving the first wires from the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He listened to us with interest, nevertheless, and promised his full aid as soon as the letter to the Surgeon General had been sent. But he counseled delay… [as Kelly put it] Lippmann agreed to help us in every way possible, but warned us that we should injure our case if we attempted to present it publicly before July 4th, after the close of the second presidential convention.”40
All agreed to wait for Hamilton’s signal, and Hamilton and Lippmann stayed in close touch during those weeks in July 1928. On July 16, as the letter went out, Lippmann wrote in an editorial: “In many aspects the disease is surrounded by mystery which only an expert, impartial and national agency can remove… clearly this is a task for the Public Health Service.”41
Other endorsements followed, including one from Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, a board member with Hamilton on the National Consumers League. Surgeon General Cumming agreed to the conference and called interested parties together on December 20, 1928.
The conference agreed that two committees should be set up: one to investigate existing conditions and a second to recommend the best known means of protection for workers. A Public Health Service official, James P. Leake, commended the Consumers League and others who had worked on behalf of public health and worker safety. “By focusing public attention on some of these horrible examples,” Leake said, “the broader problems of disease prevention… can be greatly reduced.
“It was so [also this way] in the tetra-ethyl lead work.” He added: “The martyrdom of a few may save many.”42
Ironically, one of those not saved was Austrian physician Sabin A. von Sochocky, the original inventor of radium paint. He died in Orange, N.J., on Nov. 14, 1928, protesting until the last that his invention could not have been harmful. 43
The five “Radium Girls” died over the next few months and years. Their fate
was already sealed when they dipped paintbrushes into radium paint and sharpened the bristles with their mouths.
Although warnings about the dangers of radium were available, they went unheeded, in large part because radium was new to science and medicine, with a legitimacy that placed it beyond criticism.
But the reverence for science was a refuge for US Radium Corporation, as we have seen. It was not until Lippmann and other mainstream media outlets became involved in the story — and that involvement was accelerated by the legitimation of the legal system — that the Radium Girls finally settled their lawsuit, albeit for $10,000-plus, much less than the $250,000 they had hoped to receive.
The Consumers League and the news media as represented by Lippmann believed that they served the democratic process and solved the problem. And yet, only ten years later, another group of radium dial painters in Ottowa, Illinois, would bring a lawsuit under very similar circumstances.
Goldmark said, “The hazards of another lethal industrial poison were overcome, and the democratic process of government by informed public opinion was again justified.”43 The newspapers, with their preference for dramatic events, also served up the victims as part of a daily fare of murder, mayhem and monstrosities. Yet as the court of last resort, the press served its democratic function as well.
As one of the earliest public environmental controversies, the Radium Girls brought out the best and worst of the press in its raw and protean form. Later environmental controversies would involve less obvious exploitation of victims by the sensational press and less overt support by the prestige press.
In the Journalism of Outrage, David L. Protess and co-authors note a “coalition building” process between journalists, government officials, and interest groups during environmental controversies of the 1980s.44 But the interactive nature of the process, and the mutal dependencies of the prestige press, the reform movement and victims of the industrial revolution was evident in the 1920s, when Walter Lippmann and Alice Hamilton used each other for their own ends. Lippmann’s newspaper was considered “liberal” and catered to a working class audience, which would appreciate a story like the Radium Girls; Hamilton needed Lippmann and other journalists to meet her goals, including public awareness of workers’ safety issues.
And in the end, the Radium Girls themselves achieved a small measure of justice, despite the efforts of their employers to deceive and marginalize them.
The radium girls finally got some recognition. On Labor Day, 2011, a statue is unveiled in their memory in Ottawa IL, one of several locations where radium watch dial painters worked. Madeline Piller, daughter of the sculptor, and two original workers from factory, Pauline Fuller (C) and June Menne (R), are shown with the statue Sept. 2, 2011. Photo by Tom Sistak from Voice of America.
1 Florence L. Pfalzgray, “Radium Victim Battles Death With Courage,” Orange, N.J. Daily Courier, April 30, 1928: 1.
2 Affidavit of Grace Fryer, Fryer et al. v. U.S. Radium Corp., July 6, 1927; Also, testimony of Grace Fryer, Fryer et al. v. U.S. Radium, January 11, 1928. Records of the National Consumers League, Raymond H. Berry files, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
3 Josephine Goldmark, Impatient Crusader: Florence Kelly’s Life Story (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1953): 51.
4 See “Blame Odd Deaths on Mesothorium,” New York World, June 21, 1925: 3.
5 Josiah Stryker to Cecil Drinker, June 20, 1925, Records of the National Consumers League, Raymond H. Berry files, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
6Arthur Roeder to Katherine Wiley, January 26, 1925, Records of the National Consumers League, Raymond H. Berry files, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
7 Alice Hamilton to Cecil Drinker, April 4, 1925, Records of the National Consumers League, Raymond H. Berry files, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
8 Frederick Hoffman, “Radium (mesothorium) Necrosis,” Journal of the American Medical Association, (September 26, 1925): 961. The first paper to identify radium necrosis was that of Theodore Blum, “Osteomyelitis of the Mandible and Maxilla,’ Journal of the American Dental Association, (September 1924): 802.
9 William B. Castle, Katherine R. Drinker, and Cecil K. Drinker, “Necrosis of the Jaw in Radium Workers,” Journal of Industrial Hygiene, (August 1925): 373.
10 Lawrence Badash, Radioactivity in America: Growth and Decay of a Science (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Press, 1979): 25.
11 “A Most Valuable Accident,” The New Yorker, May 2, 1959: 49. Each bottle contained two picocuries of radium. See R.E. Rowland, Radium in Humans: A Review of U.S. Studies (Argonne, Ill.: Argonne National Laboratory, 1994): 7.
12 Spencer R. Weart, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988): 53.
13 “Bergonie Is Latest of 140 Martyrs to X-Ray and Radium,” New York World, November 16, 1924, Section II: 1. Also, “Heroes and Martyrs of Medicine,” New York World Magazine, May 13, 1928: 2.
14 Charles Norris to Raymond Berry, June 7, 1928, Berry Papers.
15 Thomas F.V. Curran to Quinta McDonald, May 24, 1928; Thomas F.V. Curran to Raymond Berry, May 21, 1928, Berry papers.
16 “Exhume Girls Body to Find Death Cause,” Newark Sunday Call, October 16, 1927: 1.
17 Harrison S. Martland, Philip Conlon and Joseph P. Knef, “Some Unrecognized Dangers in the Use and Handling of Radioactive Substances Journal of the American Medical Association, (December 5, 1925): 1669.
18″Newark Pathologist Shows Part of Miss Maggia’s Jaw,” Star Eagle, October 18, 1927.
19 “5 Women Smile, Fearing Death, in Radium Case” Newark Ledger, January 12, 1928.
20 “Woman Awaiting Death Tells How Radium Poison Slowly, Painfully Kills,” New York Telegram, May 13, 1928.
21 “Would You Die for Science? Some Would,” New York Journal, April 28, 1928.
22 “Doomed to Die, They Tell How They’d Spend Fortune,” Newark Sunday Call, May 13, 1928.
23 Ethelda Bedford, “Radium Victims too Ill to Attend Court Tomorrow,” Newark Ledger, May 17, 1928.
24 “Radium Poison Hopeless” New York Journal, May 26, 1926.
25 Ethelda Bedford, “Radium Victims too Ill to Attend Court Tomorrow,” Newark Ledger, May 17, 1928.
26 “Mme. Curie Urges Safety from Radium,” June 4, 1928, United Press.
27E.B. Krumbhaar to Raymond Berry, undated, probably June 17, 1929, Berry papers.
28 Robert E. Humphries to Raymond Berry, October 26, 1929, Berry papers.
29 Raymond Berry to James Ewing, June 6, 1929, Berry papers.
30 New York World, May 19, 1928: 30.
31 William Kovarik, “The Ethyl Controversy: How the News Media and Health Advocates Set the Agenda for a 1920s Environmental Debate over Leaded Gasoline and the Alternatives,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maryland, 1993.
32 Alice Hamilton to Walter Lippmann, July 12, 1927, Box 12, Folder 496, Lippmann Collection, Yale University Library, New Haven, Conn.
33 Walter Lippmann to Raymond Barry, July 18, 1927, Berry papers.
34 “Five Women Doomed to Die,” New York World, May 10, 1928.
35 “5 Radium Victims May Live, He Finds,” New York World, May 18, 1928: 1.
36 “The Case of the Five Women,” New York World, May 19, 1928: 23.
37 Various letters to Raymond Berry, including P.J. Leach, Advice Dept., New York Graphic, to Raymond Berry, May 28, 1928, Berry papers.
38 Raymond Berry to Cecil Drinker, June 6, 1928, Berry papers.
39 Alice Hamilton to Cecil Drinker, June 19, 1928, Berry papers.
40 Goldmark, Impatient Crusader: 201.
41 New York World, July 16, 1928, cited in Goldmark, Impatient Crusader: 201.
42 Goldmark, Impatient Crusader: 203.
43 “Radium Paint Takes Its Inventors Life,,” New York Times, Nov. 15, 1928, p. 25. Also, Associated Press, “Inventor is Killed with Radium Paint,” Baltimore Sun, Nov. 15, 1928, p. 19.
44 Ibid: 204.
45 David L. Protess, Fay Lomax Cook, Jack C. Doppelt, James S. Ettema, Margaret T. Gordon, Donna R. Leff and Peter Miller, The Journalism of Outrage: Investigative Reporting and Agenda Building in America (New York: Guilford, 1991): 220-22.
Chicago Mag also has a great article and video on the Radium Girls.
Stuff you missed in history class featured the Radium Girls in their Sept. 7, 2011 podcast.
And Moment of Science has a script on the radium girls in the works.
Also, musician Pat Burtis wrote a song and dedicated a record album to the Radium Girls a few years back.
ROBERT R. JOHNSON
FOR THE LOVE OF PRETTY THINGS
THE RADIUM GIRLS AND “DYING FOR
DISCUSSED:Radium Salt Crystals, Deathly Healthful Glows, Substances One Million Times More Radioactive than Uranium, Fingernail Polish, “Doctors,” Filler for Children’s Sandboxes, Lonely Soldiers, Forgeries, A Suspicious Dentist, “Declining Normally,” Radiation’s Stimulating Effects on the Mind
Radium dial painters at work, circa 1921.
They say that if you visit the grave of Katherine Schaub and bring a Geiger counter, the machine will register a significant positive reading. Katherine, a radium dial painter, died in 1933 after suffering for more than a decade from a disease chillingly named radium necrosis.
In 1902, the self-proclaimed American inventor William Hammer returned from Paris with a gift given him by Pierre and Marie Curie: radium salt crystals. Mr. Hammer experimented with various combinations of glue, zinc sulfide, and radium crystals to form an iridescent paint that created a glow-in-the-dark effect and could be applied to just about anything—wristwatches and clocks, gun sights, children’s toys, even human bodies (in the form of fingernail polish).
Hamilton sold his paint to a New Jersey company founded in 1914 by Dr. Sabin Arnold von Sochocky and Dr. George S. Willis. Though they originally called it the Radium Luminous Material Corporation, Sochocky and Willis changed the name to United States Radium Corporation in 1921. They set up shop in Orange, New Jersey, intent on developing a market for their product; they assured the public that the radium was in “such minute quantities that it is absolutely harmless.”
They dubbed the paint-like substance Undark.
Grace Fryer, Edna Hussmann, Katherine Schaub, and sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice were five of the over two thousand dial painters employed by U.S. Radium and its attendant companies over the next couple of decades. Their job was straightforward: to paint the dials of watches, clocks, and military instrument panels for use in ships, airplanes, and other equipment that demanded nighttime use.
Most of the time, however, they painted wristwatches.
“I was pleased with the idea of a job which would engage me in war work,” Katherine said. “Some of the young women would scratch their names and addresses into these watches, and sometimes a lonely soldier would respond with a letter.”
The work was tedious, the conditions physically hard on the eyes, back, and hands. They were paid by the piece—one and a half cents per watch—thus some of the women made about twenty dollars per week with U.S. Radium. The median income of New Jersey women workers in 1917 was about fifteen dollars per week; these were good jobs for working women.
The labor was exacting. The numbers and symbols on the dials were often small, thus the camel-hair brushes had to be sharp. To accomplish this, the women were instructed by their managers to lick the ends of the brushes to keep them pointed, ready for the meticulous work. Undark, after all, was tasteless and odorless. “I think I pointed mine with my lips about six times to every watch dial. It didn’t taste funny. It didn’t have any taste, and I didn’t know that it was harmful,” Grace would later say.
Despite their claims that Undark was harmless, Drs. von Sochocky and Willis, as well as the scientists who worked for U.S. Radium producing the paint, knew better. The key ingredient of Undark is about one million times more radioactive than uranium. The scientists protected themselves with lead shields and used masks and tongs to handle Undark production processes.
In 1920, Grace was offered a more appealing position as a bank teller. About two years after leaving U.S. Radium, Grace started to feel ill. She didn’t have her usual youthful spunk, and she was experiencing joint pain. Soon thereafter her teeth began falling out, and a painful abscess formed in her jaw. She sought medical attention from several doctors who’d never seen anything like her malady—despite her evident symptoms, Grace’s skin emitted a rosy hue usually associated with abundant health.
Unknown to her doctors, the radium caused a temporary increase of red blood cells; soon it would enter her bone marrow and turn her skin the color of ash.
In 1925, three years after the onset of Grace’s illness, a friend referred her to a Columbia University specialist named Frederick Flynn. He declared her to be in fine health. A colleague present at the exam concurred with Flynn’s diagnosis. Flynn, however, was not a licensed medical doctor—he was an industrial toxicologist under contract with U.S. Radium. Neither was his colleague a doctor: he was the vice president of U.S. Radium.
In the early twenties, U.S. Radium contracted with a noted Harvard toxicologist, Dr. Cecil Drinker, to conduct a study of working conditions at U.S. Radium’s New Jersey facilities. Drinker was a highly respected scientist who, at the time of the U.S. Radium operation, was helping to develop the field of industrial hygiene. He’d begun a research facility at Harvard in the School of Public Health, and had studied the poisonous effects of manufacturing-created dust on the respiration and blood content of workers in the zinc industry. (He eventually concluded that the culprit was manganese.) His contract with U.S. Radium was his first foray into studying the industrial hazards of radiation.
Drinker examined the workplace in Orange and observed an environment replete with radium-tainted dust, open containers of highly radioactive paints, poor ventilation, and other problematic conditions. He also took blood samples from the workers on the shop floor as well as the scientists working in the adjoining labs. What he found was disastrous. Every one of the workers suffered from dangerous blood conditions. He encountered several cases of radium necrosis; he noticed, too, that a chemist, Edward Lehman, had severe lesions on his hands and arms. Lehman dismissed the idea that Undark had anything to do with his lesions or that there was any threat to his future health from continued exposure to the substance.
Lehman would die within the year.
Drinker remarked that Lehman’s attitude of complacency was rampant at the company. “There seemed to be an utter lack of realization of the dangers inherent in the material that was being manufactured.” U.S. Radium sold the sand-like residue of the radium paint process as filler for children’s sandboxes. When parents questioned the safety of the sand, von Sochocky assuaged them by telling them that the sand was “most hygienic and… more beneficial than the mud of world-renowned curative baths.”
Claudia Clark’s « Radium Girls »
(Dr. Sherry Baron)
Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935. by Claudia Clark. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. 289 pp, notes and bibliography. $17.95 paper.
AT THE BEGINNING of this century a group of young women workers who, while licking their brushes to make a fine point, applied radium-laden paint to the faces of watches and instruments, began to sicken, and in many cases to die.
Believing that their work was making them ill, the girls turned to their doctors, then to state health and labor departments, but received little help. Finally they turned to the Consumers League, a reform organization founded by Florence Kelley, the socialist organizer who worked with Jane Addams at Hull House, the famous settlement house in Chicago.
Professor Claudia Clark of Central Michigan University was drawn to this story, in part, by her own previous experience as a chemical plant worker. Clark’s Radium Girls tells the story of how these young women workers refused to be passive victims. With their middle class female reformer allies, they fought to make the companies take responsibility for the illness and to make the government regulate issues of workers’ health.
Although the dial painters were just a small group of women workers-between 1917 and 1927 only about 2000 altogether-their plight, Clark argues, became an excellent example of the failures of the philosophy of Progressive Era corporatism or corporate liberalism, where the state’s role was to remain a « neutral partner. »
In this case, government investigators and scientific experts, beholden to the corporations, were either unresponsive or hostile to the pleas of these suffering women.
The Consumers’ League’s struggle for the radium girls represented a classic case of the struggles for reform at the beginning of the century-against capitalists who deceived their employees, corporate physicians who covered up health problems, state health departments that ignored workers’ complaints, and a public which remained ignorant of the important issues involved for the entire society.
In this account, Claudia Clark describes the intricate scientific and political process by which radium evolved from being viewed as a wonderfully medicinal element to being recognized as a dangerous toxic material and a cause of occupational disease.
Residues from the dial painting studios of the 1920s were reused to make sand for children’s sand boxes; when asked about its potential toxicity the company’s owner described it as more beneficial than the mud of the world-renowned curative baths.
Although primarily a case study in the history of the industrial health movement (today more commonly called the occupational safety and health movement), the book also provides an understanding of the situation of one sector of working class women, and the strengths and weaknesses of one of the major middle class women’s social reform organizations of the Progressive Era in the period of World War I.
The Dial Painters’ Story
At age 15, in 1917, Katherine Schaub and her cousin Irene Rudolf had begun working at the dial painting studio of the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation in Orange, New Jersey. They, like the majority of the dial painters, were young women from moderately well-off working class families, largely daughters and wives of skilled and semi-skilled workers.
Unlike the image of the squalid sweatshops made famous by the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1910, Schaub described the dial painting studio as interesting and of far higher type than the usual factory job. The girls earned between $20-24 per week, which was substantially more than the $15 median wage of New Jersey women at that time.
Although the work appeared pleasant, the women were being exposed daily to high levels of dangerous radiation. The dial painting studios were so filled with the dust and residues from the paint that the women’s skin and hair actually glowed when they left work. Additionally, in order to provide more precision to their painting, they were instructed to point their paint brushes by drawing them between their lips.
In 1922, after working on and off for three years as a dial painter, Rudolf developed a toothache which progressed quickly into an infection and deterioration of her entire jaw. The disease was termed a necrosis, and indeed it proved fatal.
Her dentist reported this case to the local health department, which then called in the State Labor Department. An investigation concluded that the jaw problem was associated with exposure to radium, and, although the state investigator suggested that the dial painters be warned of the danger of radium, the state government took no action.
Following the report of other cases, a state health officer, Lenore Young, investigated and documented a total of five suspicious cases among the women workers, two of whom had already died. But at the time, she claimed that a lack of time and resources meant she could do no more than report her disturbing findings to the State Labor Department.
Later on, Young admitted that she and the City were simultaneously investigating other complaints against the Radium Corporation and that she feared, if the dial painting investigation continued, that there would be no cooperation should she turn to the company for information.
Soon afterward, Young asked for a meeting with Katherine Wiley of the New Jersey Consumers’ League, telling Wiley that the authorities were hesitating and that the Consumers’ League must keep after them.
Young’s choice of the Consumers’ League was an obvious one since during the first decades of the 1900s, the League and other allied social reform organizations had been championing not only women’s issues but also industrial health reform.
The most famous figure in their crusade was Dr. Alice Hamilton, often considered the mother of the U.S. occupational safety and health movement. As a member of the Hull House community, Hamilton had done pioneering investigations into lead poisoning in Illinois and later went on to document many other industrial exposures and diseases.
Florence Kelley, founder of the Consumers’ League, was Hamilton’s friend and colleague from Hull House and drew her into the League activities. The Consumers’ League was joined in its industrial health campaigns by the American Association for Labor Legislation (AALL) which, when founded in 1906, adopted the motto « Social Justice is the Best Assurance Against Social Unrest. »
Clark explains that the AALL sought to bring labor and management together to prevent the kind of class warfare predicted by Marx and perceived by Americans looking at Europe.
Clark notes the prominent role that women reformers from the Consumers’ League, the AALL and the Workers’ Health Bureau played in promoting industrial health in the 1920s. She supports the view, expressed by the historian Kathryn Kish Sklar, that middle-class women’s interest in industrial health came from gender interests which allowed cross-class sympathies to develop.
These groups pushed for protective legislation against industrial exposures and diseases for gender and not class reasons, but hoped that eventually this would serve as a wedge to widen political structures that would eventually serve all workers.
Additionally, this new generation of college educated, middle-class women reformers found working class health a wide open area not yet dominated by entrenched male professionals. Consequently, as women leaders in a new field they developed a gender analysis intended to improve working class life and thus prevent social unrest.
The Fight for Compensation
In 1925, Wiley of the New Jersey Consumers’ League was informed by Dr. Hamilton that she would arrange to get herself appointed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to come and investigate the cases in Orange, N.J.
As she was about to begin this investigation, however, Hamilton discovered that her boss Dr. Cecil Drinker, and his wife Dr. Katherine Drinker, both of Harvard, had investigated the plant the previous year and had concluded that « the trouble…is due to radium. »
But the company had dismissed these conclusions and the Drinkers had chosen not to release their findings independently without the permission of the company, which had financed their investigation. Furthermore, once Alice Hamilton discovered this she chose to cancel her investigation because of her chief’s position in the matter.
Eventually, through a series of maneuvers, Wiley and Hamilton forced the release and independent publication of the Drinkers’ study and other investigations which conclusively proved the connection between the dialpainting and the women’s illnesses.
The following year the Consumers’ League moved on to support state legislation to make radium poisoning compensable under the state workers’ compensation law. However, the final legislation was extremely restrictive, limiting cases to radium necrosis (destruction of the jaw) rather than the more systemic radium poisoning that continued to occur once the lip-pointing brush was eliminated.
The law also excluded all cases occurring before 1926, and set a statute of limitations of five months from injury until the time that a claim was filed. This final wording of the legislation, which was supported by the New Jersey Manufacturers’ Association, meant that almost no cases would qualify for compensation.
Then in 1927, when a young lawyer, Raymond Berry, filed suit for several of the injured workers, the Consumers’ League launched a massive and decisive publicity campaign. At one point when the hearings stalled, an editorial in the New York World called the trial « one of the most damnable travesties of justice that has ever come to our attention. »
Norman Thomas, the Socialist party candidate for president of the United States called it a « vivid example of the ways of an utterly selfish capitalist system. » The suit eventually resulted in a settlement when the U.S. Radium Corporation-though never admitting responsibility-was ordered to pay the dialpainters a $15,000 lump sum payment, an annual $600 pension while disabled, and future related medical costs.
After winning that case, the Consumers’ League continued to crusade in the courts and in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress for young women workers affected by radium poisoning, and to demand laws and regulations to protect the health of other workers.
Finally in 1933, the Federal government’s Public Health Service laid down guidelines for safe work practices in the production of luminous watches and dials. For the radium girls it was too late.
Reform and Its Limits
Clark does an excellent job of showing the weaknesses of the company and state medical investigators, and the economic and political ties which kept them from conscientiously defending worker or public health. Her story also makes clear many of the limitations of the middle-class reform movement and of Progressive Era reformers in general.
The Consumers’ League, though led by Florence Kelley, herself a socialist and even a Marxist who had corresponded with Friedrich Engels, represented the classic middle-class reform organization of the Progressive Era, of which Hull House was the epitome.
In this activity, however, the League -Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, Julia Lathrop and other residents of Hull House, daughters of Republican Party industrialists and political leaders-had become sincerely concerned about the effects of industrialization and urbanization on the lives of the American people.
Modeling themselves on British settlement house workers, they decided that concerned citizens had to move into working-class neighborhoods in the cities, where, sharing the experience of workers and the poor, they could begin to remake capitalist society in a more humane way.
While the League sincerely wished to defend the « radium girls » and fight to eliminate occupational disease and health hazards from the workplace, its strategy in the struggle was unavoidably shaped by its leadership’s middle-class origins and loyalties, and its constructions of female gender differences.
As already noted the League and its allies wished to achieve reforms in order to avoid social unrest, attenuate class conflicts and achieve harmony within capitalist society. This was typical of the Hull House approach: Jane Addams, while working closely with unions, sought to help them avoid strikes and worked instead to extend labor arbitration.
The League in its fight over the radium issue did not primarily attempt to mobilize unions and workers to take up the women workers’ health issues, but turned to middle-class allies concerned about the workplace, hoping to achieve structural reforms in the area of industrial hygiene and workers’ compensation.
The League’s leaders were not only reformers who wanted to ameliorate the situation of workers under capitalism, but also reformists in the Marxist sense of that word, that is reformers who accepted and supported capitalism.
The emphasis in the League’s work was on litigation, lobbying and legislation, an arena in which workers and labor unions had little power or influence. The method was not particularly to mobilize workers and unions to affect the courts, state legislatures and the Congress, though that formed part of the strategy, but rather to use middle class experts and allies to convince judges and legislators of the legitimacy of the issue and the necessity of social change.
Public Opinion and Gender
In support of its litigation and lobbying, the League also appealed to a particular construction of female gender differences in order to mobilize public, i.e. primarily middle-class sentiment.
The League played upon the notion of women as different than men, as wives and mothers, middle-class wives and mothers who had a special role to play in the reform of society, and working class and poor women who easily fell victim to the men who dominated industry, whether as capitalists, factory managers or foremen.
The League portrayed the « radium girls » as pathetic victims (which as Clark shows, was not how they viewed themselves). Its strategy for winning public sympathy played upon constructions of gender which, for example, argued that these young women were unlikely to marry, could not bear children or raise families, and would therefore never fulfill a woman’s normal and proper role in society.
The Consumers’ League’s approach and its construction of female gender roles represented an alternative to other possible struggles for reform.
True enough, in the first decade or two of the century, when the labor movement was dominated by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), then a particularly narrow craft union made up mostly of white male workers, it was not easy to mobilize workers and unions around the health issues of these young women. Yet there was an alternative strategy: workers’ self-organization to achieve social reform, a process of self-organization which might lead to more radical social change, and form part of a struggle for socialism.
In fact, it was only through such actions as miners’ strikes led by the Black Lung Association, and agitation for workers’ health led by the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, that meaningful workers’ health legislation was finally passed in the United States, when in the late 1960s and early `70s Congress adopted the Mine Safety and Health Act (MSHA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA).
Yet today we see significant deterioration of these hard won gains as the Federal government adopts more conservative policies and puts emphasis on deregulation and voluntary partnership approaches to occupational safety and health. Once again we need a revitalized movement for workers’ health and safety led by labor unions and workers, and working women have a larger role than ever to play in such a movement.
Dr. Sherry Baron is an occupational health physician in Cincinnati.
ATC 79, March-April 1999