The lights that don’t lie- The case of the radium girls

With war declared, hundreds of working-class women flocked to the studio where they were employed to paint watches and military dials with the new element radium, which had been discovered by Marie Curie a little less than 20 years before. Dial painting was “the elite job for the poor working girls”; it paid more than three times the average factory job, and those lucky enough to land a position ranked in the top 5% of female workers nationally, giving the women financial freedom in a time of burgeoning female empowerment. Radium’s luminosity was part of its allure, and the dial painters soon became known as the “ghost girls” — because by the time they finished their shifts, they themselves would glow in the dark. They made the most of the perk, wearing their good dresses to the plant so they’d shine in the dance halls at night, and even painting radium onto their teeth for a smile that would knock their suitors dead.

What’s more, the painters ingested the radioactive substance as part of their job. Because some of the watch dials on which they worked were extremely small, they were instructed to use their lips to bring their paint brushes to a fine point. When they asked about radium’s safety, they were assured by their managers that they had nothing to worry about.Of course, that wasn’t true. Radium can be extremely dangerous, especially with repeated exposure. Marie Curie suffered radiation burns while handling it, and she eventually died from radiation exposure.

It wasn’t long before the “Radium Girls” began to experience the physical ravages of their exposure. Among the first was Amelia (“Mollie”) Maggia, who painted watches for the Radium Luminous Materials Corp. Maggia’s first symptom was a toothache, which required the removal of the tooth. Soon the tooth next to it also had to be extracted. Painful ulcers, bleeding and full of pus, developed where the teeth had been. Maggia died on September 12, 1922, of a massive hemorrhage. Doctors were puzzled as to the cause of her condition. In growing numbers, other Radium Girls became deathly ill, experiencing many of the same agonizing symptoms as Maggia. For two years their employer vociferously denied any connection between the girls’ deaths and their work. Facing a downturn in business because of the growing controversy, the company finally commissioned an independent study of the matter, which concluded that the painters had died from the effects of radium exposure.

In 1925 a pathologist named Harrison Martland developed a test that proved conclusively that radium had poisoned the watch painters by destroying their bodies from the inside. The radium industry tried to discredit Martland’s findings, but the Radium Girls themselves fought back. Many knew that their days were numbered, but they wanted to do something to help their colleagues still working with the deadly substance. Ingested radium had subsequently settled in the women’s bodies and was now emitting constant, destructive radiation that “honeycombed” their bones. It was literally boring holes inside them while they were alive. It attacked the women all over their bodies.

In 1927, a smart young lawyer named Raymond Berry accepted their case, and Grace (along with four colleagues) found herself at the canter of an internationally famous courtroom drama. The women had been given just four months to live, and the company seemed intent on dragging out the legal proceedings. The New Jersey radium girls’ case was front-page news, and it sent shockwaves across America.

It was the mid-1930s: America was in the grip of the Great Depression. Catherine and her friends , victims of this heinous poisoning, were shunned by their community for suing one of the few firms left standing. Though close to death when her case went to court in 1938, Catherine ignored her doctors’ advice and instead gave evidence from her deathbed. In doing so, and with the help of her lawyer, Leonard Grossman, she finally won justice not only for herself, but for workers everywhere.

The radium girls’ case was one of the first in which an employer was made responsible for the health of the company’s employees. It led to life-saving regulations and, ultimately, to the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which now operates nationally in the United States to protect workers. . The women also left a legacy to science that has been termed “invaluable.”

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