Home / General / This Day in Labor History: March 10, 1925

This Day in Labor History: March 10, 1925


On March 10, 1925, the New York Times first reported the story of the so-called Radium Girls, as U.S. Radium Company employee Marguerite Carlough had sued her employer for $75,000 for the horrific health problems caused by her work with radium that would soon kill her. The story would garner national headlines and would demonstrate both the awfulness of working conditions in the early 20th century and the failures of the workers’ compensation system to deal with health problems caused by poisonous work.

The 1910s saw the development of two phenomena that would come together in horrible ways for workers. The first was the wristwatch, invented during this decade. The second was the entrance of radium into the marketplace. Because radium glowed in the dark, it became a popular method of painting watch faces, since it made the watches useful at night. For soldiers in World War I, these watches were a godsend and this made them popular nationwide.

The Radium Luminous Materials Corporation (later U.S. Radium Corporation) plant in Orange, New Jersey caused a lot of problems in the neighborhood. Residents complained the company’s emissions turned their drying clothes yellow. For the workers, the radium was as much a delight as it was to the consumers. With little health research into its effects on the workers, the young dialpainters suffered heavy exposure to it. They were taught to hold the paintbrush with their mouths as they worked, wetting it with their tongues and thus ingesting the radium that way. They also played with the radium paint. They’d paint the fingernails with it. One woman had a date with her beau. So she painted radium on her teeth so her smile would glow in the dark when they were alone that night.


Advertisement for radium watch.

As early as 1922, workers began falling sick. The dialpainters were the first industrial victims of radium poisoning. Katherine Schaub and her cousin Irene Rudolph started working in the new dialpainting studio at the Radium Luminous Materials plant in 1917. They were both 15. In 1920, both Schaub and Rudolph quit, finding nonindustrial jobs, although Schaub would briefly return to dialpainting the next year. By 1922, they were both 20 years old. That year, Rudolph had mouth pain. She had a tooth extracted. The socket never healed. Her jaw begin to fester with rotting bones. Other dialpainters began coming down with the same problems. Randolph died in July 1923 after a year and a half of suffering. Schaub started to have health problems in November 1923. By this time, other dialpainters such as Amelia Magggia, Hazel Vincent Kuser, and Marguerite Carlough had died or were dying. Schaub’s continued mouth problems began to be known as “radium jaw.”


Workers at U.S. Radium, 1922 or 1923.

Medical researchers began to pay more attention to these sick women. So did the New Jersey Consumers’ League, the largely women-led industrial reform movement of the Progressive Era. That era had ended, at least in the years as it is classically classified by historians, but the national and state level organization still existed. The sole paid employee of the New Jersey branch was Katherine Wiley, but she was effective. In 1923, she had successfully lobbied for a bill banning night work for women. After hearing the legendary industrial reformer Alice Hamilton talk about workplace health, Wiley began exploring this in her home state. She soon found the dialpainters. In 1924, Wiley went to the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Labor, Dr. Andrew McBride. He was furious that these meddlesome women were getting involved in these cases and denied that the radium companies had anything to do with the women’s illnesses.

Working with Hamilton, Wiley began trying to access the medical research. At Harvard, researchers working with U.S. Radium had done initial studies on the substance’s health effects. Wiley and Hamilton sought to acquire that data. The main researcher was loyal to the company and refused to release most of the information. But Frederick Hoffman, a researcher for the U.S. Department of Labor, did find at least some connections, although he was pretty sympathetic to the company too. All of this work did lead to the state labor department closing U.S. Radium, although it just moved to New York. Katherine Schaub kept pushing, convincing Hoffman to write to U.S. Radium about her condition. The company had her visit one of their doctors, who promptly told her that none of her illnesses had anything to do with radium.

Based on this research, in 1927, Schaub joined a dialpainters’ lawsuit organized by the New Jersey Consumers’ League in the state Supreme Court. But this was a difficult task. Not only had the statue of limitations passed since all these workers had quit several years earlier, but the dialpainters needed to prove both that U.S. Radium had caused their illnesses and that the company was negligent in their actions. The lawsuits were a struggle because workers’ compensation generally did not cover health related issues. The workers’ compensation came about as a way for corporations to cut their losses and enter a rational system for dealing with workplace health and safety because after 1890, workers were increasingly suing them successfully for compensation, a slow rejection of the doctrine of workplace risk established early in the nation’s industrial period.

Similar cases were happening at the Waterbury Clock Company in Waterbury, Connecticut (I can’t drive past this factory on I-84 without thinking of dead radium workers) and at Radium Dial in Ottawa, Illinois. Workers at all three plants struggled to achieve compensation. But in New Jersey, all the bad publicity convinced the company to settle with most of the workers in 1928, although it also made it very difficult for workers to prove any corporate culpability. In more conservative Connecticut, women played a much smaller role in state politics and despite a longer statue of limitations provision in the workers’ compensation law of 5 years, business controlled the state. Workers here received only relatively small settlements, even if Waterbury Clock admitted it had caused 10 deaths by 1936. In Illinois, the workers compensation system was such a mess that not a single sufferer received a cent until 1938.


Newspaper article publicizing plight of Illinois radium poisoning victims.

In the 1980s, high levels of radon were discovered in homes near the old plant in Orange. The company had long ago been purchased by Safety Light. Homeowners and the current corporate owners of the old plant sued Safety Light. In 1991, the New Jersey Supreme Court found U.S. Radium “forever” liable for the radium near its old factory. Workers laboring with radium however continued having problems, even as safety nominally improved. In the 1970s, radium workers in Ottawa, Illinois were found having radiation levels 1666 times the Nuclear Regulatory Commission-approved levels.

This post is based on Claudia Clark, Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935.

This is the 136th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Snarki, child of Loki

    There was a craze for “radium water” as a health potion, but I *think* it was a earlier than the watch-dial issues, and it should have served as a warning about health effects.

    BTW, it’s not radioactivity that caused all the harm; it’s that radium is chemically similar to calcium, displaces calcium in the bones, and causes the bones to break down, resulting in a nasty, horrible death. Only those who received low enough doses to avoid bone-liquification got to look forward to longer-term cancers.

    • The Dark Avenger

      Actually, it was a fad about at the same time, but radium water fell out of favor after Eben Byers died from using it.

      In November 1927, a wealthy industrialist named Eben Byers was returning from the annual Harvard-Yale football game aboard a specially chartered train. Yale won the game 14-0, and Byers was a Yale alumnus. It’s not clear whether the celebratory atmosphere aboard the train (or Byers’ reputation as a ladies’ man) had anything to do with it, but sometime during the trip he fell out of the upper sleeping berth and injured his arm. The injury interfered with Byers’ golf game and his love life. He visited one doctor after another, but no one could ease his pain. Then a physician in Pittsburgh suggested he try Radithor, a patent medicine (which consisted of little more than the element radium in a distilled water solution).

    • Latverian Diplomat

      I’m not sure you’re quite right about that. Radium is dangerous because it can be incorporated into bone (see also Strontium 90),as you said, but I’ve never seen it’s effects ascribed to chemical poisoning. These women were getting very high doses of radiation, which also manifests as tissue breakdown, open wounds that won’t heal etc.

      It’s true that other elements like Uranium can be more toxic chemically than radiologically, but radium is much more radioactive than natural or depleted Uranium.

      The practice of brush forming with the lips contributed to the extremely high exposure levels in the early twenties. This practice was ended, so the most obvious and horrific poisonings came to end, though exposure levels remained high and harmful.

      The best way to take advantage of the Radium Water craze was to use water that didn’t actually have radium in it, as the mineral water bathouses of “Radium Town” in Claremore, OK did. When traces of actual radium were found in the water in the 1950s (much to local surprise) it was bad for business.

      • The Dark Avenger

        There was for some time the practice of taking people into abandoned uranium mines for ‘treatment’ with the naturally high level of radon gas produced by the radium in the ore. 1950s,IIRC.

        • Latverian Diplomat

          That’s still going on:


          Alternative medicine modalities never die (unlike the patients).

          • Snarki, child of Loki

            I think you can still get Pluto Water.

            Just make sure that you don’t ingest a critical mass.

            • The Dark Avenger

              “9-1-1, what is your emergency?
              “I accidentally drank some heavy water, about a hour ago here at Keystone University.”
              “Why are you calling now?
              “I just coughed.”
              “Where are you now?”
              “In front of where the Physics building used to be.”

            • Hogan

              Back when I was trailing clouds of glory we had a family vacation in French Lick, Indiana. It was awesome. We did not drink the Pluto Water.

  • DrDick

    Further proof that we just need to free our benevolent corporate overlords from all those pesky government regulations so that they are free to usher in a new golden age for American workers!

  • Cool Bev

    A fake radium girl forms the premise for the classic Carole Lombard screwball “Nothing Sacred”.

  • JL

    Wow, I had never heard about this, and it’s horrible.

    In addition to the class angle, the gender angle seems significant here – the scientists were probably close to all men at the time, and got safety equipment, while the dialpainters were women.

    • I wouldn’t overestimate the safety equipment of the scientists, but there certainly a gendered side here between the male scientists and women like Alice Hamilton forcing their way into the profession and leading to all sorts of resistance on gendered lines.

      • DrDick

        In fact, scientists and engineers have often had less protection than line workers. My father was a research engineer for an oil company and was routinely exposed to toxic chemicals.

        • Lurker

          I agree. I am quite sure that the radiochemists and physicists of 1920’s did not really take much precaution against poisoning or radiation. The then-current international radiation protection recommendation recommended that you should not take so radiation that your skin reddens visibly.

          Even in 1970’s, most older radiologists in Finland did have one or more amputated fingers due to radiation and when my father, during his medical internship, wondered about specializing in the field, an elderly professor told him: “Don’t do that yet, son, you are so young and have still children to sire.”

          The lab work can still be pretty hazardous. In the lab where I did my Ph.D, they had switched from using a chemical with known carcinogenicity to a chemical that has, at the moment, no known carcinogenicity only a few years earlier. The air was, in any case, thick with it during lab work and had also been when the carcinogenic compound was used. And this was in 2000’s. We all routinely disregarded occupational safety aspects that interfered with work. I guess it all flowed from the idea that occupational safety is for lesser men than we were. Happily, no one was permanently injured, although one of my colleagues got a 230 V AC shock from hand to foot when repairing self-made lab equipment without disconnecting it from the mains.

          In my current job, which is in industry, such callous disregard for occupational safety would get an employee immediately fired.

          • Hogan

            I am quite sure that the radiochemists and physicists of 1920’s did not really take much precaution against poisoning or radiation.

            [Marie] Curie visited Poland for the last time in early 1934.[10][62] A few months later, on 4 July 1934, she died at the Sancellemoz Sanatorium in Passy, in Haute-Savoie, from aplastic anemia believed to have been contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation.[43][63] The damaging effects of ionising radiation were not known at the time of her work, which had been carried out without the safety measures later developed.[62] She had carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket,[64] and she stored them in her desk drawer, remarking on the faint light that the substances gave off in the dark.[65] Curie was also exposed to X-rays from unshielded equipment while serving as a radiologist in field hospitals during the war.[50] Although her many decades of exposure to radiation caused chronic illnesses (including near blindness due to cataracts) and ultimately her death, she never really acknowledged the health risks of radiation exposure.[66]

            • Snarki, child of Loki

              “she never really acknowledged the health risks of radiation exposure.”

              Unlike exposure to horses, which killed Pierre Curie at a young age.

  • El Pato de Muerte

    Erik, the posts in this series are fantastic. They are my favorite regular feature of LGM. I feel like we’re all spoiled by the quality (and freeness) of the content here, so I just wanted to say thanks!

  • Katya

    Related: The London Matchgirls’ Strike of 1888, motivated in part by the health effects of working with white phosporous (including “phossy jaw,” also a really terrible way to die http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phossy_jaw).

    • Good ol’ phossy jaw.

      • The Dark Avenger

        It’s mentioned in Bernard Shaws’ Mrs. Warrens’ Profession as the only ‘honest’ work alternative available to the title character when she was young.

  • At this point, I have to believe that you are trolling me with nuclear history posts.

  • dilan

    At the very end, theres a typo where you say “radon” instead of “radium”. (Inevitable, probably.)

    But great history.

    • Pseudonym

      That’s not a typo: radon is a gaseous radioactive decay product of radium.

      • Pseudonym

        It would be helpful to point that out in the text though for those of us unversed in nuclear chemistry.

        • Hogan

          It was a thing for a while, when houses built in a certain period were found to contain radon in the basements.

          Bart Simpson, showing a guest into his basement, 3/17/96:

          Bart: There’s a box you can sleep in.
          Chester: Thanks.
          Bart: Just move that cot out of the way.
          Chester: Okay.
          Bart: Do you know what radon is?
          Chester: No.
          Bart: Good night.

          • Pseudonym

            According to the Great Wiki, most of the radon in basements comes (via radium) from the radioactive decay chain of naturally occurring uranium in the soil, but there’s no reason it couldn’t come from industrial radium use in this case. Radon-222 has a half-life of under four days though, so while the radon gas (and its decay products) causes health problems it’s the presence of the parent radium-226 isotope with a half-life of 1600 years that’s the long-term challenge.

            • Snarki, child of Loki

              There’s a house in the outskirts of Philly, that (used to be?) the smallest SuperFund site. HEAVILY contaminated with Radium.

              A Penn chemistry prof used to live there, about 100 years ago, and had a sideline of extracting Radium from ore, an operation he ran in his basement.

              Oh yeah, one hell of a radon problem. Don’t need nightlights, though.

              • jafd

                Speaking as a former resident of Lansdowne:

                There was that professor’s house – was ‘decontaminated’ in the ’50’s – IIRC, there was a _Saturday Evening Post_ article about it.

                The professor also started a company, with a factory by the railroad tracks, to process ore (last I was by there, site’s still a vacant lot). Some of the ‘tailings’ were used as aggregate in concrete for home foundations in the area.

                In the ’80’s, there was major Superfund cleanup, vans with Geiger counters checking every street for radiation, a couple of dozen homes being torn down and rebuilt. There was an episode of ’60 Minutes’ on whether this was a ‘boondoggle’, and glibbertarian musings illustrating the overlap zone between “taking peoples’ homes and paying them a pittance” and “reckless spending of public money”.

                Problem was that in that decade, the area could be classed as ‘decaying inner ring suburb’, and the Delaware County Republican machine called in a lot of favors to make sure the homes were rebuilt and not left as empty lots, which would depress neighborhood home values. And since building homes on scattered lots, with the space and craftsmanship of a hundred years ago and the plumbing/heating/electrical systems of today ain’t cheap…

                Then with the real estate booms of the ’90’s and ’00’s, Lansdowne became a ‘quaint Victorian walkable suburb’ with two National Register Historic Districts and an easy commute to the UPenn and Center City Philly areas. Nice place to live, IMHO.

                I was thinking of doing a web page with the history, photos of the rebuilt homes, account of the controversy. Unfortunately, had to move from the area with only fragments of research notes done.

  • Brett

    Excellent history. It’s also a good reminder of how uphill the struggle was and is for safety – they had to gather evidence from unwilling and company-sympathetic researchers, sue the company, and so forth. It’s the same thing with safety risks now, where you’re often hoping that the lawsuit and bad press gets the company to settle and change workplace practices in the face of potentially greater losses.

    This is kind of how libertarians would argue for corporate accountability: research, lawsuits, consumer NGOs, etc. Well, aside from the Workers Compensation requirements and wholly industry-captured Departments of Labor, of course – those never really seem to be factors in Libertarian Land.

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