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.”
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.