The Radium Girls
Below is another Toastmasters speech I gave – just last night, actually! It was inspired by a book I read recently, called The Radium Girls; The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, by Kate Moore. I’d known of the Radium Girls before, but I’d always been curious to know more. Her book is a very moving look at the lives these women led, many cut extremely short by their radiation poisoning. If you’d like to know more, I highly recommend the book.
Also – I notice that when I write my speeches, they don’t really follow the same cadence that my writing does… maybe because I’m not writing for anyone to read it, but to hear it, and I find that when it comes to speaking, I’d rather use simpler words so my tongue doesn’t get tied up.
It was a beautiful spring day in 1922, but Mollie Maggia barely noticed the weather. She had been suffering for months with an intense pain in her jaw. It had all started with a toothache. Her dentist pulled the tooth, but instead of healing, the wound became a festering blister. More teeth began to ache; in fact, her whole jaw ached. Her dentist treated her for a common inflammatory condition to no avail. He continued to remove her teeth, one by one, until one day when a piece of her jaw came out in his hand. Upon examination of it, he saw that it was brittle and full of holes. He was baffled, and still, could offer nothing more than strong painkillers.
Mollie was a dial painter for the US Radium Corporation in Newark, NJ. She had been working there since she was 19. Now, she could no longer work at all, due to the blinding pain in her mouth. She would die months later, when the necrosis reached her jugular, and she bled to death. She was 24 years old.
By then, the dentist suspected that Mollie’s work with radium had caused her gruesome demise, but he couldn’t prove it. Her autopsy was performed by a doctor hired by the radium company, and the official cause of death was marked as syphilis.
Working for US Radium Corporation had been considered a privilege for the women who’d been hired there. This was the company that had invented Undark, the luminous paint applied to dials, watch faces, and instrument panels used by the military in WWI. The company had advertised for young women with “nimble fingers” to perform the delicate task of painting the small numbers and fine lines. The young women, ranging in age from 14-20, came from working-class, immigrant families. They felt fortunate to find the dial painting jobs, which was easy and fun work and paid well.
As for working with radium, there was no reason for them to be concerned. The girls had no reference for the hazards of exposure to radiation. Radium had only been discovered 20 years before and had been given positive monikers like, “The Wonder Element” and “Liquid Sunshine.” In fact, Radium was marketed as a tonic to cure everything from impotence to dull smiles. You could buy radium lingerie, radium butter, radium toothpaste, radium water and even radium-laced cosmetics. Of course, most of these products did not actually contain any radium, as it was far too rare and expensive, but it made for some great marketing campaigns.
Undark, the luminous paint, was mixed several times a day by the painters themselves. The recipe was simple: a pinch of radium powder, which was a mixture of radium + zinc sulfide, a dash of water, and a dab of adhesive combined in small crucibles at the workbench. Then, the girls would dip a fine-point brush into the mixture and settle into the task of painting the tiny numbers on the watch faces. Even a brand-new brush would soon lose it’s fine point, and so they were taught a technique called lip-pointing to keep the brush in top shape. It was simple – they’d just put the brush to their mouths and shape it with their lips, just as you’d point a piece of thread before putting it through a needle.
Many times, they asked if it was safe to do this, and each time, they were reassured that it was. Radium was not harmful, they were told. In fact, it would be good for them! It took a while to get used to the grittiness of the paint on their tongues and lips, but it didn’t taste bad, and so the girls soon became used to the routine – lip, dip, paint. Every few strokes repeat – lip, dip, paint.
The studio where they painted had a large expanse of windows and skylights, and so it was a bright, cheery room. The girls chatted happily as they worked, feeling positive about the direction their lives were going. Thanks to their salaries, they’d been able to ease the burden on their working-class parents. They were paying off debts and saving money for the future.
At lunchtime, the girls would put down their paintbrushes and push their work to the side. They were allowed to eat lunch at their work tables, as long as they didn’t get food on the dials. The dust from the radium powder covered everything in the room – the tables, chairs and floor continually hosted a light coating of it.
In order to check their work, the girls would bring their trays of painted dials into a darkroom to have them inspected. It was there that they noticed each other’s lips glowing in the dark, and that the powder that had fallen onto their dresses gave them a luminous, otherworldly glow.
Everything about the girls glowed – they were happy young women, at the cusp of their adult lives. Newark was a bustling city with a lively night scene. The girls would wear their best dresses to work so that they would be dusted with the luminescent powder, and at the end of the day they’d paint their fingernails and sometimes even their teeth with the leftover paint, so that when they went out in the evening, they would literally glow in the dark. On some occasions, they’d even bring the leftover paint home to share the novelty with younger siblings.
It wasn’t until Mollie Maggia died such a horrible death, that the girls began to really question the safety of radium. By then, many of them had moved on from the US Radium Corporation and were working in banks or stores, or had gotten married and stopped working altogether. Many, like Mollie, began having tooth and jaw pain, while still others found themselves with inexplicable aches and pains in their hips and knees. These once-radiant young women were becoming decrepit, as if they had aged an entire lifetime in just 5 years.
The Radium Girls in New Jersey were not alone in their plight – there were also radium dial-painting factories in Waterbury, CT, as well as outside of Chicago. The conditions were the same – the girls all lip-pointed, and worked in ignorant bliss of the dangers of the radioactive paint.
In each case, it took years before the true cost of their professions would be realized. One by one the girls became ill, and eventually it became clear that the common denominator in their afflictions was the radium paint. It may have been too late to save themselves, but they would not go down without a fight.
Filing lawsuits against the powerful radium companies was not easy. Each company fought back hard, their lawyers using every trick and loophole they could to evade responsibility for the girls’ troubles.
Nevertheless, the Radium Girls persisted. Groups in Newark and Chicago rallied together to fight for compensation. The newspapers chronicled their plights, giving the groups names like “The Ghost Women” “The Living Dead” and the “Women Doomed to Die.” It took years, and many of the women died along the way, but in the end they won compensation and brought light to the issue of workplace safety. These women championed women’s rights, workers rights, public health and environmental justice. Thanks to the Radium Girls’ efforts, there began a legacy of labor standards that persists today.