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Radium Girls – Perfectly Safe

Updated: Mar 15

Everyone knows that radiation is bad for you. Sticking your head in a microwave is likely to cause death. Licking Uranium will probably do the same. This hasn't always been common knowledge. In the early 20th century, shortly after Radium's discovery, people were obsessed with the stuff.

Couple that with the watchmaking industry, which in itself has always seemed a little broken to me. People pay the equivalent of a poor household's annual income for a simple timepiece.

Either way, there have never been deadlier watches than those produced by the Radium Girls in the 1920s.

The Miracle of Radium – Put it in Everything

Marie Curie may have discovered Radioactivity and Radium, but she never fully understood it. Her application of Radium in medical situations led the public to believe it to be a miracle.

Radium proved useful in treating cancer. The disease had never been challenged successfully, so the populace accepted Radium with open arms. It was a cure-all, just imagine a problem and see it disappear in the face of Radium's soothing rays. It's radio-active!

Watches weren't the only thing containing Radium. Up until 1936, the Hippman Bach Bakery produced Radium Bread. If bread wasn't your thing, you could ingest the 'life-giving glow' in the form of chocolate.

Radium Water was made by storing water in jugs laced with the radioactive material. This was believed to cure nearly anything, from wrinkles to failure to perform in bed. The directions recommended drinking six glasses of the irradiated water, daily.

People were looking for that Radium glow. So they added Radium to their cosmetics. Dr. Alfred Curie, who was a real medical doctor and no relation of Marie Curie, released a cosmetics range called Tho-Radia in Paris, 1933. His products included Radium and Thorium, another particularly radioactive element.

Their flagship product was the Tho-Radia cream. According to Dr. Alfred Curie, the cream firmed the skin, removed wrinkles, degreased and improved circulation.

Tho-Radia relented in 1937, when French regulations forced them to remove Radium and Thorium from their products. The company lingered until the 60s, their products no longer containing any radioactive material.

Radium was used in so many other products and services. Suppositories, impotence treatments, spas, and almost anything else you can imagine.

Soldiers Need Watches – Women Need Jobs

During the First World War, frontline soldiers had a problem. Trenches were too dark for them to be able to see the dials on their watches. How were they supposed to know when it was time for their suicidal charge into no-man's land? Something had to be done.

The Radium Luminous Material Corporation invented a paint called Undark. This paint contained large amounts of the glow-in-the-dark element we call Radium. Soon factories were set up to produce watches with Undark dials.

Women were hired to work in these factories for 2 reasons. Largely because there were not many men left, but also because their hands were smaller. I suspect there was also the element of employers caring less about the well-being of female employees.

The Undark came as a powder which was mixed with water to make paint. Due to the fine nature of the work, the painters were instructed to 'point' their brushes using their lips and tongue. Their employers explicitly told them the paint was safe for consumption, in fact, it's good for you!

Undark powder would get everywhere. The women were soon dubbed 'Ghost-Girls' because their hair, clothes, skin, and teeth glowed in the dark. Believing the lie, the factory workers leaned into the 'Ghost-Girl' image. They would go so far as to paint their teeth and coat their faces in the stuff before going out dancing after work.

The first Radium Girl, as the victims of this predatory business were known, was Amelia Maggia. She developed a toothache, which called for the removal of the tooth. That tooth's neighbor had to be removed as well. Both teeth were replaced by ulcers that oozed blood and pus.

Maggia soon found that all of her teeth were rapidly rotting away. Her condition deteriorated rapidly. Eventually her entire lower jaw had to be removed due to the 'rotting'.

She died in 1922 after the 'rotting' spread to other parts of her body and caused a massive hemorrhage. Her doctors concluded that she must have had Syphilis.

Following Maggia's death, a lot of other Radium Girls developed the condition that would later become known as 'Radium-Jaw'. Their employer denied any connection between the string of agonizing employee-deaths and their business practices.

The End of the Radium Girls

1920s Radium Girl
What a healthy-looking, and loyal, worker!

After two years of denials, and a significant downturn in profits, the Radium Luminous Material Company commissioned an independent study. That study immediately found that the women had died of Radium-poisoning.

The Radium Luminous Material Company publicly denied the results. Blaming the 'Radium Girls' for so selfishly dying while employed at their factories. They were just dirty, or something. Soon the company issued several studies that found Radium to be perfectly safe.

Harrison Martland, a Pathologist, developed a test in 1925 that conclusively proved the Radium was destroying the women from the inside out. The Radium Luminous Material Company tried to discredit Dr. Martland.

The 'Radium Girls' knew that they were all dying. Many of them already had Radium-Jaw. They hired an attorney, Raymond Berry, and took the Radium Luminous Material Company to court.

The 'Radium Girls' were forced to accept an out-of-court settlement. Allowing the Radium Luminous Material Company, now known as the United States Radium Corporation, to publicly deny any wrongdoing.

11 years would pass before a 'Radium Girl' was able to put an end to the practice. Catherine Wolfe Donahue was dying of Radium poisoning when she took the Radium Dial Co. to court. She won, ending the practice that claimed hundreds of lives over the course of 13 years.

The case led to reforms. It was one of the first times that a company was held responsible for the health and safety of their employees. Unfortunately these regulations are often ignored by modern mega-corporations.

The true legacy of the Radium Girls is that we as the public are now aware of how eager corporations are to work us to death.