After the dial-painters
or “radium girls” discovered their abnormal health conditions which
were caused by radium exposure without knowing the effects of radium
beforehand, a conflict arose with the women challenging their employers about
lack of working rights in the 1900s. ?A compromise was reached when the radium
girls in New Jersey accepted the company’s compensation rather than continuing
to fight in court. However, the women persevered in other cities, paving the
way for worker’s rights and leaving an invaluable legacy on science.
Radium is a highly
radioactive element, requiring careful handling. It faintly glows in the dark.
Formerly, its most significant contribution was its usefulness in treating
certain cancers. In modern times, the use of radium is limited due to its
?In 1898, radium was
discovered in a pitchblende ore by French scientists Marie and Pierre Curie. The
duo was awarded a Nobel prize in 1903 because they discovered the element and
then determined its atomic weight in 1902.
The couple later
discovered radium was two million times more radioactive than uranium.
While working with
radium, the Curies had not made the connection between their deteriorating
health and the radiation exposure from their experiments. The Curies’ worsening
health was a prime example of the dangers of radiation exposure.
From his experiment,
Pierre concluded that radiation exposure could kill diseased cells, allowing it
to treat cancer and certain skin disorders. Therefore, radium became known as a
Called a wonder element
and “liquid sunshine”, radium was known as “the greatest find of
history.” Products with radium were advertised all over the place, some of
which claimed the element ensured health, vitality, or beauty. Radium was a “craze” in America
during the early 1900s.
In 1925, American
engineer and inventor William Hammer arrived in the United States with radium
salt crystals. Fascinated with the element’s glow, he experimented with various
combinations, leading to a “glow-in-the-dark” paint created from
radium crystals, glue, and zinc sulfide.
“glow-in-the-dark” paint was applied to gun sights, ornaments, toys,
nail polish, and even human bodies. However, there was an even stronger demand
for radium-painted timepieces. In war, these glowing watches, clocks, and
military instrument panels were especially helpful.
Hundreds of young women
were employed to paint watches and military dials with the luminous paint, now
The dial-painters became
known as “ghost girls” or “radium girls” because they would glow in
the dark from the radium paint. ?
…the desire to be
…and helping the war
Since the numbers and
symbols on the dials were small, the tip of the brushes had to be kept sharp.
The women were told to lick the tip of the brush. This technique is called
lip-pointing, or the “lip, dip, paint” routine.
One by one, the
dial-painters began to experience horrific pains, huge tumors, and frail bones.
But nobody had an idea of what was causing them.
Due to increasing abnormalities,
people began investigation. Many found a direct correlation between Undark and
their abnormalities. However, the women were not informed since these results
were not disclosed.
?The reports of Drinker,
Hoffman and Martland showed the cause behind the abnormalities and helped raise
awareness about radium poisoning. However, the widespread belief that radium
was beneficial proved to be an obstacle. ?
In February 1925,
Marguerite Carlough became the first dial-painter to file a lawsuit against the
USRC, inspiring others (e.g., Grace Fryer, Katherine Schaub) to follow her
footsteps. They wanted the company to admit responsibility over their
deteriorating health and unsafe work conditions. With attorney Raymond Berry
and the Consumers’ League of New Jersey (NJ), the women sought $250,000.
The Ottawa women still
remained unaware of radium poisoning regardless of NJ women lawsuit. Much like
the USRC, Radium Dial also tried to cover up the results of investigations.
However, the fight would begin.
In 1936, Catherine
Donohue, Pearl Payne, and others formed the “Society of the Living
Dead,” filing a lawsuit against Radium Dial.
At first, the Ottawa
dial-painters struggled to find a lawyer for their case. No lawyer wanted to
fight against the powerful radium industry. They eventually met Leonard
Grossman. Like the NJ women, they would fight for compensation and workers’
rights and face the widespread beliefs of radium.
The women fought not only
for compensation, but also for other dial-painters. They claimed their
employers had not warned them of the effects of radiation exposure. They wanted
justice for their lack of working rights.
The companies denied
responsibility, not willing to pay compensation. They tried to cover up the
true cause of the dial-painters’ abnormalities.
With the help of Raymond
Berry, the dial-painters were able to settle the case outside of court.
Unfortunately, they still faced the challenge of proving the dangers of Undark.
With several testimonies, they were able to reach a compromise. The company
chose to provide compensations to these dial-painters, and in turn, they agreed
not to further pursue the case in court. However, these women did not see USRC
being held accountable for their wrongdoings.
They did receive some
The girls continued their
efforts in court. The company still tried to deny responsibility but was found
guilty in the end. The final result of the case was recompense for the
dial-painters and the company finally being held accountable for women’s deaths
Based on the number of
dial-painters through the years, the graph indicates the luminous dials were a
fad. Because of this, the dial-painting industry is non-existent in modern
…to justice in Ottawa
and compromise in Orange…
…to the start of
…to a science and
workers’ rights legacy.
The case of the
dial-painters was an example of the fight for workers’ rights. The employers
denied responsibility for the health of their employees, giving them no warning
of the radioactive materials.
Because the dial-painters
brought this conflict to court, the case received full media coverage, raising
awareness about the conditions of employees. This drew the government’s
attention, resulting in the establishment of safety regulations in workplaces
and the OSHA. Through these actions, deaths of multiple workers have been and
will be prevented.
The Manhattan Project was
top-secret nuclear-energy research program that focused on the atom bomb, which
involved the use of plutonium, an element similar to radium.
The dial-painters’ case
helped save multiple lives of the project’s workers.
To give the world information
about the health effects of radioactivity, scientists studied the
dial-painters. These medical studies aimed at preventing future radiation
poisoning. Not only did they study those alive, but they also studied the
tissue and bone samples of those deceased.
In modern times, it is
hard to imagine a time when America did not see radium as a dangerous element,
much less not have appropriate and safe working conditions. In spite of the
difficulties they faced, the radium girls persisted in fighting for the
well-being of other dial-painters and workers in the future. Their cases
provided scientists invaluable information about radioactivity that still
benefits the world now. Throughout the conflict they faced, the radium girls
remained strong, receiving a compromise and justice in the end.
Son of Leonard Grossman
A women union laborer who
is knowledgeable about the radium girls