The Forgotten Story of the Radium Girls, Whose Deaths Saved Thousands of Lives
Mae Keane of Waterbury, Connecticut started her first day on the job as a dial painter in 1924. It paid handsomely compared to the other scarce limited options for working women, and it involved working with a “brand new” element, discovered not two decades prior: radium.
Just like the other women in the factory, Keane was instructed to carefully paint the faces of watches and military dials with a super fine paintbrush. Between each brushstroke, they were instructed to use their lips to keep their paintbrushes in a tidy point. Keane recalls disliking the gritty taste of the radium paint and refused to use the lip painting technique she was taught. “I wouldn’t put the brush in my mouth,” she said.
Within a few days, Keane knew that the job wasn’t the right fit for her, and with the permission of her supervisor, she took her leave. “I often wish I had met him after to thank him because I would have been like the rest of them,” she told NPR. (1)
By ‘the rest of them’, Keane was referring to the countless dial painting women who stuck with the job and slowly began wasting away because of radium exposure.
In her book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, Deborah Blum writes of the gruesome states the ‘radium girls’ had to suffer. “There was one woman who the dentist went to pull a tooth and he pulled her entire jaw out when he did it. Their legs broke underneath them. Their spines collapsed,” she writes.
Although Keane quit dial painting within days on the job, she still suffered consequences. “I was left with different things, but I lived through them. You just don’t know what to blame,” she says. Until her death at 104 years old, Keane dealt with migraines, poor dental health, and two battles with cancer. (1)
At the time, radium was known to be dangerous with direct contact, but was generally thought to have benefits in small doses. The toxic substance was marketed to the masses to improve everything from digestion to aging to libido. (2) Some young girls and women even used radium as a cosmetic, as painting their skin and nails with radium caused them to glow in the dark.
So while the male employees working with large amounts of radium were given personal protective gear, the dial painter women had almost non-stop exposure to radium throughout their careers.
By September 1922, 24-year-old Mollie Maggia died from complications of radium exposure- the first of what would be many deaths. A severe infection that had eaten away at her jaw bone eventually made its way to a major artery. But after Maggia hemorrhaged to death, it took years for any corporation to admit the obvious link to radium exposure.
The United States Radium Corporation reportedly manipulated a primary research study to dismiss suspicions of danger, and denied the credibility of a second independent study that pointed to a link between radium exposure and severe health risks. (2)
Women continued to literally fall apart and die from radium exposure while their employers refused to acknowledge any danger. It wasn’t until 1938 when Catherine Donohue famously testified from her deathbed with the help of a pro bono lawyer, Leonard Grossman. (3).
Donohue won her case, after telling how she had been ill since 1925, and was fired from her dial painting job for limping and ‘drawing attention to herself’. Here bones slowly deteriorated, and she became emaciated, bed-ridden, and unable to eat. After a local doctor failed to diagnose her, a second doctor from Chicago tested her for radiation poisoning and came back with a positive result.
Weighing less than 60 pounds, Catherine Donohue passed away before any reparations were paid to herself or her coworkers. But her fight was not in vain. Leonard Grossman Jr., the son of her lawyer told NPR the chain of events “ultimately led, not until 1971, to the adoption of the federal OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) Act, which was the big change in having federal workers’ safety laws.” (3)
The OSHA exists today to “assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.” (4)
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