Tales from the Nuclear Age:
Copyright © 2010 by Charles Glassmire
Sept. 28, 2010
The Radium Trials
On May 18, 1927, a young attorney from Newark New Jersey, Raymond Berry, filed suit against the United States Radium Corporation, on behalf of a former Radium watch-dial painter employee, Grace Fryer. He had taken the case on contingency, and four other watch-dial painters quickly joined the lawsuit as they were already suffering severe medical complications. Their names were Katherine Schaub, two sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice, and Edna Hussman, who collectively became known in the (fascinated) press as “the Radium Girls”.
The company employed young women to manually paint glowing radium compounds onto the faces of watches, so they would glow in the dark. The girls were encouraged to twirl the brush in their mouth to sharpen the point, thus swallowing a small amount of paint. The litigants alleged their medical problems resulted from Radium radiation. The lawsuit asked for damages of $250,000 for each of the five injured women workers.
One reason the press was so “fascinated” by the case was due to the interest of one of the most powerful New York newspapers, The New York World (a Pulitzer founded newspaper.) One of the editors was a “journalist” named Walter Lippmann. He had earned the reputation of being a notorious muckracker, contributing much to the success of the paper. The case was brought to his attention by an organization called the National Consumers League. The League was created in the year 1899 to combat labor injustice, and particularly the use of child labor in industry. (At this time, one of its board members was a woman named Eleanor Roosevelt.) The League’s chairman was Katherine Wiley. She was interested in the Radium case, and called it to Lippman’s attention. Perhaps she was aware of the power of the press to dictate what America was thinking.
Four Radium workers had already perished in the period from 1922 to 1926. One was a sister of the two sisters now enjoined in the lawsuit. The expired woman’s dentist had treated her dental problems while alive, and he had removed her jawbone during the final months of life. Suspecting an industrial disease, he wrapped the jawbone with photographic film, and after a week of exposure, was perhaps not surprised to find the imprint of the jawbone shape on the exposed photographic film. This indicated the jaw was radioactive and suggested Radium Necrosis. During the trial the body was exhumed, autopsied, and confirmed to be highly radioactive.
New Jersey had a statute of limitations for worker damages of two years. This could mean the two years Grace Fryer had spent seeking an attorney for the case had exceeded the required filing date. The company argued the filing was too late and should be dismissed. The women’s attorney countered that the company had conducted a campaign of disinformation, calling the women victims of Syphilis, or Phospho Jaw, ( a common 18th century disease from an industry which manufactured kitchen matches.) Because of this lack of information, he told the court, the workers were uninformed of the impending dangers. The case was allowed to proceed.
In late 1927 a reporter for a newspaper called the Star Eagle discovered that U.S. Radium had already reached out-of-court settlements with some families of deceased radium workers. It was revealed that in 1926, the company had already paid out $13,000 to three families. This finding seemed to connote an acceptance of responsibility by U.S. Radium. Attorney Berry introduced evidence the company was aware of the dangers of Radium. One of the company’s publications dated 1906 which was sent to doctors, contained many references to the dangers of Radium.
Legal maneuvering by the company delayed the next hearing until January of 1928. The women continued to get sicker. Three of the five became bedridden, including Grace. She could no longer walk unassisted, and required a back brace to sit up in bed. Appearing in court, some of the women were too weak to raise their arms to take the oath. Edna testified she could not sleep at night because of pain and that she was losing her house due to legal expenses. She said she was “content” though, for her children were to be cared for by her immediate family. Spectators wept in the courtroom. The newspapers covered the story by interviewing readers asking them how they might spend a quarter million dollar settlement with only one year to live.
The next hearing was in April of 1928, but the women were too sick to attend. The company requested a delay of the case until the following September because most of their witnesses would be traveling to Florida or Europe for summer vacations, and would not be available to testify. Obligingly, the judge continued the case until September. Attorney Berry protested the delay vigorously, reminding the judge the women might not survive the summer. He even found other attorneys who were willing to yield their court dates in the summer over to the radium trial. To no avail, the judge insisted on September. *
Newspaperman Walter Lippmann had taken up a cry for justice in his editorials. He wrote
“…The whole thing becomes a legal nightmare when in order to obtain justice five women have to go to court and prove that they are dying while lawyers and experts on the other side [argue in the newspapers]…” Lippmann and the Consumers League had successfully battled a case in 1925 about leaded gasoline against the Standard Oil Company and saw this situation in a similar light. When he heard of the judge’s postponement of the case Lippmann wrote
“…This is a heartless proceeding. It is unmanly, unjust and cruel. This is a case which calls not for fine-spun litigation but for simple, quick, direct justice…”
Physicians began to object to the postponement, saying these reminders of impending death would worsen conditions of the five women. Even Madame Curie, hearing of the case, responded from France that French workers used cotton swabs on a stick to paint the dials, and better methods must be developed. The public sent thousands of sympathy letters and more radium “cures” arrived to help the women recover. Facing mounting public outrage, the judge finally moved the case forward to June 1928.
In early June, U.S. District Court Judge William Clark stepped forward and offered to negotiate a settlement among the parties. A few days before the trial was to continue a settlement was reached. The “Radium Girls” agreed to receive a settlement of $10,000 each, plus a stipend of $600.00 each year as long as they lived. The U.S. Radium Corporation agreed to pay all medical bills, past and future. It was a far cry from the quarter million each woman had sued for. Attorney Berry was skeptical of the judge, implying his upscale situation put him in the “employers camp”. Weeks after the settlement was in place, Berry discovered that the Judge was a stockholder in the U.S. Radium Corporation.
The Radium Girls all died in the 1920s and ‘30s. Could it be argued their suffering was not in vain? There were other Radium plants scattered through the United States, and mining operations in Colorado. The National Consumers League began to mobilize its chapters to inspect Radium plants. Medical Examiners from New York and New Jersey met with the League and soon the U.S. Surgeon General, (supported by the New York World of course) organized a national conference on Radium factory safety standards. It was held in December 1928. Resulting from this, P.H.S. formed two committees to oversee safety standards and worker protection from the Federal level. No other Radium workers died from the effects, and workers were better protected in the future. Turning much more slowly, the wheels of the legal system gradually ground out stricter laws for worker protection and defined “worker abuse” more clearly, allowing more effective pursuit of claims.
Commenting on the case, one Public Health official observed later “…the martyrdom of a few may have saved many…”
(to be continued)
*Details of the Radium Trials may be found in “Mass Media & Environmental Conflict” by Mark Neuzil and Bill Kovarik. Sage Publications 1996.