Archive for September, 2010

The Radium Trials

September 28, 2010

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.

Comic Book Ad sells Radium Scope to Children

          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.


The Radium Girls

September 13, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

Copyright © 2010 by Charles Glassmire


Sept. 13, 2010

The Radium Girls

Founded by two physicians, the United States Radium Corporation appeared in Orange New Jersey in the year 1921. The


company had started up six years earlier in Newark, as the Radium Luminous Material Corporation. U.S. Radium used a process invented in 1902 by William J. Hammer, to create a radioactive paint which glowed in the dark. Hammer mixed radium with zinc sulfide, and the radiation caused the sulfide to fluoresce. Sadly, he did not patent his process. U.S. Radium saw success selling painted products to the Army.

The product was called UNDARK. It was painted onto the dials of watches and later, clocks and aircraft instruments; the military in World War I found the glow-in-the-dark watches very useful for soldiers in combat. The company hired workers to do the precise manual work of painting the tiny letters and numbers by hand onto a watch face using a small paintbrush. UNDARK at first didn’t move into the U.S. civilian market, but it proved extremely popular as a European product, especially in Switzerland, maker of the world’s clocks. Quoting one world traveler named Ross Mullner,

“There were so many radium painters in that country that it was common to recognize them on the streets even on the darkest nights because of the glow around them; their hair sparkled almost like a halo.”

So by 1921, U.S. Radium was hiring over a hundred workers to hand-paint UNDARK onto the clock faces of their products. The workers were mostly women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, since it was said they adapted well to the precise nature of the work.  No safety precautions were taken when the workers handled their individual paint pots and brushes. The wages were rather good, workers were paid 1.5 cents each if they painted 250 dials per day.

Radium Dial Painters at Work

It is not clear whether the dangers of radiation were known to the general population when dial painting began during the war. This was a time when radioactive materials were moving into many products on the market, and conventional wisdom seemed to be that “Radiation is good for you”.

The small size of numbers being painted on a watch face required a fine point on the paintbrush. The women were trained to create a fine tip by twirling the brush in their mouth, and shaping the point with their lips. This was needed to be done every few brushstrokes. In the process, a small amount of paint was swallowed. Women were told it was harmless and encouraged to experiment with the material for fun. Girls painted their fingernails with the product and on their lips as a lipstick. Some painted it onto their front teeth to surprise their boyfriends when the lights went out. It was later noted that management of U.S. Radium and corporate scientists did take precautions to isolate themselves from handling the product. They wore masks, used lead screens, tongs and gloves when working with the radium paint. Workers were not given these precautions.

Within a few years, some of the women began to show what appeared at first to be unrelated medical problems. Aplastic anemia, broken bones, tooth loss and necrosis of the jaw (now known as “Radium Jaw”) were diagnosed. U.S. Radium denied there was any harm caused by the paint. The company requested doctors and dentists not to release any information on these diagnoses, particularly to the press. In at least one occurrence, a girl worker went to a “physician” who examined her and then declared her to be perfectly healthy. An observer “physician” present in the room agreed with the conclusions. He was later revealed to be a Vice President of U.S. Radium Corporation. The examining “doctor”, only a toxicologist, later was shown to have no medical credentials.

Workers began to die. The company denied all responsibility and conducted a campaign of dis-information. Deaths were attributed to other causes. Rumors were spread that some of the women were dying from Syphilis in order to discredit them.

Finally a former dial painter named Grace Fryer became alarmed. She had worked for the company from 1917 to 1920, then moved on to a better job in a bank. She thought it was rather odd when she blew her nose that the handkerchief glowed in the dark. Two years later her teeth began falling out. Serious abscesses and pain  in her jaw led to an X-ray which showed her jawbone was badly decayed. Many doctors could not identify the cause, until finally one suggested it might be her Radium work. By 1925, she decided to sue her former employer, but searched for two more years to find a lawyer who was willing to challenge U.S. Radium in court. Meanwhile more were dying, others were given a prognosis of “one year remaining to live”.

Four factory workers with similar problems decided to join Grace in her lawsuit. The press later dubbed them “The Radium Girls”. There was almost no legal precedent in the labor laws at this time defining worker rights when abused by an employer. Adding to the confusion, the still little known effects of radiation were under dispute by the medical community. Governing labor safety standards were rather vague and did not provide a strong standard to show “provable suffering”. But what became different about this case was that the media took an interest, perhaps out of sensationalism, and began to follow and report in detail on the proceedings.

In the early ‘20s, U.S. Radium actually requested a Harvard physiology professor, Cecil Drinker, to study the working conditions in the New Jersey plant. He did so, and found almost all the workers had unusual blood conditions. Radium contamination was widespread in the area and on bodies of some of the workers. He also diagnosed advanced radium necrosis in a few. He talked with the corporation chemist, Ed Lehman, noticing his handling of radium was careless, and the man had lesions on both his hands. Drinker said the chemist

“…scoffed at the possibility of future damage…The attitude was characteristic of those in authority throughout the plant. There seemed to be an utter lack of realization of the dangers inherent in the material being manufactured…”.

Lehman died the following year.

When Drinker went to publish his report, recommending changes in safety procedures, he was legally enjoined by the president of U.S. Radium, Arthur Roeder, who claimed Drinker had agreed to confidentiality. Roeder, while prohibiting Drinker from publishing, said he had a copy of Drinker’s report which claimed “every girl is in perfect condition”. When Drinker finally did publish, his report stated

“… Dust samples collected in the workroom from various locations and from chairs not used by the workers were all luminous in the dark room. Their hair, faces, hands, arms, necks, the dresses, the underclothes, even the corsets of the dial painters were luminous. One of the girls showed luminous spots on her legs and thighs. The back of another was luminous almost to the waist…”

In 1925 the chief medical examiner of Essex County, New Jersey finally issued a report. The report cited the radioactive material ingested by the women as causative for bone cancer, aplastic anemia, jawbone infections and other effects of radiation.

Finally in the spring of 1927, Grace Fryer’s attorney filed suite in New Jersey, asking $250,000 compensation on her behalf. When the Radium girls appeared in court, most were too weak to raise their arms to take the oath…

(to be continued …)