They say that if you visit the grave of Katherine Schaub and bring a Geiger counter, the machine will register a significant positive reading. Katherine, a radium dial painter, died in 1933 after suffering for more than a decade from a disease chillingly named radium necrosis.
In 1902, the self-proclaimed American inventor William Hammer returned from Paris with a gift given him by Pierre and Marie Curie: radium salt crystals. Mr. Hammer experimented with various combinations of glue, zinc sulfide, and radium crystals to form an iridescent paint that created a glow-in-the-dark effect and could be applied to just about anything—wristwatches and clocks, gun sights, children’s toys, even human bodies (in the form of fingernail polish).
Hamilton sold his paint to a New Jersey company founded in 1914 by Dr. Sabin Arnold von Sochocky and Dr. George S. Willis. Though they originally called it the Radium Luminous Material Corporation, Sochocky and Willis changed the name to United States Radium Corporation in 1921. They set up shop in Orange, New Jersey, intent on developing a market for their product; they assured the public that the radium was in “such minute quantities that it is absolutely harmless.”
They dubbed the paint-like substance Undark.
Grace Fryer, Edna Hussmann, Katherine Schaub, and sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice were five of the over two thousand dial painters employed by U.S. Radium and its attendant companies over the next couple of decades. Their job was straightforward: to paint the dials of watches, clocks, and military instrument panels for use in ships, airplanes, and other equipment that demanded nighttime use.
Most of the time, however, they painted wristwatches.
“I was pleased with the idea of a job which would engage me in war work,” Katherine said. “Some of the young women would scratch their names and addresses into these watches, and sometimes a lonely soldier would respond with a letter.”
The work was tedious, the conditions physically hard on the eyes, back, and hands. They were paid by the piece—one and a half cents per watch—thus some of the women made about twenty dollars per week with U.S. Radium. The median income of New Jersey women workers in 1917 was about fifteen dollars per week; these were good jobs for working women.
The labor was exacting. The numbers and symbols on the dials were often small, thus the camel-hair brushes had to be sharp. To accomplish this, the women were instructed by their managers to lick the ends of the brushes to keep them pointed, ready for the meticulous work. Undark, after all, was tasteless and odorless. “I think I pointed mine with my lips about six times to every watch dial. It didn’t taste funny. It didn’t have any taste, and I didn’t know that it was harmful,” Grace would later say.
Despite their claims that Undark was harmless, Drs. von Sochocky and Willis, as well as the scientists who worked for U.S. Radium producing the paint, knew better. The key ingredient of Undark is about one million times more radioactive than uranium. The scientists protected themselves with lead shields and used masks and tongs to handle Undark production processes.
In 1920, Grace was offered a more appealing position as a bank teller. About two years after leaving U.S. Radium, Grace started to feel ill. She didn’t have her usual youthful spunk, and she was experiencing joint pain. Soon thereafter her teeth began falling out, and a painful abscess formed in her jaw. She sought medical attention from several doctors who’d never seen anything like her malady—despite her evident symptoms, Grace’s skin emitted a rosy hue usually associated with abundant health.
Unknown to her doctors, the radium caused a temporary increase of red blood cells; soon it would enter her bone marrow and turn her skin the color of ash.
In 1925, three years after the onset of Grace’s illness, a friend referred her to a Columbia University specialist named Frederick Flynn. He declared her to be in fine health. A colleague present at the exam concurred with Flynn’s diagnosis. Flynn, however, was not a licensed medical doctor—he was an industrial toxicologist under contract with U.S. Radium. Neither was his colleague a doctor: he was the vice president of U.S. Radium.
In the early twenties, U.S. Radium contracted with a noted Harvard toxicologist, Dr. Cecil Drinker, to conduct a study of working conditions at U.S. Radium’s New Jersey facilities. Drinker was a highly respected scientist who, at the time of the U.S. Radium operation, was helping to develop the field of industrial hygiene. He’d begun a research facility at Harvard in the School of Public Health, and had studied the poisonous effects of manufacturing-created dust on the respiration and blood content of workers in the zinc industry. (He eventually concluded that the culprit was manganese.) His contract with U.S. Radium was his first foray into studying the industrial hazards of radiation.
Drinker examined the workplace in Orange and observed an environment replete with radium-tainted dust, open containers of highly radioactive paints, poor ventilation, and other problematic conditions. He also took blood samples from the workers on the shop floor as well as the scientists working in the adjoining labs. What he found was disastrous. Every one of the workers suffered from dangerous blood conditions. He encountered several cases of radium necrosis; he noticed, too, that a chemist, Edward Lehman, had severe lesions on his hands and arms. Lehman dismissed the idea that Undark had anything to do with his lesions or that there was any threat to his future health from continued exposure to the substance.
Lehman would die within the year.
Drinker remarked that Lehman’s attitude of complacency was rampant at the company. “There seemed to be an utter lack of realization of the dangers inherent in the material that was being manufactured.” U.S. Radium sold the sand-like residue of the radium paint process as filler for children’s sandboxes. When parents questioned the safety of the sand, von Sochocky assuaged them by telling them that the sand was “most hygienic and… more beneficial than the mud of world-renowned curative baths.”
Drinker wrote an extensive report following his investigation and presented it to Arthur Roeder, then the president of U.S. Radium. (Dr. von Sochocky was no longer in charge; he sold the business to Roeder and was fighting his own battle with radium poisoning. He would die during the Radium Girls’ trial.) Roeder claimed that there were problems with the findings of Drinker’s report; he also forbade Drinker to publish the report in a scientific journal, because he claimed—falsely—that Drinker had signed a confidentiality agreement with U.S. Radium.
Without consulting or alerting Drinker, Roeder carefully edited the report (and forged Drinker’s signature) before providing it to the New Jersey Department of Labor.
In April 1925, a colleague of Drinker’s, Dr. Alice Hamilton—the first female professor at Harvard—received a copy of the altered report. (Hamilton sat on the board of the National Consumers League, an organization formed in 1899 that works to protect workers’ rights.) Hamilton wrote a letter to Katherine Drinker (Drinker’s wife; she also had a PhD and was a member of the Harvard School of Public Health research group). “Mr. Roeder is not giving you and Dr. Drinker a very square deal,” she wrote. “The Labor Board has a copy of the report and it shows that ‘every girl is in perfect condition.’ Do you suppose Roeder could do such a thing as to issue a forged report in your name?”
Sufficiently angered, and despite the threats he’d received from Roeder and U.S. Radium about publishing his findings, Drinker submitted his original report, titled “Necrosis of the Jaw in Radium Workers,” to the Journal of Industrial Hygiene, where it was published in August 1925. His ghastly portrait of the radium workers greatly conflicted with what Roeder had submitted to the Labor Board. These girls were far from being in “perfect condition.”
Hamilton telephoned Walter Lippmann, editor of the influential New York World—a liberal newspaper founded by Joseph Pulitzer and known for reporting the plight of workers and low-income groups. A few years prior, Lippmann had written in defense of employees for Standard Oil who had been poisoned by tetra-ethyl lead, and Hamilton wondered if the same attention might help the dial painters’ case. Together, they began to develop a plan for disseminating stories concerning the Radium Girls and U.S. Radium.
By 1926, Grace’s health was deteriorating by the day, and with little hope or help coming from the many doctors she consulted, Grace sought legal assistance. This proved equally frustrating; U.S. Radium was a foe with powerful connections, and many of the lawyers Grace approached were unwilling to risk their careers to help a poor working girl. Finally, Grace secured a young attorney from Newark, Raymond Berry, who filed a suit on her behalf in May, 1927: Grace Fryer v. U.S. Radium. Edna Hussmann, Katherine Schaub, and sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice joined in the lawsuit and sought $250,000 in compensation plus medical expenses already incurred.
The legal process would prove to be a protracted one. The state of New Jersey had a two-year statute of limitations on workplace-injury claims. Berry argued that the statute applied from the date the victims learned of their affliction, not from the date of their dismissal from U.S. Radium. A judge ruled that the case should be brought to a hearing by presenting it to the Court of Chancery, a court (as decreed by England’s King James, in the early eighteenth century) that provided “jurisdiction when there are no forms of action by which relief could be obtained at law, in respect to rights which ought to be enforced.”
Then two things happened to aid the Radium Girls’ case.
A former dial painter, Amelia Maggia, who’d died in 1922 (presumably from syphilis), had visited before her death a dentist named Joseph P. Knef. As part of her treatment, Knef had removed part of Amelia’s jaw, and found it rotted and full of holes—necrosis caused by phosphorous, or so he initially believed. But the “phospho jaw” diagnosis did not satisfy Knef. He sought the chemical formula for Undark from U.S. Radium; his request was denied. Knef, however, saved the jawbone. In 1924, he teamed with a radiation expert and retested the bone sample. The results revealed that Amelia had not died of syphilis but of radium necrosis. A request was granted to exhume Amelia’s body in October of 1927; her remains confirmed the diagnosis.
Another “break” assisted Berry with his case: a reporter for the Star Eagle newspaper discovered that U.S. Radium had come to an out-of-court settlement with three families of U.S. Radium employees who had already died. The families received a combined total of $13,000 in 1926.
On January 11, 1928, Grace, Edna, and Katherine appeared in court for the first hearing of their case. (The other plaintiffs, Quinta and Albina, were unable to move from their beds.)
Grace arrived wearing a back brace that enabled her to sit in an upright position. She had lost all of her teeth. She could not raise her hand to take the oath.
Grace testified that her health had been fine until she began working at U.S. Radium. Edna and Katherine concurred that they, too, had been healthy prior to working at U.S. Radium, but now could not sleep at night because of the pain. Nor could they dress, bathe, or eat without assistance.
U.S. Radium countered that many of the women they had hired to paint dials were “unfit” workers, unable to handle more strenuous jobs; these women, previously afflicted with frail countenances, were “declining normally.” U.S. Radium also suggested that they suffered from hysteria, weakness of will, and general lack of ability to confront “reality.” “Radium, because of the mystery that surrounds much of its actions, is a topic which stimulates the imagination, and to our mind, it is to this and not the actual fact that many of the reports of the luminous paint’s effects in our paint may be attributed,” declared a U.S. Radium spokesman to the New York Times.
The January hearing ended; a second was set for April. But Berry’s clients were deteriorating quickly; he feared that several of them might not survive long enough to receive any benefits whatsoever.
However, he also feared that their emotional condition might be worsened by reports in the press about the proceedings. In a letter to Berry, one doctor asked, “Can you get the [newspapers] to agree to keep the women out of the paper henceforth?” Another doctor stated, “I would certainly not like to have anything the matter with me and be told every few weeks that I was going to die.” Berry replied that he had “endeavored to discourage publicity” to protect the women. The story, however, was too compelling and important to keep under wraps.
Enter Walter Lippmann. Lippmann wrote to Berry asking if he could be made privy to some of the documents Berry had in his possession. At first, Berry resisted; then U.S. Radium initiated more stalling tactics. When Berry tried to move the September hearing to June—arguing that his plaintiffs might not be alive come September—U.S. Radium claimed that its witnesses would be unavailable until September because they’d be vacationing in Europe over the summer. Judge’s decision: a hearing in September.
Incensed, Lippmann wrote an editorial on May 10 that called the proceedings and delays “a damnable travesty of justice. The women are dying. If ever a case called for prompt adjudication, it is the case of five crippled women who are fighting for a few miserable dollars to ease their last days on earth.” In response, U.S. Radium held a press conference during which Flynn (the Columbia “doctor” who’d proclaimed Grace perfectly healthy three years earlier) stated that the women would survive and there was no radioactivity in the tests he had run on them. Lippmann speedily responded in several more articles. Most pointedly, on May 19, he wrote, “This is a heartless proceeding. It is unmanly, unjust and cruel. This is a case that calls not for a fine-spun litigation but for simple, quick, direct justice.”
Even Marie Curie became involved on behalf of the Radium Girls; she’d read of the case in French newspapers. “I would be only too happy to give any aid that I could. [However], there is absolutely no means of destroying the substance once it enters the human body.” (Curie would die of radium poisoning in 1934.)
Berry, backed by growing public outrage, managed to get a new trial date set for June. A federal judge, William Clark, agreed to mediate the case. In the end, a settlement was reached. Each woman received ten thousand dollars and a six-hundred-dollar-per-year annuity “for life.” In addition, husbands of the married women received a small sum “for loss of services” by their wives.
Judge Clark was a stockholder in U.S. Radium.
Radium dial painting continued in the U.S. until about 1940, but smaller operations persisted into the 1960s. In the 1980s, several of these sites, notably the one at which the Radium Girls worked in New Jersey, but also sites in Ottawa, Illinois, and Westport, Connecticut, were declared Superfund sites. The buildings were destroyed, all the debris and even the soil were trucked to hazardous-waste sites in Utah, Nevada, and other remote western regions. The cost of these clean-ups ran into the tens of millions.
Grace, Edna, Katherine, Quinta, and Albina had all died by 1935. Their deaths would foster significant changes in industrial health law and worker compensation law—still, it was an incredibly high price to pay by innocent women in the service of making pretty things. In the papers their deaths were often blamed upon the element that caused their demise. Radium was the culprit, not the humans who developed it.
A few years before she died, Grace was interviewed by a reporter from the New York Journal and asked what she thought of her personal sacrifice. To this she replied that she could say she died for science. But then she asked the reporter, “Would you die for science?” An epithet in the interrogative, and fitting for someone who died among so many unanswered questions.