How the Story of the Radium Girls Made Its Way Into Pop Culture: Facts, Fiction & Film
Middle-class American women in their teens and early twenties painted luminous numbers on watch dials, so that soldiers fighting in WWI (1914 - 1918) could better read and synchronize time while in the dark. But, in popular culture, including the eponymous title of the 2018 film starring Joey King and Abbey Quinn, these dial painters were better known as Radium Girls.
The nickname stemmed from their main working material — a soft and shiny metal that made those numbers and other things it touched emanate an otherworldly, almost supernatural glow. At the time, radium was the “most radioactive natural substance” yet discovered and people were excited about the possibilities of its perceived potential.
For a while, Radium Girls must have felt invincible. For one, unlike many other factory workers, dial-painters in the U.S. Radium Corporation (originally known as Radium Luminous Materials Corporation) in Orange, New Jersey, made up to $40,000 per year, three times the average, and worked in much more serene and humane conditions. But the job had other incentives, too.
Not only were the women contributing to the war effort, they were also inscribing their names and addresses on the backs of the watches they made, thereby receiving letters from soldiers in return. But their most significant contributions would be not to the war, but to science, medicine, and the rights of workers, and they would be made at a great personal cost.
When the women left their jobs and stepped out into the night, they glowed in the dark, earning a secondary nickname, the ghost girls, as a result. The glow was one of the side effects of unintentionally ingesting hazardous quantities of radium through dust at their workplace and the radioactive paint on their work brushes, which many of them licked to maintain a pointed end.
Other side effects, caused by radium poisoning that irretrievably settled into their bones, were much more serious. From damaging tissue and constantly reproducing bone marrow to causing different types of cancer, the crippling and often fatal injuries resulting from working with radium were wide ranging and absolutely terrifying.
In the film, Bessie (King) and her older sister Josephine (Quinn) work at American Radium in Orange, New Jersey, in 1928; their eldest sister Mary was also employed at the same factory before her death, allegedly from syphilis, three years prior. When we first meet Josephine, she is being honored for having produced the most dials in the factory, averaging 200 per day.
Yet Bessie's progress at work is slower, as she refuses to use her lips to soften and refine the tip of her camel-hair paint brush before each application, a technique known as "lip-pointing” that transferred over from porcelain painting. Bessie’s position also makes her work sloppier, thus earning her less money. But, unbeknown to her at the time, it would spare her life.
Josephine, however, begins to exhibit side effects typical of radium poisoning; her teeth loosen and fall out, she coughs up blood and pieces of her “honeycombed” or “radium jaw”. Concerned for her ailing sister, Bessie asks the factory’s boss to recommend a doctor who could see Josephine. Instead of aiding his workers, the boss responds unfavorably.
By 1925, numerous scientists and government officials knew that the element was causing serious illness. But radium industry leaders continued to deny this fact, concealed data that supported its existence, and worked hard to control the public narrative by promoting opinions that put the blame for the dial painters’ illnesses elsewhere.
Insinuating that Bessie and Josephine are acting like hysterical women, their boss tries to dismiss their symptoms as a byproduct of their sexuality or sexual repression. But, a doctor is finally sent their way, only to question Josephine about the adequacy of her personal hygiene regiment. He concludes that Josephine is fine, but the sisters ask him to run more tests.
True to life, the film shows how the stigma of venereal disease and the implied promiscuity behind it, ensured that none of the respectable young ladies would be willing to bring negative attention to their illnesses. Radium giants frequently hired doctors who were more than happy to provide a false diagnosis for a sum they deemed high enough to silence their conscience.
Similarly, the doctor in the film is hired by American Radium. He does not have a medical degree, but a PhD, which does not grant him the authority to examine the young woman. Still, he arrives at a diagnosis: syphilis. This is further unsettling, considering that Josephine is a virgin and the girls’ sister Mary, who also exhibited similar symptoms, had the same diagnosis.
Eventually, Josephine and Bess — assisted by two of their social activist friends— find Wylie Stephens, a lawyer gathering evidence of radium industrial poisoning, who convinces them of the need to exhume their sister Mary. In doing so, they find that Mary’s bones contain 1,000 times the legal level of radium. Together, with their suspicions affirmed, they press further.
In life, much like in the film, evidence of radiation poisoning was dismissed as anything other than what it actually was. For example, in 1919, when a radium plant received complaints from neighbors that the fumes produced therein made it difficult to breathe and were staining their laundry yellow, they were dismissed as opportunism by immigrants desperate for money.
It’s also true that “at the beginning of the 20th century, radium was a popular additive in consumer products such as toothpaste, hair creams, and even food items because of its supposed beneficial health properties. In fact, ”the glowing element was hailed as a panacea for everything from blindness to hysteria.” As such, it was difficult for victims to find representation.
Radium Girls is based on five real women who filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Radium Corporation in 1928; their names were Grace Fryer, Edna Hussman, Katherine Schaub, and sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice. After a very public trial, the plant settled, with each victim receiving $10,000, plus $600 for every year they were alive, but they all died shortly after.
“The Radium Girls' lawsuit had tarnished the reputation of the magical miracle worker of radium,'' wrote Taylor Orci in 2013 for The Atlantic. “Gone were the days where the element was blindly celebrated, such as in the musical Piff, Paff, Pouf, where a song called The Radium Dance was a huge selling point.” But the fight was far from over, and other suits followed.
The final radium-related lawsuit was filed by factory workers against the Illinois-based Radium Dial Company. “Beginning in 1927, employees asked management for compensation for medical and dental bills, but they were consistently rebuffed, and in 1937, five women finally found an attorney to represent their interests in court.”
It probably helped their case that Marie Curie (1867-1934) — who discovered radium in 1898 through her work on radioactivity, which partly involved searching for possible medical applications for the element — died of aplastic anemia just three years earlier, at the age of 66. Her illness was likely caused by her prolonged exposure to the element.
Though the Illinois Industrial Commission ruled in their favor in 1938, Radium Dial appealed, effectively sending the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. But, in October of 1939, the Supreme Court declined to hear the plant’s appeal and upheld the lower court’s original ruling. After eight more lawsuits, Radium Dial was finally forced to pay the workers poisoned at their plant.
The half life of radium is roughly 1,600 years. Today, roughly100 years after their death, the Radium Girls are still glowing where they are buried.