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By Gabrielle Bryan-Quamina on

The Radium Girls

Trainee Assistant Digital Curator, Gabrielle Bryan-Quamina, delves into our collection to tell the story of the Radium Girls, the first casualties of industrial radium poisoning.

The outbreak of the First World War led to the proliferation of wristwatches for men. Prior to the war, wristwatches were typically the preserve of women – more jewellery than timepiece – while men typically used pocket watches. However, pocket watches were not practical to use in combat, so they lost favour during the war. Wristwatches were so important that the British War Office ended up distributing them to soldiers.

“Ingersoll” wrist watch with leather strap, pin pallet escapement and luminous hour hand, 1915

Being able to access and view watches in the dark trenches, ahead of timed and co-ordinated pushes over-the-top, was vital. This led to a key innovation: luminous dials and hands. A special glow-in-the-dark paint was created. It was made of zinc sulphide and radium.

Radium226 is an element discovered by Pierre and Marie Curie in 1898. As a radioactive element, it produces radiation. Radiation is caused by the disintegration of atoms and comes in three main forms: alpha, beta, and gamma.

Radium as a lone element is not luminescent. However, zinc sulphide – a phosphorescent – will emit light when it is exposed to radiation.

The discovery of radium was followed rapidly by its use in medicine. Early cancer treatments used radium226 to eliminate tumours. When the rays pass through a person, it causes ionization. This is when radiation removes electrons from atoms, transforming them into positively charged ions. This disrupts the chemical equilibrium of a cell and can cause cell death. Cells that divide quickly, like cancerous tumours, are affected by this at a faster rate so are eliminated before healthy cells are damaged.

One gramme radium teletherapy apparatus, wheeled (the fourth Westminster Hospital “bomb”), c.1930

In addition to its use in medicine, radium was used widely in industry. Radium wrist watches were initially produced for military use, but their practicality made these a quickly ubiquitous civilian consumer item. The watches were made by a group of young women, who came to be known as ‘The Radium Girls’. They were employed to apply luminescent paint to watch dials from 1917 in three factories in Orange, New Jersey; Ottawa, Illinois; and Waterbury, Connecticut. These factories were owned by the United States Radium Corporation (USRC), the Radium Dial Company, and the Waterbury Clock Company respectively.

The materials and methods of application were dependent on the type of dial being painted. While dialpainters that worked on metal dials used styluses to apply an oil-based mixture, the Radium Girls were painting paper dials, so used camelhair brushes to apply a water-based paint. To paint the intricate numerals on watch faces, the dialpainters were encouraged to use the lip-pointing technique, pressing the brush between their lips to form a fine point before they dipped it in the paint. Every time this was done, a small amount of radium was ingested.

The Radium Girls, and their employers, were not initially concerned by this. At this time, there was little scientific understanding of the hazards posed by the radioactivity of radium. By the early twentieth century, radium began to appear in a host of commercial medicines, tonics, and cosmetics. It was advertised to the public as a promoter of good health that could improve energy levels, cure illnesses, and increase beauty. Radium appeared in toothpaste, eye creams, make-up – it was even added to drinking water.

Radium water filter with upper reservoir vessel, English, 1901-1930.

The dialpainters had been told repeatedly by their bosses that radium was good for their health. They would leave work dusted in dazzling radium down to their corsets and some even used it to paint their nails and teeth for a ghoulish smile.

Dialpainters were in the top 5% of female earners, averaging $20 a week. The working-class girls appreciated the opportunity to make a good living. Their career, however, did not ultimately lead to a good life.

Illnesses begin

From 1921, numerous dialpainters in Orange began to complain of strange illnesses. Their teeth would ache and eventually fall out. The resulting hole where the tooth had been would not heal and abscesses formed. They began to develop severe anaemia. Their bones went brittle. Eventually, jaw necrosis set in; their bone and tissue cells would be starved of blood and die. Unbeknownst to them, they were suffering from the effects of radiation poisoning.

In 1922, the first death occurred. Amelia Maggia had worked as a dialpainter for four years between 1917-1921. She was just 25 when she died. In the days preceding her death, her dentist was able to lift and remove her entire lower jaw by hand. The deaths of Helen Quinlan, 21, and Irene Rudolph, 22, came the following year. They had worked as dialpainters for 20 months and 2 ½ years.

By 1924, the young dialpainters and their doctors began to suspect that their mystery illnesses were occupational in origin. They informed the health and labour departments of their concerns, and, despite conducting three state investigations, no action was taken. They turned to the Consumers League, a reform group representing female workers, who tried to advocate for the dialpainters but were also ignored.

United states radium corporation

The employer of the New Jersey dialpainters, United States Radium Corporation, refused to accept any responsibility for their illnesses, insisting that radium was completely harmless, and their illnesses were not occupational. The USRC claimed the women were suffering from syphilis, a highly stigmatised sexually transmitted infection. They did this to discredit the women’s testimony and embarrass them into silence.

In March 1924, the company conducted a covert internal investigation led by Harvard physician Cecil Drinker. The investigation concluded in June, with Drinker informing the company that radium was the likely cause of the dialpainters’ illnesses and recommending some safety precautions. The company president rejected the findings, and the Drinker report was promptly buried. The USRC submitted a fraudulent report to the labour department with falsified results that exonerated them as not culpable for the women’s illnesses. Their deception did not come to light until August 1925.

As many leading radium scientists had investments in radium companies, they were disinclined to disclose the dangerous side effects. Scientists had known since 1914 that radium could cause anaemia and skin burns. It would later be revealed during the litigation that the UNRC scientists and management had taken considerable precautions to protect themselves from the effects of radiation but did nothing to protect their dialpainters.

1932 photograph showing a woman working in a clock factory, includes editorial crop marks. Hand written caption on back reads; ‘Hand painting luminous paint on dials’.

Medical evidence

By the mid-1920s, there was growing medical evidence demonstrating the link between radium and jaw necrosis. A paper by doctors Harrison Martland and Joseph Knef revealed high levels of radioactivity in examinations of living dialpainters and following the autopsy of one deceased dialpainter, Sarah Carlough Maileffer. This landmark work explicitly linked dialpainting to radium poisoning.

The radium ingested by the dialpainters became imbedded in their bones and accumulated over time, becoming a source of ionizing radiation within the body. This internal source of radiation gradually killed healthy cells and eventually destroyed their bone marrow and blood cells, culminating in the horrific symptoms the dialpainters were experiencing.

Legal battle

In 1927, five surviving Radium Girls (Katherine Schaub, Grace Fryer, Quinta Maggia McDonald, Albina Maggia Larice, and Edna Hussman) filed a lawsuit against their former employer. It had taken them two years to find a lawyer willing to represent them against the industrial radium complex.

By the start of the trial in 1928, all five women were too ill to raise their hands to take their oath. Two women were bedridden, and one other could not sit up without the use of a back brace.

Fearing that they would not survive a lengthy trial, the women and their lawyers made the decision to settle the case out of court in June 1928. Each Radium Girl was awarded $10,000 in damages and $600 per year for the rest of their lives. All their legal and medical bills were to be paid by the company. The catch was that United States Radium would not have to take any legal responsibility.

A black and white photograph showing the five Radium Girls after they settled their lawsuit. Credit: Center for Human Radiobiology, National Archives, Chicago


The Radium Girls case led to safer working practices for workers in the radium industry. Lip pointing was banned, and protective equipment was introduced for all workers. While radium was used in luminous dials into the 1960s, these quick and easy changes meant that there were no further cases of radium poisoning among dialpainters. Modern luminescent watches are no longer produced using radium as there are now less hazardous materials at our disposal.

The media attention paid to the 1928 case, and the cases of dialpainters in Ottawa and Waterbury in the 1930s, led to public awareness of the dangers of radium. Legislation was introduced to crack down on commercial radium products and to recognise radium poisoning as a compensable occupational disease.

Surviving dialpainters were tested for decades throughout the twentieth century, contributing to scientific knowledge on the long-term effects of radium exposure.

The Radium Girls’ pain and deaths were entirely avoidable. With just a few simple safety measures, their lives could have been spared. It is estimated that radium was responsible for the deaths of 112 dialpainters in total. That radiant glowing substance still sits in their bones, which continue to glow beyond the grave.