The Forgotten Story Of The Radium Girls, Whose Deaths Saved Thousands Of Workers’ Lives

During World War I, many young ladies used to work in clock factories, painting watch dials with lambent metallic element paint. However, when the women — who started virtually glowing in the dark after their work ended and began to see grotesque aspect effects, they began a fight for justice that might forever modify United States labor laws.

A woman named Grace Fryer started work as a dial painter at the United States Radium Corporation in 1917. She had two Soldier brothers, and she wanted to help in the war effort any way she could. Little did she knew, that she would change the worker rights forever.

Dial painting was known as “the elite job for the poor working girls”; these girls were paid three times the average factory pay, and it also made the women in those times more financially empowered. Most of the workers were teenagers as they had small hands perfect for this kind of artistic work.

They were required to paint delicate designs with fine haired brushes, applying the Radium to the numbers and indicators of the watches. After a few strokes a brush sometimes would lose its shape, so the women’s managers encouraged them to use their lips and tongues to keep the brushes tip sharp and clean know as “lip, dip, paint routine” later described by playwright Melanie Marnich. The glowing paint had no taste whatsoever, and the managers assured them that rosy cheeks would be the only physical side effect to swallowing the radium. To make matters worse Radium was being marketed as A Medical Elixir for all ailments.


Via Chicago Daily Times / Sun-Times Media

“The first thing we asked was ‘Does this stuff hurt you’?” Mae Cubberley, who instructed Grace in the technique “Naturally you don’t want to put anything in your mouth that is going to hurt you. The manager said that it wasn’t dangerous, that we didn’t need to be afraid.”

That was not entirely true though, as Marie Curie herself could attest to the dangers of this glow in the dark material. She had burn marks to prove it, and many people had died of radium poisoning before they even started this company.


Via Daily Herald Archive / Getty Images


Soon after in 1922, One of Grace’s Colleague named Mollie Maggia quit her work because she was sick. No-one could tell what was wrong with her, including many doctors. Mollie was becoming iller, and by May 1922 she had lost most of her teeth, and the infection was spreading. Mollie’s body had given up and was falling apart. It was literally boring holes inside them while they were alive.” By September 12, 1922, the infection had spread to her throat and blood sept out of her jugular. She soon was pronounced dead at the age of 24.

Even after the death’s of many young girls, Their Employer USRC still did not hold themselves responsible. Many studies were done, and some of them did warn about the dangers of Radium, but USRC made some false studies and even went so far as to say that these sick women were trying to “palm off” their sickness on the firm and did not listen to their cry for help.


Via Collection of Ross Mullner


Someone finally took charge after the first Male Employee of the firm died of the same illness as the Radium Girls. These women were breaking from the inside out as the radium had settled into their bones making their bodies shine in the dark. Grace Frye’s spine was crushed, so she had to wear steel back brace. Some of these girls had stumps for legs and they watched themselves in horror as bits and pieces of their body would come apart.

Via Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkins / Deadly Glow


“It is not for myself I care,” Grace Fryer said. “I am thinking more of the hundreds of girls to whom this may serve as an example.” Garce led this fight against the corporation who were making hundreds of people sick. It was, however, a legal battle and they were soon trapped in a vicious trap. Grace was the daughter of a Union delegate so she did not give up so easily.

In 1927 a Lawyer named Raymond Berry accepted their case but they were forced to settle out of court since Grace had been only given 4 months to live. She did, however, raise the profile of radium poisoning just as she had planned. This case woke up the whole America and many radium dial Companies were shook by it.


Via CHR, National Archives, Chicago


A dial painter named Catherine Wolfe also read the coverage “There were meetings at the plant that bordered on riots,” she told. “The chill of fear was so depressing that we could scarcely work.”

Catherine Wolfe soon developed a tumor on her hip in 1938, but she was not going to give up. She may have been close to death when the case of radium poisoning went to court, she still insisted on giving evidence on her death bed against the doctors advice. This way she and her Lawyer named Leonard Grossman finally won justice for workers everywhere.


Via Chicago Daily Times / Sun-Times Media






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