From it’s discovery by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1892 on through the roaring twenties, radium was touted as a cure all, and was sold in pills, tonics, and cosmetic products. Several companies began to produce radium based paints which glowed in the dark, and products utilizing the paint such as watches, clocks, and doll eyes. Being a “dial painter” was very appealing work for young, immigrant women due to the seemingly luxurious quality of the material, the delicate nature of the work and lucrative pay.
The management at these companies were well aware of the risks of working with radium and the paint’s dangers. The mainly male scientists employed at the lab were required to wear gloves, goggles, & aprons and instructed not to hold the radium in their bare hands. The women employed in the factories, however, were told the paint was entirely safe, even healthy. They were encouraged to use their mouths to sharpen their brushes to a fine point in order to paint the dials. Many would use the paint on their nails and lips.
Many of the young women working for these companies became seriously ill from constantly ingesting high levels of radium on a daily basis. Symptoms included mouth sores, tooth loss, jaw bone decay, and even bone cancer. Eventually these companies were sued by several of their factory employees, but due to the extensive length of litigation and settlement discussions many died before ever receiving any financial restitution.
To shine some positive light on this dark moment of herstory, The Radium Girls are attributed to major reforms in labor safety conditions, and were monumental in the scientific research of radium.
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Featured photo by H. Heyerlein from Unsplash