This is the last of a three-part “series” on the Radium Girls, the young workers who painted luminous watch faces during the 1920s – and unknowingly became some of the first human test subjects on the dangers of radiation exposure. I told my version of their story in my book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, but it’s worth revisiting here. It remains a cautionary tale of radioactive elements, the slow recognition of their danger, and the risks of scientific over-confidence – that rings remarkably true today.
The bones, removed in 1928 from a five-year-old grave, belonged to an Italian-American woman. Her name was Amelia Maggia and she’d died just after she’d turned 25.
Before her death, Maggia worked at the U.S. Radium Corporation for four years, faithfully painting watch faces with luminous paint, lip-pointing her brush to create the fine point needed for the work. In her last year at the factory, 1921, she’d started abruptly losing weight. Her joints started to ache; she found herself moving, she told her doctor, like a tired old woman.
The following year, her dentist discovered that Maggia’s jaw was splintering apart; almost all of it was removed. But she then developed a horrifying anemia; she bled constantly from her mouth, and she’d died in September 1923. Her death certificate read: “ulcerative stomachitis.”
Medical examiner Harrison S. Martland, of Essex County, N.J., had found Maggia on a list of former dial painters. He was deep into his investigation of radium as a possible poison and he suspected that the diagnosis was, well, completely wrong. The symptoms read like textbook radium sickness to him. He didn’t blame the attending physician; he’d been shocked himself to realize how wicked the element could be. His first report on the dial painters was simply titled “Some Unrecognized Dangers in the Use and Handling of Radioactive Substances”.
But how deep did those dangers run? How deeply did the radium settle into the bones of these workers? How long did it stay there, spitting radiation? He had Maggia’s body exhumed –to check his theory that she’d died of radium poisoning – and to get a better measure of the element’s destructive power. For help, he contacted the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office, asked if its brilliant toxicologist – Alexander Gettler – could figure out a way to find the rattle of alpha radiation in a dead woman’s bones.
Martland’s red flag of a report had been published earlier, in 1925. That same year the U.S. Radium Corporation was sued by a small group of former dial painters. There were only five of the Radium Girls – as the press liked to call them – in that action. A few had already settled; more were afraid to take on a big corporation; sure that they’d lose the jobs they held now, that they’d lose in the courts anyway.
And the doubters were right about one thing. The company had no intention of making this easy. It took three years of legal wrangling to even get a trial date set in 1928. And coincidentally – and with what would turn out to be very bad timing for the U.S. Radium Corporation – that coincided with the decision by Martland to contact the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office about those ragged bones.
The New York City scientists methodically set about figuring out how to test an aging skeleton for evidence of a little understood radioactive element. They scraped away the shreds of remaining tissue from the bones; they burned those scraps into ash. They boiled a selection of bones – skull, five cervical vertebrae, five slices of rib, both feet, femurs, the right tibia, the right fibula – for hours in a solution of washing soda. The bones were scrubbed, air-dried, the larger ones sawed into two inch pieces.
The prepared bones and the tissue ash were then taken into a darkroom and placedonto x-ray films wrapped in black photographic paper. Then, for comparison, they went through the same process with pieces of washed bone and tissue from a normal corpse. The bone, tissue and film packages were left to sit for ten days in a sealed darkroom with the idea that “If radioactive, the bones and the tissue ash would emit rays, and the beta and gamma rays would penetrate the black paper and affect the photographic film.”
The published photographs – those of the dial painter’s bones – showed a dazzle of pale spots, starred against a black background, as unmistakable as the glitter of a constellation on a dark night. By contrast, “Those (films) on which normal bones were placed are not shown, because they did not show any impression.” But from Amelia Maggia’s remains, “every piece of bone, as well as every tissue ash that we examined, showed radioactivity by the photographic method.” And if a dead woman’s bones still sparked with radiation, they had no doubt that the same could be said for the bones of the still living dial painters.
As the lawsuit dragged on, the Radium Girls became sicker and sicker.
Two of them, Quinta MacDonald and Albina Larice, were sisters of the dead woman whose bones had provided so much evidence in Gettler’s laboratory. Both of Quinta’s hips had fractured; Albina was bedridden, one of her legs was now four inches shorter than the other; Edna Hussman could barely shuffle across her room; oddly, years after leaving the factory, her hair still glowed in the dark; Grace Fryer now worked in a bank; with a metal brace from neck to hips to support her spine. Katherine Schaub’s jaws were starting to break apart; as she told her lawyers, she hoped the money – they were asking $250,000 each – would pay for her funeral. “If I won my $250,000, mightn’t I have lots of roses?”
Thirteen other dial workers, including Schaub’s cousin, had died in the three years since the lawsuit was filed. And the company lawyers, even now in the spring of 1928, had found another argument for dismissing the complaint. This time they proposed that the statute of limitations had run out on the plaintiffs’ injuries. The workers should have come to court when they were actually exposed to radium, not now, years later, when they no longer had jobs with the U.S. Radium Corporation.
It was true that several of them were unemployed because they could no longer walk or talk or had had most of their faces removed due to bone necrosis. And it was true that legal maneuvering had delayed proceedings but, the company asserted, the case had lost all validity. New Jersey law required court action within two years of an injury. Some of these workers had left the factory long before the 1925 filing of the lawsuit. And so much time had passed since then, the corporation lawyers argued, it was a matter of law that the Radium Girls’ time had come and gone.
The response for the attorneys for the injured women came legal came right out of the research of Harrison Martland and Alexander Gettler.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer replied that radium was a different kind of poison; like arsenic or a mercury compound, those old fashioned poisons with their simple, direct toxicity. This wasn’t a matter of a one time exposure, but rather a permanent one. These women were still being poisoned; poisoned every day by a radioactive element that never left, simmered in the body, bubbled in the bones.
Yes, the suit was three years old, and, yes, the women had left those dial painting jobs years earlier. But this minute, even, all five were still exhaling radon gas, and the radium in their bones was still killing them.
The judges in Newark’s chancery court found the plaintiff’s argument, the image of those irreversibly radioactive bones absolutely plausible. And appalling. The court dismissed the corporation’s motion and set the trial, at last, for June 8 in federal district court in Manhattan.
The following day the company agreed to settle the case – $10,000 in cash for each woman, a $400 a year pension, and the guarantee of complete medical care, to be covered by the U.S. Radium Corporation and its insurers.
It was less than the dial painters had hoped for – but they had made their point, proved their poison, and started the country on a path to regulating radioactive materials (with both Martland and Gettler involved in that crusade). And the Radium Girls, well, they were glad to get the money while they were still alive to use it.