A Dazzle in the Bones

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.

Radium Illuminated Clock Face

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.

Cartoon published May 20, 1928, New York World

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.

Published in Everyday Science and Mechanics, June 1932

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.

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31 Responses to A Dazzle in the Bones

  1. Pingback: Friday chemical safety round-up | The Safety Zone

  2. Lee S says:

    What a terrible thing to happen to those poor women.

  3. Deborah Blum says:

    Yes, it’s such a sad story but also an important part of our radiation history. Just wanted to remind people that these women mattered.

  4. Toni Moore says:

    Ms. Blum,
    I finished reading “The Poisoner’s Handbook” yesterday & really enjoyed it. However, I think the book’s title rather unnerved the waitress who was taking my breakfast order yesterday. She couldn’t take her eyes off the book & she asked me three times if I wanted coffee.

    I knew a little bit about the women who had been poisoned by radium, but I didn’t know the details of their situation. It’s hard to imagine a time when radiation was viewed as healthful.

    However, I didn’t know anything about the federal government’s deliberate poisoning of industrial alcohol during Prohibition in the vain hope that people wouldn’t drink it. I found that both shocking & amazing.

    I liked the way you organized the book, with each chapter taking on a different poison. And your explanation of how each poison worked & its chemistry was fascinating.

    Great job & a very enjoyable (and educational) read.

  5. Gerri says:

    Fascinating. Tragic. Important story. Today we are told there’s no solid evidence holding a cell phone to a child’s head poses any danger. Hard not to be skeptical whan stories like this one surface.

  6. JupiterIsBig says:

    I went to a pub at a place called Radio Springs in Victoria, Australia at Christmas – I wonder how healthful the spring water is there ?

  7. Mitch Reiber says:

    Triangle Shirtwaist fire (1911), Molasses explosion – Boston (1919), Hawks Nest (1927, Bhopal (1984), tobacco, asbestos, vinyl chloride, lead. Stories like these, along with the Radium girls is part of our national heritage. The saddest part in every one of the stories is the fight for recognition and justice by the victims.

  8. Kevin Parker says:

    I also just finished reading your very good book and was just telling about this story earlier this week. I started giving the subtitle first when talking about the book because saying the title first tended to nearly derail the conversation every time. I heard you interviewed on Diane Rehm and had the book on my Amazon wish list over a year before I ordered it.

  9. Kathy Parker says:

    I enjoyed reading your three part series pertaining to the Radium Girls. I found The Poisoner’s Handbook quite interesting and informative. I might have mentioned to you via Twitter that I had a great-aunt, Mary Vicini Tonelli, who worked at the Radium Dial factory in Ottawa, Illinois. She died at the young age of 21 due to radium poisoning.
    There will be statue erected in memory of all the young women who worked at the Ottawa factory some time in the Fall of 2011.
    Kathy Parker

  10. Melissa says:

    Fascinating–and tragic.
    I came across your fantastic blog in the process of researching a novel I’m writing set in 1923. I was curious about Jazz Age forensic procedures–needless to say, I RAN out to get your book! Amazing stories.

  11. Deborah Blum says:

    Incredibly interesting time period, isn’t it? Hope the book helps with your novel – thanks so much.

  12. Henry Law says:

    You write well, ma’am. And what you write is really interesting: a perfect combination!

    I came to your blog via the “Chemistry set with no chemicals” story: words fail me. I presume you know that the Royal Society of Chemistry has a UKP 1M prize on offer for someone who can produce a substance that is 100% chemical-free?

  13. Deborah Blum says:

    Appreciate the kind words. And I do know about – a hugely admire – the Royal Society of Chemistry’s award. In the earlier “chemical-free” blog post I referenced, I actually talk about it a little bit. It’s a hilarious idea for an award – and a really smart one!

  14. J. Q. says:

    Thank you for this article. It truly is a terribly sad story and one that I have known for a long time…. After the Radium company was closed and destroyed, the rubble from the site was used as landfill for my old neighborhood in Glen Ridge, NJ. A park and several homes were built right on top of it. When I was very young I played in a park that was made from the contaminated materials. When they were removed by the EPA, huge trucks marked “Hazardous” would be parked in front of our houses while men in head to toe protective suits would remove the soil barrel by barrel….while we played and rode our bikes, unprotected. Having family members and neighbors diagnosed with cancer and/or dying of it, I wonder when the end of this story actually is? Thank you, though, for bringing it to light for a whole new audience.

  15. V.B. says:

    In Tokyo, we recently had some worries with the Fukushima-related radioactive contamination, as a hot spot was detected in mid-town.
    Turns out it was not Fukushima, but some radium-containing bottles stored below the (wooden) floor of the house ! More details here.
    Interestingly, these bottles were apparently stored here prior to 1953, at which time the current owner moved in the house. Luckily for her, the bottles were tightly sealed.
    Obviously, radium is still around…

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  30. Ashley Adelman says:

    My theatre company, Infinite Variety Productions, is putting up Melanie Marnich’s play, “These Shining Lives”(based on the women in Ottawa). I am sure you know the play. IVP produces stories based on events throughout womens history; stories unknown to the public. Our director read your book and could not stop taking about how great and knowledgeable it was. So, thank you. If you find yourself in the tristate area you are welcome as my guest, our show opens May 24th and runs for two weekends, Friday, Saturday night shows and Sunday matinees @ The Tank Theatre 151 west 46th street, 8th floor. Either way thank you for your book and helping us in our production!