Radium Girls

In today’s society, the words health and safety in the workplace are spoken with resignation and are considered to be issues that slow down progress and to reduce profits. However, health and safety in the workplace are more important than productivity itself because without these two, then companies do not stand a chance of being successful. However, workers and employees worldwide need to be reminded about where health and safety originated from and why these factors are significant for the world’s progress. The book ‘Radium Girls’ by Kate Moore reminds us of the struggles and hardships that women faced to achieve the health and safety laws in the workplace. This paper examines the issues of health and safety in the book ‘Radium Girls’ and points out how women during that time were instrumental to the development that we experience today in the workplace in regards to health and safety issues.

In her book ‘The Radium Girls’, author Kate Moore tells the story of real women who lived in Illinois and New Jersey. Although these women lived 800 miles apart, they were united by the zeal and courage to stand up for their rights and those of workers all over the world. Moore talks about American workers who worked in a factory where they suffered severe effects of radiation stemming from long exposure to radium that they used to make luminescent paints for clocks in the 20th Century. Moore uses thorough research, interviews with the victim’s relatives, press reports and journals to bring out a vivid image of the experiences of the dial painters. With high sensitivity and empathy, Moore tells of a time when health and safety regulations were not present for the women working in the studios, while the men were given protective lead gear. At that time, the law was significantly lenient about what was termed as occupational hazards.

During the First World War, thousands of young girls desired to work in clock factories, and they beat all odds to enter the coveted industry as painters of clock dials. The paint was however coated with radium paint that could glow in the night, and these girls would also glow at night after their shifts. However, after long periods, these girls started experiencing some adverse effects of the radium on their bodies including melanomas and cancer (Moore, 2017). On April 1917, an 18-year-old girl called Grace Fryer went to work as a dial painter at a company called the United States Radium Corporation (USRC) in New Jersey. Only four days after the United States had joined the World War, Grace had a desire to do all she could to help with the war considering two of her brothers were serving in the army (Moore, 2017). However, Grace had no idea that the new job she coveted would change not only her life but also the rights of workers all over the world.

When the war was declared, thousands of young working-class women crowded industries where they were hired to paint clock dials with radium, a new compound that had been founded by Marie Curie almost twenty years before that. Dial painting was considered an elite profession for poor girls, and it paid over three times more than the average factory jobs. The women who were lucky enough to get a position in the industry were ranked among the top 6% of women workers in the nation, thus giving them the financial freedom at a time when female empowerment was at its peak (Moore, 2017). Many of the women were below eighteen years with a passion for creative and artistic work. The women encouraged their friends and families to join the industry and often sets of siblings, and family members worked together in the studio.

The luminous element in radium was a considerable chunk of its allure, and soon enough the painters became known as the ghost girls because they would glow at night from the radium dust. They thrived in this glory, and after their shifts, they would wear beautiful clothes to the dancehalls at night, and they even put radium on their teeth to achieve a glowing smile that would attract suitors.

Grace Fryer and other girls followed the procedure religiously sometimes painting tiny clocks that were only 3.5 centimeters wide. These girls required to use put the paint brushes between their lips to achieve a fine-point; a procedure that was known as lip-pointing. However, each time the girls placed the paintbrushes on their lips, they would swallow small amounts of bright paint (Moore, 2017). During an interview, a woman named Mae Cubberley who was Grace’s instructor at the studio remembers asking Mr. Savoy who was the manager at the studio whether the radium was harmful in any way. However, Mr. Savoy told her that they needed not to be afraid because the element was not dangerous in any way.

However, this was not true because ever since its discovery, radium was known to be harmful to people’s health. A worker named Marie Curie had gotten radiation burns from handling a little of the radium, and reports show that people had died from radiation poisoning even before the dial painting job was introduced to the industry. It was for this reason that the men who worked at radium factories used to wear lead clothing in the labs and they touched the radium using tongs that were coated with ivory (Moore, 2017). The female dial painters were however never given such protection and were not even given any warning signs about the dangers of the radium that they were handling.

The reason why dial painters were never warned about radium’s effect was that at the time it was believed that small amounts of radium such as the one the girls were handling were thought to be beneficial to the health. At the time, people used to drink radium water, and even women could buy buttermilk, toothpaste, and cosmetics that had the wonder ingredient. Even the newspapers advertised it as a product that would ‘add years to our lives!’ (Moore, 2017) However, such appealing advertising was created by radium companies who desired to earn massive profits from it, and therefore they ignored the dangers and even told the girls that the radium would make them have roses on their cheeks.

The First Death

In 1922, Mollie Maggia who was a worker at the studio fell sick, and she had to quit her job at the studio. She never knew what was ailing her because all she had was a toothache. She visited the dentist and had her tooth pulled out but later on the next tooth also started aching and also had to be pulled out. However, instead of healing the space where the teeth were pulled out began developing ulcers that looked like dark yellow and red flowers and had pus and blood in them. These fluids leaked from the wounds constantly thus making her breath stink. Later on, Maggia started feeling pain and numbness in her limbs, and it got worse that soon enough she could not walk (Moore, 2017). The doctors diagnosed it as rheumatism and gave her aspirin then sent her home. However, in May that year, Maggia’s condition got worse, and she lost most of her teeth with the infection rapidly spreading to other parts of her body such as the lower jaw and even the ears. At one time, when her doctor tried to prod her jaw gently, it all got out not through surgery but just through pulling it out with his fingers. A few days later, her entire jawbone was removed using the same method.

At that time, Maggia was falling in to pieces, but she was not alone. Fryer as well was having pain in her limbs and was having problems with her jaw. On September of 1922, doctors found that the infection had spread to Maggia’s throat tissue and was eating away her jugular vein. On the 12 of that month, her mouth became filled with blood, and she was hemorrhaging so fast that physicians could not contain the blood (Moore, 2017). She passed on that day at the age of 24. Since her doctors could not establish the cause of her strange illness, they wrote on her death certificate that Maggia had died of syphilis; a diagnosis her employers would, later on, use against her. After Maggia, one by one the other women who worked at the studio also started dying from strange illnesses.

The Cover-Up

USRC refused to accept responsibility for the death of the young women for over two years. However, the company suffered a downturn because of what it termed as gossip that would not subside. As a result, in 1924, the company hired an expert to clarify the link between radium and the deaths. This study was done by impartial experts who confirmed that the deaths were related to exposure to radium, findings that upset the president of the firm. Instead of taking accepting the results and taking responsibility, he ordered that new studies be conducted which later showed opposite conclusions from the first study (Moore, 2017). The president denounced having any responsibility for the sick and dead women and refused to pay any medical bills resulting from their hospitalization.

The radium that the women had ingested had already settled in their bodies and was producing adverse effects that were eating away their bones. Doctor reports showed that the radium was literally boring holes inside the women’s bodies while they were still alive (Moore, 2017). The infection attacked all parts of the body. For example, Grace Fryer had a crushed spine that forced her to wear a back brace made of steel; while some of the women’s legs were fractured and shortened.

Although the company had succeeded in discrediting the findings of the first study, it could not compete with the courage and determination of the radium girls. The girls started coming together to fight against the injustice that had been done to them. This fight was self-sacrificing because dial painters were still working in radium industries all over the United States (Moore, 2017). In an interview, Grace Fryer stated that the fight was not for herself but rather for the hundreds of women who would serve as an example of the injustices in the system.

Grace Fryer led the fight against this injustice, and she was determined to find an attorney despite numerous attorneys turning her down because they did not believe her claims or they were afraid of the big radium companies. Others were scared to engage in a legal battle that required for the present legislation to be overturned (Moore, 2017). At this time, poisoning from radium was not an issue that could be compensated because it courts had not established that radium was responsible for getting the girls sick and the girls were hindered by limitation statutes which stipulated that the victims of any form of occupational poisoning should present their cases within at least two years.

Radium poisoning was guileful that the dial painters only got sick many years after working in the industry. The girls were bounded by a vicious legal cycled that did not yield any results for them (Moore, 2017). Grace, being the daughter of a union delegate could not be deterred; she was bent on proving the firm’s mistakes and earning justice for herself and other girls who had been misled by the company.

Fortunately, in 1927, a young, intelligent lawyer called Raymond Berry consented to help Grace with her case, and together with her other colleagues, Grace found herself in a worldwide court drama. However, as the hearing continued, time was quickly running out, and the women were getting even sicker. Most of them had only four months to live, and the company was intentionally dragging the process to ensure that they died before a verdict was reached (Moore, 2017). Because of this, Grace and the other girls opted to settle the matter out of court, but they had made known the effects of radium worldwide which was Grace’s sole intention.

The case between the USRC and the radium girls became a huge public concern, and it made headlines in newspapers all over the country shocking many people. In Ottawa Illinois, there was a dial painter named Catherine Wolfe remembered reading the shocking news with shock and horror (Moore, 2017). She recalls that on hearing the news, she and her colleagues became so depressed that they were unable to work.

However, instead of taking accountability for the effects that radium was having on the girls, the Illinois Radium dial company responded in the same way that USRC did and went on to deny any relationship between radium and illnesses. Although medical tests conducted on the firm showed that the dial painters had clear symptoms of radium poisoning, the company hid the results. It went ahead to put up a full page advert in a local newspaper saying that if they believed that working conditions at the firm impacted their workers negatively, they would suspend the operations with immediate effect (Moore, 2017). This move to silence the scandal went as far as hiding the results of the girls’ autopsies when they started dying. Officials from the company went as far as stealing the bones of the girls from the morgue to cover up the truth.

In 1938, Catherine Wolfe a worker at the Illinois radium corporation developed a grape-sized tumor on her hip. Similar to Mollie Maggia in New Jersey, she lost most of her teeth, and her jawbone started to disintegrate forcing her always to hold a handkerchief to her mouth to absorb the steadily seeping pus. She had also seen her colleagues dying before her, and this disheartened her. It was when Wolfe decided to start her fight for justice for her and her colleagues (Moore, 2017). It was in the mid-1930s when America was experiencing the Great Depression that Wolfe started her pursuit for justice. The community shunned her and her friends claiming that she was undermining the only firm that had been left standing in the community.

With only a few months to live, Wolfe ignored advice from her doctors, went to court and gave evidence while she was on her deathbed. This bold together with support and help from her lawyer Leonard Grossman resulted in Wolfe winning justice not only for herself but also for workers everywhere in the world.

In conclusion, the case of the radium girls was the first ever to see an employer made responsible for the health and safety of their employees. The case and the fight for justice by the women who were led by Grace Fryer and Catherine Wolfe led to corporate regulations that eventually resulted in the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. This board of regulations currently operates in the US to protect the safety and health of workers. The women who fought for justice left an invaluable legacy not only in science but also in employment.

However, the names of the women are not often read in books of history, and many of them have long been forgotten. However, Kate Moore’s book ‘The Radium Girls’ remembers their struggles and efforts because it was through their resilience and determination that workers today enjoy protection from the law. Grace Fryer and Catherine Wolfe are among the great women who need to be remembered, saluted, and honored for their fearlessness. They need to be recognized as heroes whom without their struggles and determination, workers would still be exploited to date.




Moore, K. (2017). The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women. Sourcebooks, Inc.