At the beginning of the 20th century America became gripped by a dangerous phenomenon. Radium had been discovered in 1898 and was quickly hailed as a miracle element. The radioactive metal’s unusual and unique properties captured the imaginations of both the scientific community and the public. Within forty years radium had permeated American society to the point where it was so engrained within the popular consciousness that scarcely a person in the civilised world was unfamiliar with the word radium. It came to represent America’s burgeoning modernity and symbolise the country’s progress. However, by the early 1930s radium’s unknown dangers became tragically clear.
The radium craze permeated almost every aspect of American society, it featured in everything from religious sermons to cartoons and films. It became a plot device in novels and influenced the naming of consumer products ranging from fertilizers to cigarettes to cosmetics. There was even a nightclub in Brooklyn called ‘The Radium Club’ and casinos began playing radium roulette played in the dark with a ball and roulette wheel painted with glowing radium. The extreme rarity of radium made it a prestige item, in 1903 the New York Times reported that a single gram cost $2,000. This rarity coupled with the element’s ability to glow in the dark captured the public’s imagination. Business soon began to capitalise on this popularity using radium as a selling point for everything from make-up to butter. While many of these products didn’t actually include any radium, others did. Radium’s medical applications were touted by many doctors and scientists and the radioactive metal became associated with rejuvenation and invigoration. A slew of products began to be sold by quack doctors including ‘radium emanators’ and tablets like Radione which were advertised to enthuse ordinary water with radium’s ‘life-giving’ properties. However, it was a seemingly insignificant product, a watch with a luminous face, which would expose the horrifying dangers of radium misuse.
The terrifying dangers of radium were well known by the scientific community, as early as 1903, British scientist William Crookes was quoted in the New York Times warning that “half a kilogram… would kill us all. It would almost certainly destroy our sight and burn our skins to such an extent we could not survive.” The dangers of using radium in an industrial environment however, were unknown to ordinary workers. By 1920 the public demand for watches with luminous dials was so great that numerous manufacturing companies had been set up. One of these factories owned by the US Radium Corporation was established in New Jersey in 1917, employing more than 700 women. These young women painted the dials of watches using a luminous paint made from radium salts. The women pointed their brushes with their lips to create a finer tip each time ingesting small amounts of radium. The young women were slowly irradiating themselves from within.
Paid 8 cents per dial, working in a clean, light factory watch painting was considered a good job for young women in the 1920s. It was estimated that a dial painter could paint up to 300 dials per day earning as much as $24 a day. But a dial painter could point her brush up to 15 times per dial this meant that the average painter consumed approximately 4,000 micrograms of radium in six months. This was thousands of times over the smallest potentially lethal dose. The 1920s saw a number of dial painters begin to complain of ill health and slowly the women’s symptoms were associated with their work with radium. The women were suffering from advanced radiation sickness with symptoms ranging from anaemia to the horrifying disintegration of the jaw bone which came to be known as ‘radium jaw’. It wasn’t until 1924 that doctors linked the women’s symptoms with their work.
The plight of the women attracted the attention of the media who ran sensationalised stories with headlines including: “Woman Awaiting Death Tells How Radium Poison Slowly, Painfully Kills” and “Radium Death Leaves Trial of 15 Ghosts”. A coalition of the Consumers League and Walter Lippmann the editor of the New York World acted on behalf of the women gaining public support to have the Radium Girls’ case brought forward. With pressure from the public mounting a settlement of $10,000 for each woman and a $600 annuity was agreed.
The last reported victim of radium poisoning, Josephine Burricelli, died in 1959 she was the 43rd victim to die from radium poisoning in New Jersey. It was not just the women of New Jersey that suffered. A similar case came to the fore in 1937, involving the women employed at another dial painting factory in Ottawa, Illinois. The factory had been set up in 1922 by the Radium Dial Company and by 1937 former employees began to become ill. One woman’s story came to encapsulate the plight of the Ottawa Radium Girls. Catherine Donahue became the focus of a number of newspapers articles which described in detail how radium had wracked her body. The articles described the women as ‘living dead’ with “rotted bones” and “tissues destroyed, bones honeycombed, jawbone crumpled, hips locked and distorted.” The Ottawa case was eventually settled, but on much less favourable terms than those of New Jersey victims with each woman “$3,771.71 compensation and $500 for medical bills and an annual pension of $277.” The radium dial cases of the late 1920s and 1930s had a profound effect on the American public they were the first negative portrayals of radium in the press. The myth surrounding radium was slowly breaking down and the rejuvenating miracle element had been shown to bring death not life.
The dangerous quack remedies that contained radium were the cause of another prominent death. Radithor, was perhaps the most popular radium drink, with 40,000 bottles sold before it was discontinued. Created by the Bailey Radium Laboratories Radithor marketed itself as the ‘elixir of life’ containing radium in triple distilled water and guaranteed to be ‘certified radioactive water.’ While many radium quack remedies were useless, the radium salts contained in Radithor were lethal. In 1932, Eben M. Byers a prominent Pittsburgh socialite died following five years of sustained consumption of Radithor. Byers had been prescribed the radium drink by his doctor following a fall, the initial invigorating effect led Byers to triple “his dosage to two 2.2 ounce bottles each day instead of the .5 to 1.5 ounces recommended.” As radiation poisoning began to ravage his body he desperately continued to drink Radithor, hoping the radium would help his worsening condition. However by 1931 he was seriously ill, suffering from skin lesions and advanced bone decay, he did not have time to develop cancer but died of direct radiation injury within months. The Wall Street Journal ran the particularly graphic headline: “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off.” Popular Science Monthly reported that Byers’ body contained the “largest amount of radium ever found in a human being – more than thirty micrograms, enough to kill three men” – he was buried in a lead-lined coffin. In reaction to Byers’ death the US Food & Drug Administration declared patent medicines containing radium illegal and issued guidelines for both the use of radium in industrial settings and in quack radium remedies. But astonishingly it took until 1935 for the American Medical Association to rule radium unfit for human consumption.
A sort of naive fascination gripped America for almost twenty years before morbid curiosity supplanted it as details of the sufferings of the dial painters and Eben Byers became national news. Eventually America’s obsession with radium waned as World War Two loomed and the world entered the truly atomic age. Today the gruesome deaths of the radium girls are the best known aspect of the radium craze which gripped America, and to a lesser extent Europe, during the first twenty years of the 20th century.