September 2010
Robert R. Johnson

For the Love of Pretty Things

The Radium Girls and “Dying for Science”

Discussed:Radium Salt Crystals, Deathly Healthful Glows, Substances One Million Times More Radioactive than Uranium, Fingernail Polish, “Doctors,” Filler for Children’s Sandboxes, Lonely Soldiers, Forgeries, A Suspicious Dentist, “Declining Normally,” Radiation’s Stimulating Effects on the Mind
Radium dial painters at work, circa 1921.

Radium dial painters at work, circa 1921.

They say that if you visit the grave of Katherine Schaub and bring a Geiger counter, the machine will register a significant positive reading. Katherine, a radium dial painter, died in 1933 after suffering for more than a decade from a disease chillingly named radium necrosis.

In 1902, the self-proclaimed American inventor William Hammer returned from Paris with a gift given him by Pierre and Marie Curie: radium salt crystals. Mr. Hammer experimented with various combinations of glue, zinc sulfide, and radium crystals to form an iridescent paint that created a glow-in-the-dark effect and could be applied to just about anything—wristwatches and clocks, gun sights, children’s toys, even human bodies (in the form of fingernail polish).

Hamilton sold his paint to a New Jersey company founded in 1914 by Dr. Sabin Arnold von Sochocky and Dr. George S. Willis. Though they originally called it the Radium Luminous Material Corporation, Sochocky and Willis changed the name to United States Radium Corporation in 1921. They set up shop in Orange, New Jersey, intent on developing a market for their product; they assured the public that the radium was in “such minute quantities that it is absolutely harmless.”

They dubbed the paint-like substance Undark.

Grace Fryer, Edna Hussmann, Katherine Schaub, and sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice were five of the over two thousand dial painters employed by U.S. Radium and its attendant companies over the next couple of decades. Their job was straightforward: to paint the dials of watches, clocks, and military instrument panels for use in ships, airplanes, and other equipment that demanded nighttime use.

Most of the time, however, they painted wristwatches.

“I was pleased with the idea of a job which would engage me in war work,” Katherine said. “Some of the young women would scratch their names and addresses into these watches, and sometimes a lonely soldier would respond with a letter.”

The work was tedious, the conditions physically hard on the eyes, back, and hands. They were paid by the piece—one and a half cents per watch—thus some of the women made about twenty dollars per week with U.S. Radium. The median income of New Jersey women workers in 1917 was about fifteen dollars per week; these were good jobs for working women.

The labor was exacting. The numbers and symbols on the dials were often small, thus the camel-hair brushes had to be sharp. To accomplish this, the women were instructed by their managers to lick the ends of the brushes to keep them pointed, ready for the meticulous work. Undark, after all, was tasteless and odorless. “I think I pointed mine with my lips about six times to every watch dial. It didn’t taste funny. It didn’t have any taste, and I didn’t know that it was harmful,” Grace would later say.

Despite their claims that Undark was harmless, Drs. von Sochocky and Willis, as well as the scientists who worked for U.S. Radium producing the paint, knew better. The key ingredient of Undark is about one million times more radioactive than uranium. The scientists protected themselves with lead shields and used masks and tongs to handle Undark production processes.

In 1920, Grace was offered a more appealing position as a bank teller. About two years after leaving U.S. Radium, Grace started to feel ill. She didn’t have her usual youthful spunk, and she was experiencing joint pain. Soon thereafter her teeth began falling out, and a painful abscess formed in her jaw. She sought medical attention from several doctors who’d never seen anything like her malady—despite her evident symptoms, Grace’s skin emitted a rosy hue usually associated with abundant health.

Unknown to her doctors, the radium caused a temporary increase of red blood cells; soon it would enter her bone marrow and turn her skin the color of ash.

In 1925, three years after the onset of Grace’s illness, a friend referred her to a Columbia University specialist named Frederick Flynn. He declared her to be in fine health. A colleague present at the exam concurred with Flynn’s diagnosis. Flynn, however, was not a licensed medical doctor—he was an industrial toxicologist under contract with U.S. Radium. Neither was his colleague a doctor: he was the vice president of U.S. Radium.

In the early twenties, U.S. Radium contracted with a noted Harvard toxicologist, Dr. Cecil Drinker, to conduct a study of working conditions at U.S. Radium’s New Jersey facilities. Drinker was a highly respected scientist who, at the time of the U.S. Radium operation, was helping to develop the field of industrial hygiene. He’d begun a research facility at Harvard in the School of Public Health, and had studied the poisonous effects of manufacturing-created dust on the respiration and blood content of workers in the zinc industry. (He eventually concluded that the culprit was manganese.) His contract with U.S. Radium was his first foray into studying the industrial hazards of radiation.

Drinker examined the workplace in Orange and observed an environment replete with radium-tainted dust, open containers of highly radioactive paints, poor ventilation, and other problematic conditions. He also took blood samples from the workers on the shop floor as well as the scientists working in the adjoining labs. What he found was disastrous. Every one of the workers suffered from dangerous blood conditions. He encountered several cases of radium necrosis; he noticed, too, that a chemist, Edward Lehman, had severe lesions on his hands and arms. Lehman dismissed the idea that Undark had anything to do with his lesions or that there was any threat to his future health from continued exposure to the substance.

Lehman would die within the year.

Drinker remarked that Lehman’s attitude of complacency was rampant at the company. “There seemed to be an utter lack of realization of the dangers inherent in the material that was being manufactured.” U.S. Radium sold the sand-like residue of the radium paint process as filler for children’s sandboxes. When parents questioned the safety of the sand, von Sochocky assuaged them by telling them that the sand was “most hygienic and… more beneficial than the mud of world-renowned curative baths.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Robert R. (Bob) Johnson is a professor at Michigan Technological University. His book Romancing the Atom: Vignettes of the Atomic Mindset from the Radium Girls to Nuclear Green is forthcoming from Praeger Press in 2011.


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