From its discovery in 1898, radium was considered a wonder of science. It glowed with an unearthly beauty. It delighted its discoverers, Marie Sklodowska Curie and her husband Pierre, who called it “My beautiful radium”. It was used in spas and clinics as a cure for everything from cancer to constipation. It was used in makeup, jewelry and paints.
At the height of World War I, it was used to make the hands and dials of wristwatches glow in the dark. Girls all over the country flocked to make these watches as they paid up to three times what they could have been paid at any other wartime factory. Plus the watches were going to adorn the arms of soldiers, so it was patriotic and profitable. To paint the tiny watch faces, the girls were taught to put their small brushes in their mouth to draw it into a fine point then dip it into the radium. This was totally fine as the girls were told radium “will put rosy cheeks on you.” They were called the Ghost Girls because they glowed in the dark after work. Some girls painted radium on their teeth and faces for dates.
However, everything wasn’t rosy. Curie herself died of radium poisoning, and her notebooks are still too radioactive to handle. Men in radium companies handled the chemical wearing thick leather aprons, gloves and heavy metal tongs to prevent burns. It was believed the small doses of radium the girls were getting were benign. They weren’t.
The girls began to get sick. In 1922, Mollie Maggia developed tooth problems. It progressed to her losing all her teeth in a shower of pus and blood. Her mouth was a giant abscess and when a dr treating her touched her jawbone, it disintegrated in his hands. She was dead in less than a year. And she wasn’t the only one. Grace Fryer began developing the same problems in her jaw and in her feet. Marguerite Carlough and Hazel Vincent suffered chronic exhaustion and skin so thin a fingernail would cut it. Albina Larice had stillbirth after stillbirth.
The first lawsuit was filed against the parent company, USRC, in September 1925. They lost. There were no appeals as what little money the girls had went to doctors not lawyers. The factory held all the cards. Finally, one woman, Catherine Donohue, was willing to fight to the death. She hired lawyer, Leonard Grossman, who worked pro bono. After eight appeals, the won their suit on October 23, 1932. This victory led to more stringent safety standards for dial painters as well as for later workers on the atomic bomb.
But the Ghost Girls were still dead. In 1927, Mollie Maggia’s body was exhumed. Her cause of death had been recorded as syphilis, and her family was protesting to have it changed. Even five years later, her body glowed with a “soft luminescence”. The radium took its toll.