Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that remembers to air previously referenced stories way after the fact.
With me are my co-hosts Shea, Steve, and your host, Jenn!
A morbid footnote in the history of the fight for workers’ and women’s rights, from the ‘good ole days’:
And we’re gathered together again for me to tell a story from history. This one is not as weird as much as it’s mind boggling and terrible, but it’s also fascinating and was extremely important in the fight for safer American workplaces and basic human regard for women. It’s also tragically unknown.
If you’re like me, when you hear or read someone lamenting the loss of the ‘good ole days’, you know immediately they a.) have no knowledge of history b.) are a straight white man or c.) both. Things are much better for most people in the United States currently than they have ever been. Perfect? No way. But better. Also, some government oversight into things like, oh, large corporations, is imperative. And this story proves it (as does our current administration).
I’m here to present the story of the Ghost Girls. But before I dive in, I need to give some backstory for historical context, as well as a quick chemistry lesson refresher:
In 1898 science power couple Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the elements radium and polonium while breaking down the components of pitchblende (which is a form of the mineral uraninite occurring in brown or black masses and containing radium; it is also the favorite mineral of Satan). Now, even if it has been a few years since high school chemistry, I bet everyone knows a little something about radium and polonium, and for the first, a hint is right in the name.
That’s right! They are both highly radioactive. Which, as we all know, is pretty dangerous to us bio-lifeforms. But, as scientific knowledge is often based on trial and error experimentation, the Curie’s were not aware at first what long term repercussions resulted from close contact. It took until 1900 for the dangers to really begin to make themselves known, when a colleague of theirs, Antoine Becquerel, carried a tiny amount of radium in his waistcoat for about 6 hours and was dismayed to find over the following weeks his skin burned, ulcerated and refused to heal. That didn’t deter Marie and Pierre, however, and by 1902 Marie had successfully isolated the element radium.
In addition to a doctorate in science and a Nobel Prize for this discovery, Marie also received a dose of radiation high enough to cause her death by aplastic anemia in 1934. (Had Pierre not been accidentally killed by being run over by a horse-drawn cart in 1906, I bet he would have also had radium on his list of causes of death.)
But 1934 is getting ahead of my story, which begins right around the start of World War I, so 1915-ish. The setting is industrial America, and serious changes are on the horizon. Much like what Rosie the Riveter came to symbolize for WWII, as the US came closer and closer to entering The Great War, women were called upon to do their part for the war effort. In this instance it involved women flocking to jobs in factories, plants and other work facilities that had previously been mostly denied to them.
It’s at one of these factories where my story truly kicks off. We are in Orange, New Jersey at a company known as the USRC, which at this time sees their production of clocks, dials, and assorted instruments sky-rocket due to the military needing lots of these for planes and tanks and other weaponry. And in case you are curious, the full name of this company is the United States Radium Corporation. While today we may see that as worth at least a pause of concern, at the time having ‘radium’ in its title was literally the hot new thing. (By ‘hot’ I mean ‘radioactive’, but Joe Q Public didn’t know what that would ultimately mean.)
Yes, unlike today where scientific discoveries (as well as long-established knowledge) are met with suspicion, disdain and ridicule, in the early 1900s anything with even a whiff of science-y veracity was greeted with the sort of open-armed credulity that would do early Mormons proud.
And few things demonstrate this ‘gimme all the science’ attitude more than the product placement of radium during the 19-teens and surrounding decades.
(Before I proceed, much of the following information comes from Kate Moore’s excellent book ‘The Radium Girls’ and a corresponding Buzzfeed News article she wrote that is linked in the show notes. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and excerpts come from these.)
Back to radium attitudes in the 19-teens: For starters, radium in small doses was encouraged “for better health and a longer life.” It had been shown to destroy cancerous tumors (never minding the destruction of the surrounding tissue), so it was assumed to be good for everything from gout to hay fever. At the time it was the most expensive material on Earth (selling then for $120,000 a gram, or 2.2 million in today’s money), so many of the products claiming to contain radium thankfully didn’t, but items such as tonic water, cosmetics, milk, butter, toothpaste and even jock straps and lingerie relied on the buzzword to woo in buyers. There were even radium clinics and spas for the wealthy.
So it is in this bonkers consumer climate that we return to the United States Radium Corporation. What caused their products to be in such high demand by the military (and gave the company its name) was its use of a newly developed luminous paint. Inventor/Scientist Sabin Von Shockey first created this paint in 1913 and had since founded a rival company to the USRC known as the Radium Luminous Material Corporation, located in Ottawa, Illinois (side note: consider all the following info to be practically interchangeable between the two companies ). Three guesses as to what made the paint glow!
Yep, small amounts of radium were combined with chemicals that ensured its luminescence and made into a powder, which was then mixed by hand into a substance that could be used as a paint. This was then applied to the numbers and hands of clocks/watches, the dials assorted instruments, etc which would glow continuously and is obviously why they were so in demand by the military.
This brings us back to women being allowed to work in factories and doing their duty for god and country. Since these instrument parts were so small, girls and young women with their tiny girl and woman hands were much in demand as painters (the average dial painter was between 15 and 23 years old, some as young as 11). And since these companies were making truckloads of money they could afford to pay comparatively high wages. ‘Dial painter’ was a position that ranked in the top 5% of women’s work in the nation at the time. Becoming one was a much coveted position as, in addition to higher pay, the working conditions were generally pretty comfortable and well run.
So what exactly did the job entail? Well, as the name suggests the women were tasked to paint the teeny tiny dials, watch hands and numbers, and assorted other components that needed to glow. If the paint smeared or spread it would of course affect the readings so attention to detail and meticulousness were imperative. But as more instruments meant more money, the ladies had to also be very efficient.
The tool they used to paint was a very delicate camel hair paintbrush, with a bristle that only contained about 30 hairs. But despite its narrowness, painting with it would of course cause the hairs to spread a bit. In order to save time and retain detail, the girls were taught a technique known as ‘lip-pointing’. That is, between brush strokes, the girls put the brush in their mouths to use their lips and tongue to make a narrow point. Each time they did this they would swallow a small amount of the paint, with the most productive women lip pointing hundreds of times a day.
Now, while these ladies may have been young and the rest of the country giddy with radium-love, they weren’t dumb. Plant supervisors and managers were often asked about the safety of gumming glowing paint all day, but were assured it perfectly safe, would “put roses in your cheeks” and surely a litany of other ‘don’t you worry your pretty little head none’ patronizing homilies. In fact, a female floor lead at the Radium Luminous Material Corporation was known to use a spatula to scoop in a big mouthful (which she swallowed) when demonstrating to the new hires how harmless the paint was.
(One of many things the young women were not aware of was that in several of these factories there were also research labs, located upstairs in the ‘man areas’. Here scientists and lab assistants worked with the same radium, however unlike the girls who were provided absolutely no protection or even real information, the men handled the element with ivory tongs while wearing lead aprons. Also most of the wildly positive claims of radium were actually paid for and propagated by, SURPRISE, radium-based corporations. But thankfully none of that would happen today, right?)
So, secure that their jobs were perfectly safe, the women happily accepted their hefty paychecks, were able to afford and modeled the latest fashions, and were generally the envy of all the other young ladies in their towns. One unexpected side effect that absolutely delighted the painters was what gave them the nickname that history remembers: Ghost Girls. At the end of a shift working continuously with radium powder the girls discovered that if they walked into the night or a darkened room they would literally glow. A few of the businesses even allowed them to keep any remaining powder at the end of the day, so they would enhance this effect by brushing it over their exposed skin, with some even painting it on their teeth to literally brighten their smile (some bringing it home to share with younger siblings). It wasn’t unusual for the girls to wear their nicer clothes to work so the dust would cover the outfits for the nights, illuminating their entire dress. So in addition to being the most fashionable, the group of young women seen at night would glow with a pale light and appear as living ghosts.
And all the girls had a wonderful time in their teens and 20s, found dashing husbands while out on the town and lived happily ever after. The End.
… Yeah, sadly, that ending was not to be. Things went along merrily for a bit but it wasn’t very long before hours and hours of putting a radium soaked brush in their mouths started to catch up to the young workers. It was in October of 1921 that the first documented and attributed incident began when worker Mollie Maggia visited her dentist, complaining of severe pain in her mouth and jaw as well as loose teeth. By early 1922 she was forced by her deteriorating health to quit dial painting, as in addition to the agony in her mouth she was now experiencing constant pain in her hips and feet.
Warning, the following is an excerpt and is pretty rough:
“She (Mollie) didn’t know what was wrong with her. Her trouble had started with an aching tooth: Her dentist pulled it, but then the next tooth started hurting and also had to be extracted. In the place of the missing teeth, agonizing ulcers sprouted as dark flowers, blooming red and yellow with blood and pus. They seeped constantly and made her breath foul. Then she suffered aching pains in her limbs that were so agonizing they eventually left her unable to walk. The doctor thought it was rheumatism; he sent her home with aspirin.
By May 1922, Mollie was desperate. At that point, she had lost most of her teeth and the mysterious infection had spread: Her entire lower jaw, the roof of her mouth, and even some of the bones of her ears were said to be “one large abscess.” But worse was to come. When her dentist prodded delicately at her jawbone in her mouth, to his horror and shock, it broke against his fingers. He removed it, “not by an operation, but merely by putting his fingers in her mouth and lifting it out.” Only days later, her entire lower jaw was removed in the same way.
While poor Mollie was suffering through this nightmare, her former coworkers began to experience similar symptoms of the teeth and jaws, while others began to be afflicted with leg and back pain so intense it practically immobilized them. Dentists and physicians throughout the area were seeing young and otherwise healthy women whose teeth and jaws were literally falling apart or who had swollen and inflamed joints and acute pain with no discernible cause. The connection to their jobs wasn’t made for some time, as many no longer worked at the factories, having married and started families or been laid off when the war came to an end. As the doctors began to suspect an occupational cause, many postulated phosphorus poisoning was the culprit, with the thinking companies were using it in the paint secretly (as of course radium could certainly not be the reason).
Exposure to phosphorus does have similar symptoms to radium poisoning, and it was caused by the paint, so doctors were actually on the right track.
Meanwhile, time had run out for poor Mollie Maggia. Excerpt:
“On September 12, 1922, the strange infection that had plagued Mollie Maggia for less than a year spread to the tissues of her throat. The disease slowly ate its way through her jugular vein. At 5 p.m. that day, her mouth was flooded with blood as she hemorrhaged so fast that her nurse could not staunch it. She died at the age of 24.”
More and more of the Ghost Girls began to fall ill. Many were close friends and maintained contact even after ending employment, so it didn’t take long for them to notice that something terrible was happening and that having worked as a dial painter was the common denominator. As more of their friends sickened and died, the women still healthy enough to do so petitioned their former employers, state officials, The Department of Labor, ANYONE to investigate the use of the paint and its health effects. But sadly as these were women, and most young and unmarried at that, little to nothing was done and they were mainly ignored. Adding to the indignity, due to absolute bafflement and believing she had lied when saying she was a ‘good girl’, Mollie Maggia’s attending physician had ruled her cause of death as syphilis, which the USRC used as proof there was no work correlation and a weapon whenever there was too much prying. (They also hired their own “investigators”, who of course found nothing amiss at the factories and those hysterical women just need to calm down.)
It took nearly 2 years before the area doctors and dentists finally began to talk together and compare notes and, seeing an obvious correlation, in early 1924 they themselves began to petition the very same institutions the afflicted workers had been begging for years to pay attention. And guess what happened when Dr. Men got involved…?
That’s right, by March(!) of 1924 an independent investigation was pretty much forced on USRC. Excerpt:
“Unlike the company’s own research into radium’s beneficence, this study was independent, and when the expert confirmed the link between the radium and the women’s illnesses, the president of the firm was outraged. Instead of accepting the findings, he paid for new studies that published the opposite conclusion; he also lied to the Department of Labor, which had begun investigating, about the verdict of the original report. Publicly, he denounced the women as trying to “palm off” their illnesses on the firm and decried their attempts to get some financial help for their mounting medical bills.”
And so they are practically back to square one. The public still thought radium was the futuristic bees knees, the companies were controlled by soulless monsters with more money than should be legal, and government oversight organizations all had their heads up their collective asses. And the women continued to sicken and die. That may have continued indefinitely if not for an incident which occurred on June 7, 1925: the first male employee of USRC died.
And it was not just any male employee. In fact, it was USRC’s chief chemist, Dr. Edward Leman. A man who had “scoffed” at the independent investigators just over a year before was dead at 36 of “pernicious anemia”.
Well, shit. A Dr. Man is dead, I guess something needs to be done.
At this point the closest thing to a male lead in the story steps in, the brilliant and distinguished Dr. Harrison Martland. He preferred to be called Marty, liked to work in shirtsleeves “sans tie” and enjoyed exercising to very loud bagpipe music played on his phonograph. Oh, and he also devised the tests that proved once and for all it was radium poisoning the women. (Aside, I’d love to talk more about Dr. Marty and his breakthroughs, but I’ve got to start winding this down. READ THE BOOK.)
Suffice to say, he took the previously held beliefs that radium was only dangerous when handled in large quantities, externally and shot them right down. Ingested radium was in fact much, much more dangerous (many thousands of times greater), and he also soon realized it was fatal. The body, it turns out, confuses radium for calcium and the ingested radium was absorbed into bones, and once there it was impossible to remove. The women all faced a terrible, certain death sentence.
Of course, the radium companies were not going to just accept these findings and lose out on their truckloads of money (it’s at this point I wish to point out that they have been continuing throughout this entire saga to employ young women as dial painters, all the while while trying to stifle the “malicious gossip”). And considering this money they could throw towards discrediting the findings, they may have succeeded. But now is time for the real heroes to take the stage. As Moore writes, “(The radium industry) hadn’t reckoned with the courage and tenacity of the radium girls themselves. They started banding together to fight against the injustice.”
A former dial painter who began work at USRC in 1917 at the age of 18, Grace Fryer soon became known as a courageous leader of their movement. “It is not for myself I care,” she commented. “I am thinking more of the hundreds of girls to whom this may serve as an example.” Grace knew it was too late for herself. By this point her spine had “crushed” upon itself and she was forced to continuously wear a steel back brace.
Despite this, or possibly because of it, she “determined to find a lawyer even after countless attorneys turned her down, either disbelieving the women’s claims, running scared from the powerful radium corporations, or being unprepared to fight a legal battle that demanded the overturn of existing legislation. At that time, radium poisoning was not a compensable disease…and the women were also stymied by the statute of limitations, which ruled that victims of occupational poisoning had to bring their legal cases within two years. Radium poisoning was insidious, so most girls did not start to sicken until at least five years after they started work; they were trapped in a vicious legal circle that could seemingly not be squared. But Grace was the daughter of a union delegate, and she was determined to hold a clearly guilty firm to account.”
It took until 1927, but finally a young lawyer named Raymond Berry accepted the case, with Grace and 4 colleagues as plaintiffs. But in what was possibly (probably?) a tactic by USRC, as time was running out for the remaining women, delaying tactics were rampant. At this point all five named in the case had been given 4 months to live. It was this morbid time limit that forced them to settle out of court, but the publicity had an effect.
The legal battle became front page news and made its way to the Illinois company, Radium Luminous Material Corporation, which was of course still allowing their dial painters to continue the same work. It had lied about results of radiation testing and even tried to out evil USRC. “It … placed a full-page ad in the local paper: “If we at any time had reason to believe that any conditions of the work endangered the health of our employees, we would at once have suspended operations.” Its actions to hush up the scandal went as far as interfering in the girls’ autopsies when the Illinois workers began to die: Company officials actually stole their radium-riddled bones in their callous cover-up.” (Side note, the bones of the women also glowed and will continue to do so for a very long time. The half life of the particular isotope they were exposed to is 1,600 years) But the Illinois workers nearly rioted and began to resign in droves as the news broke.
Finally, just a few years later in the mid-1930s another woman took up leading the legal fight, and in 1938 the Ghost Girls finally won their case. Catherine Donohoe, despite her doctor’s advice, participated in the trial until its end. When she collapsed on the stand in the courtroom she continued her testimony from her literal deathbed, with the lawyers visiting her at home. This evidence helped to finally win some justice for these women, and pave the way for safer conditions for workers coming after. Even safety for scientists. From an interview with Kate Moore in The Atlantic:
“(W)hen the Manhattan Project got started, Glenn Seaborg, who was on the project, wrote in his diary that he thought of the radium girls as he was walking through his laboratory with all its radioactive plutonium, and he didn’t want the same thing to happen. He first had to find out if plutonium was similar to radium. Obviously, it did turn out that plutonium is biomedically very similar to radium.”
The radium girls’ case was one of the first in which an employer was made responsible for the health of the company’s employees. It led to life-saving regulations and, ultimately, to the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which now operates nationally in the United States to protect workers. Before OSHA was set up, 14,000 people died on the job every year; today, it is just over 4,500. The women also left a legacy to science that has been termed “invaluable.”
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Radiation is fun!
Most of you probably haven’t heard the tale of Alfred Carton Gilbert.
He was an American athlete, magician, toy-maker, businessman, and giver of cancer.
The most famous of his inventions was the Erector Set. Perhaps most notable, however, was the 1950 Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab play-set for children.
Gilbert considered toys to be foundational in building a “solid American character” so many of his toys were educationally themed and lead-lined… or, you know, whatever metal was cheaper.
So great was his toy-based patriotism that he was named the “man who saved Christmas” during WWI when he convinced the US Council of National Defense not to ban toy sales during Christmas… which was a thing for some reason.
Anyway, back on the glowing track.
The Atomic Energy Lab was one of many lab-based toys available at the time. Like lab toys now the kits would include everything you needed to do the fun-to-watch science in the hope that you’d later do the hard-to-math science as an adult. Best of all, it was the 1950’s and everything was alite with the glory of radiation!
The Atomic Lab, while short-lived – it only sold for 1 year – was considered by many including Gilbert to be the companies best. The US Government particularly loved it as they thought it would aid public understanding of atomic energy and emphasize its constructive aspects – which at the time was much in need of PR rehabilitation.
The Lab contained a cloud chamber (or glass ball) that allowed one to watch alpha particles traveling at 12,000 mps, a spinthariscope showing the results of radioactive disintegration on a fluorescent screen, and an electroscope measuring the radioactivity of different substances in the set. Because it shipped with some… yes it did.
In 2006, Radar Magazine called the lab set one of “the 10 most dangerous toys of all time, … excluding BB guns, slingshots, throwing stars, and anything else actually intended to cause harm.” So there ya go, the most dangerous toy you could by not specifically designed to shoot your eye out. In fact, it’s ranked number two, second only to lawn darts.
Gilbert’s commercials promoted the idea that none of the materials in the kit were dangerous. Just radioactive and unshielded.
The instructions encouraged laboratory cleanliness by cautioning users not to break the seals on three of the ore sample jars, for “they tend to flake and crumble and you would run the risk of having radioactive ore spread out in your laboratory. This will raise the level of the background count”, thus impairing the results of experiments by distorting the performance of the Geiger counter … and melting your fucking face off.
The set sold for $49.99… or current $550 and contained, in no special casing or order:
- Battery-powered Geiger–Müller counter
- Wilson cloud chamber with short-lived alpha source (Po-210) in the form of a wire
- Four glass jars containing natural uranium-bearing (U-238) ore samples (autunite, torbernite, uraninite, and carnotite from the “Colorado plateau region”)
- Low-level radiation sources:
- Plastic “Nuclear spheres” for making a model of an alpha particle
- Gilbert Atomic Energy Manual — a 60-page instruction book written by Dr. Ralph E. Lapp
- Learn How Dagwood Split the Atom — comic book introduction to radioactivity, written with the help of General Leslie Groves
- Prospecting for Uranium — a book
- Three C batteries
- 1951 Gilbert Toys catalog
Among other activities, the kit suggested “playing hide and seek with the gamma-ray source”, challenging players to use the Geiger counter to locate a radioactive sample hidden in a room.
You can see one of three kits the University of Colombia has… behind just a fucking ton of safety barriers. At the time, the United States government was offering a $10,000 reward to anyone who identified new sources of fission material.
Thanks for the story Jenn, I for one, will never lick a paintbrush again! What I will do is make like a patron and play with my cool radiation science kit. It was for kids, kids whose parents didn’t like them very much, but the story can be for you too at patreon.com/iit just like the ridiculous outtakes the follow the outro!