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Ottawa's 'Radium Girls' At Forefront of Worker Protections

April 5, 1938, is an important day for worker safety advocates.

On that Tuesday, a judge ruled that a woman's slow, painful degeneration resulted from working at the Radium Dial Company plant in Ottawa, Ill. The former employee accused the firm of knowingly exposing workers to radium powder, a radioactive material used to make glow-in-the-dark watches and other dials.

The plaintiff, Catherine Donohue, was one of an estimated four thousand "radium girls" -- dial painters who used their mouths to make fine points on small brushes. "Lip-pointing," as it was called, led to the women ingesting the radium mixture as they painted.

The girls' supervisors instructed them to use this technique, insisting the material was safe -- even healthy. Lip-pointing continued to be used even after managers began to suspect the practice was harmful.

As a result, many of these women suffered from anemia, bone fractures, lost teeth and necrosis of the jaw. Fifteen were known to have died from radium exposure; each suffered terribly.

The workers were almost all young women, according to Kate Moore, author of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women. Moore writes their small, nimble fingers allowed them to paint with the necessary precision. The first company, Radium Luminous Materials Corporation, opened its studio in Newark, N.J., in February, 1917. According to Moore, the wages were much higher than typical for women:

Although the girls weren't salaried -- they were paid piecework, for the number of dials they painted, at an average rate of 1.5 cents a watch -- the most talented workers could walk away with an astonishing pay package. Some earned more than three times the average factory floor worker; some even earned more than their fathers. They were ranked in the top 5 percent of female wage-earners and on average took home $20 ($370) a week, though the fastest painters could easily earn more, sometimes as much as double, giving the top earners an annual salary of $2,080 (almost $40,000). The girls lucky enough to gain a position felt blessed.

In April, the U.S. entered World War I and the military issued large contracts for radium-painted dials. Demand increased sharply, so the inventor of radium paint -- Sabin Arnold von Sochocky -- opened a second plant in Orange, N.J. Dr. von Sochocky was known to play with radium, his bare hands holding tubes as he gazed at the substance glowing in the dark. Occasionally, he would immerse his arm in radium solutions. Still, he was a student of Marie and Pierre Currie, who discovered radium, and was aware of its dangers; he ordered his lab workers to wear lead-lined aprons and to use forceps when holding the material.

Von Sochocky ordered no such protection for his dial painters. In an interview with WNIJ, Moore says radium was promoted as safe -- even a health aid.

"People could nip down to their local drugstores, and you could buy radium tablets and pills and radioactive dressings," she said. "People would use it to treat everything from hay fever to gout to impotence."

Moore says some retailers even sold radium-lined jockstraps and lingerie. You could also buy radium water. "The mayor of Chicago was one who had adopted the craze," she said. "The recommended dose was five to seven glasses a day of this radioactive water." Moore goes on to describe how radium users "could feel the sparkles inside their anatomy."

There were warnings about the dangers of radium. Before he became ill, von Sochocky grew concerned about lip-pointing and told his employees to stop the practice, but their supervisors contradicted him. Von Sochocky died at age 45, but the concerns of scientists were muted by companies that profited from the material; they suppressed research highlighting the dangers. This was the atmosphere in September, 1922, when the Radium Dial Company issued a call for workers at its new plant in Ottawa. Moore describes the "Girls Wanted" ad in her book:

Several girls, 18 years or over, for fine brushwork. This is a studio proposition, the work is clean and healthful, surroundings pleasant. Apply to Miss Murray, old high school building, 1022 Columbus Street.

One of the first successful applicants was Catherine Wolfe, 19, Ottawa-born and bred. She would change her last name to Donohue after marrying. She described how Miss Murray taught them to use their tongues to point camel hair brushes. "We would first dip the brush into water, then into the powder, and then point the ends of the bristles between our teeth," she said.

According to Moore, the employees were careless with the radium powder, and washing-off was voluntary.

Why would they -- when they could go home glowing like angels? ... Catherine remembered, "When I went home and washed my hands in a dark bathroom, they would appear luminous and ghostly. My clothes, hanging in a dark closet, gave off a phosphorescent glare. When I walked along the street I was aglow from the radium powder." The women were "humorously termed the ghost girls."
Kate Moore begins her WNIJ interview with the "Girls Wanted" excerpt.

Sixteen years later, plaintiff Catherine Donohue was gravely ill. The Chicago Daily News reported on a February 10, 1938, hearing in which Donohue presented a box containing pieces of bone she claimed were parts of her jaw. When the judge asked her doctor about the chances of his patient recovering, Donohue collapsed. According to the Daily News reporter:

She groaned and toppled from her chair. Several men picked her up and carried her from the room. Her 71 pounds was not a heavy burden.

Donahue's award was an annual pension of $277 ($4,656) for the rest of her life, which amounted to $5,661 ($95,160).

On July 6, 1938, the Illinois Industrial Commission threw out the employer's appeal and awarded Donohue an additional $730 ($12,271).

Four other women sued Radium Dial Company in Illinois; all won damages in 1938.

Moore says "the Radium Girls," as they became known, ushered in a new wave of worker protections led by Labor Secretary Frances Perkins -- the first woman to hold a presidential cabinet position. "She and others built on what the radium girls achieved," Moore said. "And eventually it led to the establishment of OSHA which now works nationally to reduce deaths from work-related illness and injury."

Moore's book is the NIU STEM Read selection for May.

Good morning, Early Riser! Since 1997 I've been waking WNIJ listeners with the latest news, weather, and program information with the goal of seamlessly weaving this content into NPR's Morning Edition.