"Radium Girls" at work

"Radium Girls" at work

Deadly occupation, forged report

[Fall 2013 Centennial issue]

In the early 1920s, workers at U.S. Radium Corporation’s luminous watch dial factory were mysteriously falling ill and dying. Eager to halt a mounting scandal, company President Arthur Roeder contacted industrial hygiene expert Cecil Drinker to investigate. Drinker, along with fellow Harvard School of Public Health faculty members Katherine Drinker, his wife, and William Castle, agreed to visit the Orange, New Jersey, factory to observe the watch dial painters at work and to speak with their doctors. What they found was appalling.

The factory was saturated with radium-contaminated dust—and no steps had been taken to protect the workers from radioactive material. Dial painters were encouraged to lick their paintbrushes to keep the points sharp, each time ingesting small amounts of the radium-based paint. Supervisors assured the all-female workforce—some as young as 15—that the paint was safe, and perhaps even beautifying. At a time when many believed radium had healing properties and it was served up in tonics and spa treatments, the women thought nothing of painting their hair, nails, and teeth as a party trick. Cecil Drinker observed that every inch of the painters glowed, “even the corsets.”

Drinker was convinced that exposure to continuous doses of radium was causing the women’s health problems, which included excruciatingly painful necrosis of the jaw. He issued a report to the company emphatically recommending safety precautions. Roeder, however, was not convinced. He insisted that a contagious infection contracted outside the factory must be to blame and referred to an internal report that refuted Cecil Drinker’s findings—a report he refused to show Drinker. When he learned of Drinker’s plans to publish the HSPH team’s report, Roeder threatened to sue.

While Drinker reluctantly agreed not to publish the report, his HSPH colleague Alice Hamilton refused to back down. Through a contact in the National Consumers League, she learned that U.S. Radium had submitted Cecil Drinker’s report to the New Jersey Department of Labor—with the findings altered to present the company in a more positive light. Hamilton alerted both Drinkers. “[The New Jersey Department of Labor] has a copy of your report and it shows that ‘every girl is in perfect condition.’ Do you suppose Roeder could do such a thing as to issue a forged report in your name?” she wrote in a 1925 letter to Katherine Drinker. Confronted with the evidence that Roeder had acted in bad faith, the Drinkers ignored the continued threat of a lawsuit and published the report.

Upon receipt of the original research report, New Jersey’s labor commissioner ruled that all of Drinker’s safety recommendations be implemented, a move that led to the closure of the factory. Following an eventual lawsuit by former dial painters, the industry made further changes to improve worker safety. Radium-based paint was banned in the 1960s.

Amy Roeder