The Story Of The Radium Girls And Their Decades-Long Fight For Justice

Published April 6, 2023
Updated May 1, 2023

Explore the haunting story of the Radium Girls, a group of women exposed to lethal amounts of radium while working in watch factories in early 20th-century America.

In 1917, scores of patriotic young girls counted themselves lucky to have landed war work at a large warehouse complex in Orange, New Jersey.

The pay was fantastic – roughly three times the average working girls’ wage – and the work was light. Literally, the work was light as the main job the young ladies were given was to apply glowing paint to the faces of clocks, instrument gauges, and wristwatches for the United States Radium Company.

Radium Girls Of Ingersoll Factory

Wikimedia CommonsWomen painting alarm clock faces in the Ingersoll factory in January 1932.

Once a thin layer of white paint, impregnated with the newly discovered element radium, was layered onto the dials, their hands naturally glowed and made them easier to read at night or in a dark trench in Flanders.

Without exception, the “radium girls” were told the paint was safe to handle, and so virtually no precautions were taken while they handled and even ingested countless doses of radioactive poison.

Using A New Technology

Pierre And Marie Curie

Getty ImagesPierre and Marie Curie in 1905.

The radium-infused paint was a new invention in 1917. Though Pierre and Marie Curie had first identified the element in 1898, it wasn’t until 1910 that Marie successfully isolated a sample of it to work with.

Right away, the couple knew their discovery was dangerous. Marie gave herself several unpleasant burns after improperly handling radium. Pierre once said he couldn’t bear the thought of sharing a room with even a kilogram of the stuff because he was afraid it would blind him and burn off his skin.

The Curies were working with large quantities of pure radium. The conventional wisdom at the time, however, was that a little bit of the stuff was good for human health.

Throughout the early 20th century, hundreds of thousands of people drank radium-infused tonic water, brushed their teeth with radium toothpaste, and wore radium cosmetics that gave their skin a bright, cheery glow.

Mixed with the right kind of paint, radium would luminesce after exposure to light, so that a watch face painted with the stuff could soak up energy during the day and stay visible all night long. It was one of the scientific miracles of a very optimistic age.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.