The Unbelievable True Story Of America’s Radium Girls

Published October 18, 2021
Updated October 28, 2021

The Health Consequences

Radium Jaw

Real Clear LifeSo-called “radium jaw,” a condition in which abscesses grow completely unchecked across the lower face. By this point in exposure, the victim is almost certainly dying.

In January of 1922, radium girl Mollie Maggia got a toothache. She went to the dentist, who told her the molar needed to come out. A few weeks later, she was back to have the tooth next to that one pulled. Neither wound healed, but they grew together and seeped blood and pus into Mollie’s mouth. More teeth had to come out after that.

By May, her dentist thought Mollie needed surgery to remove a fast-growing abscess he’d found on her jaw. When he got the gums open, the bone didn’t look right as it was too ashy and gray, so he gently prodded it with his finger. To his shock and horror, the whole bone crumbled under his fingertip like ashes in a fireplace.

Instead of removing a tumor, he wound up digging Mollie’s entire left jaw out with nothing but his fingers. Unbeknownst to him, the radium had perforated the bone cells and stripped them of calcium. It had, like a little machine gun, shredded the collagen inside the bone and left it as little more than a pile of splinters.

That summer, the rest of Mollie’s jaw came out, followed by bits of her inner ear. By September of 1922, eight months after her first toothache, Mollie Maggia was dead. The tumors had cut into her jugular vein and flooded her throat with blood, choking her to death in bed.

Mollie wasn’t the only girl this happened to. Radium passes easily through the gums and into the blood, so around the time Maggie got sick, all sorts of odd symptoms were cropping up among the shop girls.

One suffered a total collapse of her vertebrae, as the radiation did to her spine what it had done to Maggie’s jaw. Others developed skin cancer, cataracts, throat cancer, and other symptoms of long-term radiation exposure, such as loose teeth and hair loss.

At the time, though radium was known to be acutely dangerous, nobody had any experience with radiation sickness. Mollie’s death had been attributed to syphilis, which the company gleefully cited after the accusations and lawsuits started rolling in.

The Radium Girls Fight Back

Radium Poisoning

YouTubeNine of the 14 plaintiffs seeking compensation from Radium Dial Company for asserted permanent injury suffered as a result of poisoning contracted through work painting radium on watches dials. February 11, 1938.

And roll in the accusations did. Way back before the USRC had started operations, the firm’s president had commissioned safety studies on the glowing muck and had come away satisfied it was safe.

By 1924, when dozens of radium girls were sick or dead, an independent study – one that USRC didn’t pay for – established that radioactive paint is indeed hazardous when ingested.

Outraged at the implications and financial ramifications of this study, USRC did something modern readers are familiar with from dealing with tobacco and big oil companies: they paid for another study that found what they wanted to find, that swallowing radioactive paint is good for you.

None of this would fly after 1925 when Harrison Martland studied the issue for himself. Martland would later become the man who coined the term “punch drunk,” to describe the damage boxers’ heads suffered in fights.

First, Martland reopened the case of Mollie Maggia. At that time, cause of death was established by a coroner’s jury, which was made up of laymen and acted like the jury in a court case. It goes without saying this is as dysfunctional in pathology as it is in criminal justice, so Martland, as Medical Officer of Essex County, abolished the jury system and hired competent medical examiners.

As expected, Mollie’s corpse showed no sign of syphilis, but it had clearly been mangled by radiation. Similar results came through for the other girls who had died, and eventually, the USRC was driven into ruin by the medical and court costs.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.