The Unbelievable True Story Of America’s Radium Girls

Published November 18, 2017
Updated January 24, 2020
Published November 18, 2017
Updated January 24, 2020

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.

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