The Unbelievable True Story Of America’s Radium Girls

Published November 18, 2017
Updated January 24, 2020

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. Feb. 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.