The Unbelievable True Story Of America’s Radium Girls

Published November 18, 2017
Updated October 22, 2018
Published November 18, 2017
Updated October 22, 2018

Some Good News, Some Bad News

Hanford Workers

Wikimedia CommonsWorkers at the Manhattan Project’s Hanford site put on protective gear before exposing themselves to alpha-emitting uranium isotopes. Much of the safety protocol for handling radioactive materials was built on scientists’ experience with radium exposure.

Vindication came too late for most of the radium girls. Many died young, usually in horrible pain and fear, while others lived many years with weakened bones, lost teeth, and various forms of cancer, which may or may not have been caused by their exposure to radium as teens.

After a typically protracted and ugly court battle, some of the girls were compensated, others weren’t, and life went on. Mabel Williams of Olympia, Washington, may now be the last surviving radium girl. In 2015, she was 104 years old and had worked for USRC at 16.

Their sacrifice wasn’t in vain. Dr. Martland’s work had attracted attention, and in the 1930s, several research institutes approached him for advice in safely handling even more dicey elements such as uranium and plutonium.

In 1942, physicists at the University of Chicago successfully established a brief chain reaction. Three years later, the Manhattan Project produced several atomic bombs. For decades afterward, the US Atomic Energy Commission credited the research and experience gained in the USRC shop with helping them devise handling and safety protocols that kept thousands of other young war workers safe during World War II.

Even today, Dr. Martland’s work on the radium girls and the effects of long-term alpha exposure is being cited and it’s not too far out to say that tens of thousands of people around the world have benefited from what was learned from the radium girls.


Enjoy this article on the unknown history of the radium girls? Next, read about how the Nagasaki bombing almost didn’t happen. Then read about the worst human experiments in history.

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