Telling the Story of the Radium Girls, Who Died to Make Luminous Watch Dials
In the late 1910s—in an unnerving prologue to the atomic age—there was a brief mania for radium.
The newly discovered element, with its seemingly magical radioactive properties, was hailed as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time, a marvel with the potential to cure the sick and provide benefits even to the robustly healthy. Then there were all the commercial applications, including one we don’t even think about, with our electronic devices perpetually shining in the darkness, most notably, luminous dials for watch faces. Companies like the United States Radium Corporation in Newark, New Jersey, and the Radium Dial Corporation in Ottawa, Illinois, hired fleets of working-class teenaged girls for the delicate work of covering tiny numbers with radium paint.
Their technique for applying the paint: dipping the brush against the tip of their lips to create a sufficiently fine point for the work. It was a plum job until several girls began to sicken and die in the most horrifying ways, their jaws essentially rotting inside their bodies. But even as the young women and their doctors began to piece together that their sickness must be related to their work, the companies employing them denied responsibility.