In 1898, Marie Curie and her husband Pierre discovered a radioactive substance known as radium. Over the span of the 1910-1930’s, radium was used for its phosphorescent properties to paint house numbers, children’s toys and most popularly, watch faces.

From 1917-1935, the U.S. Radium Corporation employed women in both New Jersey and Illinois to paint watch faces. These watches were popular among US soldiers because their glowing numbers gave them the ability to tell time in the dark. 

Being a radium girl was a true honor. The job was higher-paying than most other jobs at the time and employed exclusively women, who were thought to have more skillful and delicate hands, which was needed when painting the tiny numbers of the watches. This job was so highly regarded, in fact, that the women would often apply the paint to their teeth and nails and wear their best clothes to work so that when they went to dances in the evening, they glowed. 

This Undark paint – as it was known – was thought to be harmless. So much so, that the women used a technique called “lip-pointing,” in which they would use their lips and tongue to shape the tip of the paint brush into a fine point, subsequently ingesting mass amounts of the flavorless, radium-infused paint.

Radium, in low amounts, is harmless. It was used in everyday life and even medicine with no side effects. It was used to treat cancer, and many of the women thought that it was even healthy for them. That is, until 1922 when Grace Fryer, who worked at the New Jersey location, noticed that her teeth began to fall out. Upon examination by her dentist, it was discovered that Grace was suffering from severe bone decay. 

Unfortunately, Grace was not the only radium girl to suffer the effects of the Undark paint. According to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, “The human body mistakes radium for calcium, so it filled their bones as calcium would, irradiating them from within.” The women’s bones become brittle. Their teeth were falling out, their legs gave out from underneath them and their spines collapsed. One woman went to the dentist for a toothache, and when her tooth was pulled, a piece of her jaw came with it. By 1927, over 50 women who had worked as a radium girl died due to radium exposure. 

In light of the girls’ ailments, U.S. Radium’s president Arthur Roeder hired hygiene expert Cecil Drinker to conduct an investigation at the New Jersey factory. Upon investigation, Drinker found that the women’s suffering was undeniably caused by the radium-contaminated factory and the lack of safety precautions in the workplace. 

Still, Roeder believed that their illnesses must be from an outside source. Roeder covered up the true conditions of his factories by altering Drinker’s findings as well as sending the girls to “doctor” Frederick Flynn, an unlicensed toxicologist employed by the company, who assured the girls that they were in perfect health.

After having to endure their suffering and watch their peers die with no concern from their superiors, a group of radium girls, led by Grace Fryer, decided to sue U.S. Radium for the amount of $250,000, which is about $4.3 million today. They would later settle for $10,000 each and $600 annually (about $171,000 and $10,000 today). Unfortunately, none of the girls who sued would survive any more than two years after they settled. 

Although these women suffered greatly, their efforts in getting compensation and bringing light to their unsafe working conditions brought about a new set of standards for working with radium. 

Their case was a driving force for safety regulations in the Manhattan Project, and by the end of War World ll, the US government had set basic safety regulations for working with radioactive material. In 1949, a law was passed to give workers the right to receive compensation for occupational illnesses. In 1960, radium was banned in the United States.