The Radium Girls: America’s Darkest Secret Lost in History


Today, most people know that radium is a radioactive
substance which should be handled with extreme care. However, things were different during World
War I, when people handled it with few precautions like there was no tomorrow … which meant
that to some of them, there wasn’t. The most tragic tale of this carefree early
approach to radium is the story of the Radium Girls — a group of unsuspecting factory
workers who found out about the dangers of the element they were handling the hard way. This is their terrifying story. Radium the material Chemistry and physics legends Marie and Pierre
Curie discovered radium in 1898. At first, the highly radioactive material
was very difficult to extract and there were only minuscule amounts available, and the
Curies became extremely wary about the stuff after suffering multiple radiation burns from
handling it. In fact, the Curies’ apprentice Sabin von
Sochocky once heard Pierre say that he “would not care to trust himself in a room with a
kilo of pure radium, as it would burn all the skin off his body, destroy his eyesight
and probably kill him.” In 1913, von Sochocky and another physician
called George Willis experimented with radium and created a luminous, radium-based “paint”
that made things glow in the dark. This paint would go on to destroy hundreds,
possibly even thousands of lives. Radium as a beauty and health product Von Sochocky and Willis were extremely familiar
with radium’s dangers — in fact, von Sochocky once hacked off one of his fingers when it
had become tainted with the radioactive element. Unfortunately for the radium girls, the information
about the material’s dangers was largely unavailable to anyone outside the scientific
community. Because it had been successfully used to treat
cancer in the early days, people had started to think of it as an all-healing superdrug. The media praised radium as a miracle substance
with no negative side effects, and people were ingesting elixirs containing trace amounts
of it daily, much like you’d take vitamin pills. Radium was viewed as a cure for arthritis
and other ailments, and it featured in all sorts of products from cosmetics and toothpaste
to jockstraps and lingerie, and even food and drink. In hindsight, this was particularly dangerous
because ingested radium behaves much like calcium and goes right in your bones. Remember this nasty factoid, it will be important
in a minute. The radium girls emerge A paint that glows in the dark proved to be
excellent for manufacturing things like glow-in-the-dark watches for military use, and military need
was urgent because the WWI was raging. To capitalize on this demand, von Sochocky
and Willis founded the U.S. Radium Corporation in 1917, to join other similar companies that
had been operating since 1916. The 100+ workers of the company’s plant
extracted and purified radium from carnonite ore, mixed the special radium paint the company
called Undark, and hand-painted the watches. The Radium Corporation was an excellent workplace
for a lady, or so it seemed: The job paid well and was comparatively easy, and the company
liked to employ young women because their delicate, dextrous hands made the work easier. That they got to work with a famously amazing
health substance and aided with the war effort didn’t hurt, either. As a result, the company was a very desirable
employer … for a while. Poor precautions and planning While the company’s founders certainly knew
their way around radium and it was generally known that the element could potentially be
hazardous in large amounts, no one bothered to inform the radium girls about the risks. The workers were assured that the glowing
liquid they were working with was extremely safe, despite the fact that the managers of
radium product corporations habitually wore protective clothing — the ones in the Radium
Corporation had heavy lead aprons and only handled the radium with long ivory tongs. Meanwhile, the women worked with zero protection,
painting the clocks and mixing the paint from radium dust, adhesive and water. The plant that was so full of radium dust
that it landed everywhere and made everything — and everyone — shine with an otherworldly
light. To make things worse, the company taught the
workers to paint watch dials with a special “lip, dip, paint routine.” The painters used a “lip-pointing” technique
where they sharpened their brush to a sharp point with their mouth in order to conserve
paint. Remember what we said about eating radium
being incredibly dangerous? These women did it on a daily basis for years,
just so the company could cut costs. The glowing goddesses The radium girls never really worried about
putting radium-tainted brushes in their mouths. After all, all the magazines and newspapers
told them radium was healthy, and the supervisors assured the paint was perfectly safe. How could a little ingested radium be anything
but beneficial? However, the brushes weren’t the only thing
that upped the workers’ radium content. The strange luminous effect from the supposedly
safe substance stuck on the women even after their shifts, and they glowed so much that
it was immediately obvious who worked in the plant and who didn’t. Many of the “shining girls” wore this
glow as a welcome perk, and when the workweek was over, some of them went the extra mile. Before they hit the town, they used Undark
to paint their nails, hair and even teeth to literally light up the room with their
smile. They were the Glowing Goddesses: Well-paid,
proud of their work and quite literally radiant. They were happy, and many invited their siblings
and close ones to join them at the plant. They had no way of knowing anything was wrong. And then the troubles started. The horror begins The questionable honor of being the first
of the radium girls to die went to Mollie Maggia. In early 1922, she visited the dentist over
a sore tooth. Soon, it transpired that he had another one. And another one. When they were removed, ruthlessly painful,
oozing ulcers broke through her gums. Soon, the pains and aches spread to her limbs,
rendering her unable to walk. The doctors initially dismissed the symptoms
as rheumatism and sent the pained Maggia away with a bottle of aspirin. However, by May, the radium poisoning had
plummeted her into a shambling, zombie-like half-death existence. Most of her teeth were gone, and her entire
mouth, jaw and even the bones in her ears could only be described as “one large abscess.” Despite this, no one seemed to realize just
how serious her condition was until she took what would be her last trip to the dentist. When the dentist touched her jawbone, it snapped
off. In a further examination, the dentist ended
up removing poor Maggia’s upper jaw completely — by simply reaching in and lifting it out. Soon, her entire lower jaw had to be removed
as well. To their abject horror, other girls started
experiencing tooth and limb pains, and we can only imagine how scary it must have been
for them to realize what was happening, knowing about Maggia’s gruesome condition and realizing
they might very well be next. By the time autumn came, Maggia’s lethal
infection was already in her throat. It cut into her jugular, and caused a lethal
hemorrhage that killed her in horror movie fashion at the tender age of 24. Her death was written off as syphilis. However, she was far from the last to die,
and before the end of 1924, dozens of other girls had suffered a similar fate. The ghost girls The worst thing about radium is that it takes
its time. Many of the women had swallowed trace amounts
of the stuff over many years, and the element was slowly taking its toll. It stalked their bones and haunted their limbs,
boring holes in their bodies and sabotaging their health in a number of terrifying ways. One woman was forced to wear a steel brace
because the radium inside her was crushing her spine. Others suffered such deep fractures in their
leg bones that their legs got shorter. There were cases of jaws disintegrating into
gruesome stumps. And then there was, of course, cancer. Lots and lots of cancer. What made it all even worse is the fact that
the radium inside their bones and bodies never stopped glowing, and emitted a bright, deadly
light from under their skin. The former glowing goddesses had become ghost
girls — scores of radioactive walking dead, full of radiant death that couldn’t be removed
from their bodies. Deaths and ensuing investigation Radium girls kept getting fired from their
work for poor health and ultimately dying, but they found it difficult to attract attention
to their struggle. However, fate eventually intervened when a
wealthy, well-known man called Eben Byers also died from radium poisoning. It was his death that caused the officials
to spring into action, and start reforming the industry in a way that was less dangerous
for, well, pretty much everyone involved. Unfortunately, these improvements were mostly
to protect consumers, and did very little to the women still actively working with radium. In 1924, the U.S. Radium Corporation finally
got around to commissioning a study of their own in an attempt to dismiss rumors about
the supposed dangers of their trade. This didn’t go quite as expected: Industrial
hygiene experts Katherine and Cecil Drinker, who were hired to conduct the investigation,
found that not only was radium dangerous, but it was everywhere in the girls’ workplace,
and when they changed clothes it got to their entire body. The Drinkers concluded without doubt that
radium was the cause of all the health troubles, and although the U.S. Radium Corporation did
its level best to present the findings in a light that was more favorable to them, the
pressure was mounting. Taking down Big Business Some of the radium girls sued the company,
which adamantly denied any and all connections between the mounting deaths and their product. When studies linking the two started to pop
up, the U.S. Radium Company even bribed scientists to create other studies that showed radium
was safe for the workers. Still, while von Sochocky and Willis had decided
that their workers were running some sort of con against their company to finance their
medical bills, the radium girls pushed on, armed with nothing but the knowledge that
they were in the right. Eventually, they started gaining valuable
allies. Famed pathologist Harrison Martland started
looking into the case in 1925, and after examining the remains of poor Molly Maggia and other
dead radium girls, she discovered they showed no symptoms of syphilis (their most common
“official” cause of death). Even Martland’s new-found evidence didn’t
seem like it was enough to take the radium industry down. The case was so complicated and the radium
industry was so powerful that almost every attorney turned the case down, thinking it
was a no-win situation. In 1927, a lawyer called Raymond Berry finally
agreed to represent the radium girls, but at that point, most of the women involved
with the suit had mere months to live and the U.S. Radium Company made it clear it would
drag its feet as much as possible. Small victories led to appeals, settlements
were made, and even the victories came so late that many of the radium girls only got
to use the money to finance their own funerals. Still, the proceedings were heavily publicized
and the radium girls were happy to give interviews and arrange fundraisers, which meant the cat
was now out of the bag. The government had no choice but to act, and
in 1928, the lip-pointing technique was forbidden and protective clothing was issued to every
worker who was in contact with radium. Ten years later, the radium paint went the
way of the dodo and the FDA banned “the packaging of products containing radium.” By 1939, the radium industry lost their final
appeal at the Supreme Court, which officially verified the existence of radium poisoning
as a cause of death. As an added bonus, the whole case was directly
responsible for the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Yes, you have the radium girls to thank for
the existence of OSHA. The legacy of the radium girls The tragic tale of the radium girls reads
like a horror story, and its casualties were horrific. More than 50 of the girls died from radium
poisoning by 1927, and many of the hundreds that did survive faced serious health issues. It is estimated that the radium industry as
a whole has caused thousands of women at least some health troubles. Bone cancer, anemia and leukemia were commonplace
among the survivors, as were amputations, bone changes and collapsed vertebrae. Some suffered a version of poor Mollie Maggia’s
half-life for several decades, and one unfortunate woman couldn’t leave her bed for a whopping
50 years. However, despite their unfortunate fate, almost
all of the radium girls worked to ensure that no one would have to suffer like they have
ever again. They agreed to be measured and studied by
scientists, which led to the kind of profound understanding of the effects of radiation
on living human beings that would otherwise have been impossible to acquire. In fact, we owe almost everything we know
about radiation’s long term effects inside the human body to the radium girls. Without them, the Manhattan Project could
have argued against the rigorous safety measures imposed on them, in which case thousands of
people who worked with actual nuclear weapons might have done so with precautions that amounted
to little more than the radium girls’ “lip, dip, paint.” Without the research on them, it’s possible
that President John F. Kennedy would not have signed the 1963 International Limited Test
Ban Treaty, which prohibited atomic tests. In fact, the tragedy of the radium girls is
directly responsible for the strict regulation of all forms of industries involving radioactivity. The radium industry, however, took a little
more time to go down. While the radium companies did take massive
hits from them, radium paint was banned in 1938, and the world started moving away from
the delights of radium by the time World War II was over, the last of the luminous processing
plants wasn’t closed until 1978. Its radiation levels were 1,666 times higher
than allowed.

Comments 100

  • Horrors of industrial progress.
    There was a radium “health drink” that dissolved bone.

  • Ah our teacher told us about this.

  • Libertarianism at its finest right there.

  • Isn't Godless capitalism wonderful!

  • Shared! Thank you!

  • simon, we say "oh-shuh", like it's a word, not O-S-H-A.

  • Scary stuff

  • Loved the topic and format. Never heard this one before in all my random topic listenings! Keep up the great work

  • I can only imagine the Simon must at least in part be nuclear powered to allow him to present so many youtube channels without rest and simultaneously. AMAZING. unless of course the many the simons are just puppets modeled on the original.

  • I like this format. Closer to Today I Found Out. This makes me wonder about the paint in my old Raketa (Russian brand) watches. I don't have either of them anymore. How much of that stuff just got tossed in landfills as broken old junk?

  • I read The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore. It was more depressing and infuriating than the books on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. I'm getting less and less sympathetic to big business and more in favor of regulation the more I read of our industrial history.

  • Many women complained and they did nothing. One man dies and they start to investigate. Women are still fighting for equality.

  • This is what happens when there are no regulations on businesses we can look forward to things like this again if president pennywise has his way regarding regulations.

  • This is why a completely free market without government regulation would fail.

  • Once again toptenz has delivered an interesting and informative video, but I would like to point out that there's a boatload of stories in America that are similar to this one. Personally I think the darkest sectets in American history is how doctors have repeatedly told people that opiates are 'safe and non-addictive. This crisis in America is just the latest example in a series of Doctors and pharma tricking people into believing that a new opium derivative is "safe".

  • Is this a rerun, I think I've heard it before.

  • I've been aware of the Radium Girls for a while but it's always nice to have a refresh. Great work Simon.

  • For a more detailed look at this story, there's a great book called "Radium Girls" by Kate Moore, told in a pseudo-narrative style. It's highly recommended for anyone interested in learning more!

  • This story makes me so angry and sad every time I hear it.

  • I like the new style. It's like a quick refresher for some details you may have forgotten. 👍

  • There should be a movie about this, if there isn't already. But it'd probably have to be very long to get the depth of what really happened.

  • Simon I love you xxx

  • Since when does syphilis makes your jaws fall off? Even sucking multiple syphilis-laden c0cks won't do that.

  • I remember reading about this a few years ago and yet against the parasites hiding in the shadows in the industry sought to blame the victims in every single way possible, like they always have and will do.

    And yet scandals like this roll on, even today, cos lobbies are more powerful that any government will every be!

  • Love your stuff as always. But I'm not keen on the headings. I prefer Mr Whistler to tell me a story as opposed to a high school essay.

  • I heard all about this in 8th grade history class back in 1964.

  • Very interesting.
    Will share.😢

  • I didn’t know that about radium. What about asbestos? Is that stuff bad for you too? I put asbestos on my burgers for flavor.

  • Thank you, do what you can to educate us.

  • Been waiting for this one, thanks Simon!! Sad that even today it still happens although on a smaller scale

  • I loved this episode. These kinds of spotlights are great.

  • This is just one example of why people don't trust big business and governments.

  • No. Back to the 1-10 format, if you please.

  • Well done. I've read of these women before. It's interesting how their case affects us today.

  • This is one of the saddest videos I’ve ever seen poor Girls

  • When i was about 5, i had one of these watches. I loved it & actually was upset when my next watch was the kind we have now where you push a button to turn the light on to see it at night. The radium ones were lit all the time & didn’t need a button pushed. The numbers were clearer with the radium than the lighted ones now.

  • Reminds me of the phrase mad hatter which came from hat makes who used mercury to cure the hats and eventually got mercury poisoning. Those hatters literally "went mad" since neurological damage was one of the symptoms.

  • It's terrible, but like Simon said, this led to better understanding of the effects and may have saved many other lives. As much as I and we can wish it didn't happen, we as humans don't know everything and tragedies will continue to happen as knowledge increases. Also take a way from this that scientists and doctors were paid to lie and they are not always trustworthy even now, when money and politics influence science it can be very bad.

  • Just wait until they die, then pay. Big business at it's finest. This story is so horrible in every way.

  • You've spent a lot of time pointing out a lot of America's flaws and sins. When are you going to do the same to China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela? Not to mention Putin's Russia?

  • European America’s darkest secret is convincing people that the American Negro/(Afro) American is from (Afri)ca.

  • Back in the 50's I had a teacher who told us about his mother who died from this very thing.

  • An another thing that was disregarded in American History class,thanks for the refresher Simon,oh yes an for setting me straight on the War of 1812,myyyyy history teacher got THAT WRONG tooo😂😂😂😂this old yank THANKS you👍🏻👍🏻👍🏻👍🏻👍🏻

  • Didnt you already do this video? (It's ok i forgot)

  • Awesome video, crazy sad story

  • I already knew about this and it was hard to watch again. It's something to bear in mind whenever business whines about safety regulations.

  • If the equivalent of poisonous radium was around today, they people who complained would be branded as conspiracy theorists.

  • I remember as a child in the 70's my mum having a 'glow in the dark' alarm clock exactly like in the vid. Was on the bedside cabinet for years. wonder if it was a health issue? cant see it

  • What about the countless factories filled with men who were treated the same, if not far worse?
    People only care, or talk about this because it was wamen

  • Simon, you guys, should do a story about the soldiers, who died, after cleaning up the Bikini atoll, and the threat, the temporary vault, is capable of, due to global warming/ rising seas.

  • I'm almost certain a town called Ottawa in illinois, which housed one of these factories, dug up where they suspected alot of radium was dumped.

  • Why post this on the TopTenz channel and not Biographics?

  • Just like the Coal Ash Cover-ups in the rural Eastern USA. Only it's the government and we can't sue the government so we sue the clean up company. This is happening NOW.

  • The sad part is those clocks are more dangerous now, than before. The Zinc Sulfide which makes them glow breaks down in time and the glowing stops. However, the radium is still there and is quite radioactive with a half life of 1600 years. Without a geiger counter or a scintillator, it's sometimes really hard tell if an old clock is radioactive or just phosphorescent.

  • I grew up near Elgin where these watches were made. The tragic part was that these innocent young girls weren't told about the danger and so they kept sharpening their brushes with their mouths for about 2 years until these girls realized it was killing them. The mfgr KNEW what would happen! The managers should have been convicted of murder!

  • …..Buddy… everyone has done a YouTube video on this topic. Alot of ur videos have been covered again and again on different channels… im a fan of your YouTube channel.. but lately iv been a disappointed 😕

  • I can't believe this happened in my home state, less than an hour and a half away from where I live.

  • This was horrifying

  • This is what happens when education is withheld. Madame Curie.

  • Very interesting. I enjoyed it. Last week I was visiting my son and his family. His wife was reading the book, “The Radium Girls”. She said the book was excellent. This whole story deserves more attention. Many lessons for everyone.

  • I did know abought this but there was new info that I didn't know.

  • Someone tell him we don’t say O S H A we say oh sha

  • This is too painful to watch.

  • Radium as a health product? Well, I suppose it would give you a certain glow…

  • tragic but excellent information

  • Thank you for taking up their story. My parents had a glowing clock. Hard to hear. I hope they all found peace.

  • Wasn't this posted on your other channel?

  • And to say they died of syphilis is to further disgrace these women. Wasn't it an obvious clue to see supervisors and management wearing protective gear while in contact with this material. Sadly, not much had changed. People are still exposed to deadly chemicals while being lied to while companies are still making big money and denying responsibility, ex: Steel mill workers exposed to asbestos developing Mesothelioma, landscaper using Round – up and again developing Mesothelioma, women using Johnson & Johnson talcum powder developing ovarian cancer, all the while these companies allegedly known their product was dangerous and said absolutely nothing because of the money they made from these products.

  • many women dies, never mind 1 man dies and then they do something.

  • People say Pride and Wrath are the most dangerous Sins.
    Most think Greed isn't as dangerous, when It can be the most dangerous.

  • Radium in jockstraps and lingerie?!

    WTF!

  • Love this type of formatting!

  • Time for marie curie in the biographics channel now i suppose!

  • What's sad is that big business hasn't learned that much from this. Companies can still make policies requiring women to wear high-heeled shoes despite the known dangers of them. And to what purpose? Only to make their legs and posterior shaplier and make them a little taller. All because sex sells.

  • I swear this video is on all his channels😂

  • I knew about the Radium Girls but not to this depth.

  • Such a horrible thing to happen to those women. My grandma new many growing up across the street from the Timex factory in Wtby Ct. The worst part she said is when stsrted grtting sick, times told everyone it as syphilis and there fault. These were young Irish women trying to support there families during the depression, and one of the biggest employer in the city call a them whores when they get sick. DESPICABLE. My grandma said many killed themselves instead of facing the shame of seeking treatment. The factory, well the ruins of it is still there on Cherry St in Waterbury. It's completely contaminated and nothing ever be built there. Sadly half my city is like that. Making brass and clocks and watches was a dirty business

  • Kind of makes you wonder what we use today in our daily lives that may seem harmless but might be highly toxic 25 to 50 years from now

  • I loved it… keep it all

  • Sounds like such terrible pain… horrifying

  • Always wonderful, whatever format it comes in.

  • It's sad these chemical companies are still poisoning people. Cancer is the #2 killer which means we're all exposed. 😓😓😓

  • well brushing your teeth with charcoal has been determined it's bad uh duh it's charcoal It's okay for females to die off and no one notices but it takes a death of a male gets everything shut down still.

  • In my town of Midwest City, Oklahoma, there are 2 properties where radium paint was scraped off of aircraft parts for recycling.  Now the properties are horribly contaminated.  No one really knows what happened to the minimum wage workers.

  • Wow, so this how OHSHA was started. And we actually have people today that are against regulations, even once they learn it happened.

  • I feel like common sense should have told these girls that this substance was extremely dangerous. When the delivery guys bring your work materials while wearing hazmat suits, take a hint…

  • This’s a great refresher. I forgot how gruesome it was. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen or read anything on them. Damn.

  • I love the format, great video. Can you do one about the brain cancer from Amoco Research Center in Illinois in the 70s?

  • Yikes

  • What about the fosse girls and how we used mercury in a lot of things?

  • I never even knew about this. Thank You

  • Ain't that America

  • Oh gosh this is so sad 😒 sigh I fear cell phones are doing the same thing to us slowly and they will nver admit

  • I'm glad the Women made a stand to protect us. 😭 Painful

  • Great Information mate.
    Blessings unto you.

  • The fact that our bones contain calcium, doesn't say anything on how our digestive system handles oral calcium intake

  • IN JOCK STRAPS?!?! Talk about birth control…

  • I appreciate the information, well-presented as per usual.
    There are Glow In The Dark items even now… How safe are they ???

  • Those women were not accidentally exposed to Radium…they were the Case Study

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