On This Day in History: October 23

Radium Girls

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In 2020, with a plague ravaging the land, plenty of people were told by their employers to suck it up and get their asses into to work and to stop worrying about it. A century earlier many women were told that the radium they were using to paint glow-in-the dark watch dials was totally harmless and to stop worrying about it. Narrator voice: It was not harmless.

--On This Day in History, Shit Went Down: October 23, 1939--

Marie Curie and her husband Pierre successfully isolated radioactive radium salts in their Paris laboratory in 1902. Fifteen years later the U.S. Radium Corporation began extracting radium to create luminous paints they called “Undark”. Being able to tell time in the dark was important for soldiers; the company was a primary provider of glowing watches to the military. But the women who created those watches, referred to as the Radium Girls, had a higher death rate than the soldiers who wore them.

How is this for a dick move? Hundreds of women handled the radium in various capacities on a daily basis, whereas their bosses and the scientists were all I ain’t touchin’ that shit. There were plants in New Jersey, Illinois, and Connecticut, and the chemists used lead screens, wore masks, and handled the toxic shit with tongs, because the shit was toxic. Continues below.

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It gets worse. They used fine camel-hair brushes to paint the watch dials, but they lost their point after a few strokes, so the managers told the women to moisten the tip of the brush with their lips. Fucking hell.

Soon, the woman began to get sick—sick in the most horrible of ways. Their bones began to dissolve from the inside out. Their legs broke just from walking on them. Their spines collapsed. This next sentence is real gross. A dentist went to remove a tooth from one of the women and instead pulled her entire jaw out. Necrosis of the jaw, called “radium jaw,” was common. By 1927, over 50 of them were dead as a direct result of radium paint poisoning. Their bosses said hey it’s not our fault they’re just a bunch of sluts dying from syphilis. Really, that was their defense.

Some women decided to sue, and the guilty parties were found fucking guilty and they said fuck that we’re gonna appeal. And appeal. And appeal, all the way to the Supreme Fucking Court of the United Fucking States. And on October 23, 1939, the court ruled that a company named Radium Dial had to pay.

The victory was an important turning point in labor rights in the U.S. as one of the first examples of an employer being made to take responsibility for the health of its employees. Radium was still used in watch dials up until the 1970s, but after the case of the Radium Girls safety measures such as not being told to lick the fucking paint brushes were put in place.

Get the book On This Day in History Sh!t Went Down.