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Who Were the Radium Girls?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Radium Girls were a group of women who brought a suit against their employer, the United States Radium Corporation, in the 1920s. The women charged that dangerous working conditions in the Corporation's New Jersey factory had exposed them to harmful radiation, leading to sickness. The girls ultimately won their suit, laying the groundwork for future individual suits about working conditions, and capturing the attention of the American public.

Members of this group worked at the factory between 1917 and the mid-1920s. They were employed to paint watch dials with a luminous radium-based paint. Tellingly, the company knew that radium was harmful, and it took steps to protect the chemists and researchers who formulated and compounded the paint. The women, however, worked with no protection at all, and they were assured that radium was perfectly safe.

Many of the Radium Girls would paint their nails, teeth, and bodies with radium for fun, startling friends and family when the paint glowed in the dark. They also routinely licked the brushes they used to shape them, thereby ingesting large quantities of radium.

In 1923, a bank teller named Grace Fryer started to experience considerable jaw pain, and she went to the dentist for treatment. The dentist discovered that her jaw had been severely damaged, looking more like a sponge than bone, and after discovering that Grace used to work for the United States Radium Corporation, he started to connect her condition with other cases he had seen.

The Radium Girls experienced necrosis of the jaw, tooth loss, anemia, and a variety of other radiation-related health problems. Some of them were so radioactive that their jaws could leave traces on dental film even without x-rays. In confidential testing performed by the United States Radium Corporation, many of the Radium Girls showed high levels of radiation in their bodies, but this fact was concealed from them.

Fryer ended up suing, and five other women joined the suit. They came to be known as the Radium Girls, and their case became a topic of immense public interest. The defense attempted to smear the reputations of the Radium Girls by suggesting that they had syphilis, and companies which worked with radium pressured medical professions to suppress medical records suggesting that radium exposure was harmful. The women were ultimately successful, and their fight was used to lay groundwork for better worker protections from radiation. Many former dial-painters from United States Radium and other companies were also participants in long-term studies designed to provide more information about the effects of radium exposure.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon54434 — On Nov 30, 2009

well anon24881, at the company website (if there is one) when you have proof that you are his grandson you might be able to see the company records. Not really likely, but possible.

By Booklover31 — On May 27, 2009

The first time I heard of these girls I was watching a show with my 17 year old daughter called 1000 ways to die. I felt so bad for these women and thought that their story was really interesting. A few weeks later my daughter came home from class and told me that she had a project to do and that they had to pick their topics blindly out of box the teacher provided. To her surprise her slip said the radium girls. Needless to say she was excited and so was I when she asked me to help her. I think more people should know about things like this. This was a great article. As for anon24881 I don't know how you would go about finding out the information you seek but I hope you find the answers and share them with us. Good luck on your search.

By anon24881 — On Jan 19, 2009

My grandfather worked for this company. I wonder if there is any way I could find his position there. He wound up in a mental asylum after that.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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