Obit of the Day: The Last of the “Radium Girls”

In the summer of 1924, Mae Keane was hired by the Waterbury (CT) Clock Company to paint watch dials. Along with dozens of other young women, Ms. Keane sat at a counter with a paintbrush in one hand and a watch in the other. She dipped the brush in radium and carefully painted it on the face the result was a dial that glowed at night. Like the other women in the room, Ms. Keane was taught that to get the finest point on the brush it was best to pull the tip through your mouth to create a “lip point.”

What Ms. Keane, her co-workers, and women working with radium did not know is that it was killing them. Discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898 along with polonium and uranium, radium was destroying the dial painters from the inside-out.

Although immediately categorized as radioactive by Ms. Curie, the term was not synonymous with danger. In fact the Curies and others around the world saw radium as a miracle element. It first earned its reputation when it was learned that radium salts eliminated cancerous tumors. And since it was element it was “natural” it was added to myriad products including drinking water, candy, and face cream.

Ms. Curie herself toured the United States in 1924 to defend the safety of radium, always carrying a glass bottle of the substance in her pocket. She especially liked how it glowed at night*.

It was that glow that made it perfect for watches. First applied to watches for soldiers in World War I, companies like Waterbury Clock began mass producing glow-in-the-dark watches after the end of the war. Usually the work was done by women n their teens and 20’s. Believing the radium to be completely safe the women were known to use pure radium as a cosmetic. They dusted their hair and painted their nails with radium and, in at least one case, a women rubbed radium on her teeth to create a glow-in-the-dark smile.

Ms. Keane only lasted a few weeks as a dial painter. She did not like the taste of the paint (she thought it was “gritty”) and the company was unimpressed with her work so she left. She also was earning only 8 cents an hour doing the work.

Not long after Ms. Keane left the company, her former co-workers began getting sick. Their teeth fell out. Their hips were breaking. Some were diagnosed with anemia so severe they would bleed from their mouths. The radium was attacking the girls bones, creating holes that made them brittle, while also destroying the marrow, leading to a sharp rise in leukemia^. By 1927, just three years after Ms. Keane left Waterbury Clock, 15 dial painters had died.

Simultaneously in N.J., young women from the U.S. Radium Company were also dying of similar symptoms. Once it was determined that the “miracle” element was in fact deadly the media dubbed the women “radium girls.” (By the end of the 1930s over 100 deaths were directly linked to radium.)

Note: As newspaper and radio coverage across the country focused on the women dying from radiation poisoning in New York and New Jersey, there were no news reports on the deaths at the Waterbury Clock Company until 2002. 

Ms. Keane, even with only a few weeks exposure, lost all her teeth before she was 40. She also survived breast and colon cancer – but it can not be directly linked to the radium. 

Even after the links to radium and radiation poisoning were made, the watch industry used radium for years eliminating the “lip pointing” technique and providing protective gear for the women. Eventually radium was replaced with other phosphorescent paints and, occasionally, tritium – a radioactive isotope of hydrogen.

Ms. Keane, who many consider to be the last of the radium girls, died on March 1, 2014 at the age of 107.

Sources: Hartford Courant, NY Times, Speakeasy Science (an excellent 3-part series), The Waterbury Observer (which is a must-read), and Wikipedia

(Image is a 1928 cartoon from The American Weekly a Sunday magazine found in newspapers – think of today’s Parade. The cartoon is courtesy of the Waterbury Observer.)

* Ms. Curie herself would die of anemia believed to have been caused by exposure to X-rays in mobile units she invented.

^ The body mistakes radium for calcium and thus absorbs it directly into the bones. 

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