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  • Writer's pictureThe Lofte

Illuminating the Dark History: Radium Girls

In Ottowa, Illinois stands a bronze statue, of a girl in her late teens or early 20s, holding a closed tulip in one hand, and a paintbrush in the other. This statue is a tribute to the Radium Girls and stands in front of a former factory where they worked. While the statue stands in Illinois, these Radium Girls lived in many parts of the country - Illinois, Connecticut, New York, and, where we focus on our upcoming production of “Radium Girls,” the factories in New Jersey.

As you’re preparing to come and see Radium Girls, we’d like to provide a little bit of background and some context for what happened before the beginning of the show. Let’s start with the original “Radium Woman,” Marie Curie who discovered radium in 1898. To give you a timeline of where we were in our knowledge of radioactive material, the X-ray had just been discovered in 1895, and it would be almost another 50 years before Oppenheimer’s nuclear bomb was developed. Scientists at this time who were exposed to radiation in large doses suffered skin burns and hair loss (Marie Curie herself eventually passed in 1934 due to a condition she developed after years of radiation exposure). However, people realized radiation could be beneficial for fighting ailments like cancer in small doses. 

This discovery triggered radium to be considered a “wonder substance.” People believed it would not only help cure cancer but also diabetes, arthritis, and more. And a whole industry boomed. Radium could be found in toothpaste, hair tonics, lotions, and the list goes on. In our production of “Radium Girls,” the characters discuss and consume a substance called Radithor, which is water infused laced with radon or radium, colloquially called “Liquid Sunshine,” because people thought it made you healthy, and it was good for you. 

Come 1902 radium was isolated into pure metal, meaning it could now be broken down and combined with other things - again, thank you, Marie Curie. From here, radium-treated paint was created and it would make things glow in the dark. It was expensive but became critical during World War I so that soldiers could read their watches or instruments in the dark.

From 1917 to 1929 hundreds of girls were hired by the U.S. Radium Corporation to apply that radium-treated paint to just about anything from airplane dials and measuring instruments to clocks, watches, and compasses. Many girls flocked to these jobs because they paid nearly 3 times more than other factory jobs at the time (Radium Girls would make $18 a week while other factories would pay workers $5 a week). It sounded like a nice time, girls could sit with their friends, chat, and paint dials; nice work if you can get it! 

Unfortunately, the camel hair brushes the girls used to paint the dials would lose their shape after only a few brush strokes. To remedy this, their supervisors told them to “point the brushes” using their mouths or to “tip the brushes on their lips,” to give the brush their fine point again. This wasn’t seen as a problem - sometimes the girls would play with the paint! They would paint their nails to glow in the dark, or their teeth. The girls said it didn’t taste like anything, they had no reason to believe that it might be harmful to them.

In 1917 Grace Fryer, along with 70 girls in their mid to late teens and early 20s, started working in a U.S. Radium Corporation factory in Orange, New Jersey. Our story shows Grace and her friends working at the factory, and their lives even after they stopped working for U.S. Radium. Because of their constant interaction with radioactive material, the girls became very ill. Even Marie Curie commented on their condition saying, “I see no hope for them… if the [radium] poison is taking internally it is practically impossible to destroy it.” Many of the girls, specifically the ones who pointed the brushes on their lips, didn’t make it to their 40s. By 1927 it is thought that at least 50 women and girls had passed away due to radium poisoning, though they were likely misdiagnosed and this wasn’t considered the cause of death at the time of their passing.

And yet, some of the women were still able to live long and meaningful lives. In 2014 one of the last surviving “Radium Girls,” (a woman who, in her youth had spent some time in a factory painting things with radium-infused paint) passed away. Her name was Mae Keane, and she died at 107 years old. How is that possible, when at least 50 women had passed due to radium paint poisoning by 1927? According to an interview that Keane did before her passing she didn’t like her job. “I wouldn’t put the brush in my mouth,” she said. So, after a few days at the factory, her boss asked her if she’d like to quit as she didn’t seem to like the work, and she agreed. While she still had her medical struggles through the years, bad teeth, and migraines, and she was a two-time cancer survivor, Keane said, “I was left with different things, but I lived through them. You just don’t know what to blame.” Keane wasn’t the only “Radium Girl,” who refused to “tip” the brush on her lips. Many other women did the same, and, like Keane, lived to see 100 years old, and beyond.

Ultimately, the Radium Girls made huge strides for workers. They influenced industry safety standards, and their court case (which you can see in our production of “Radium Girls,”) set a standard for employees to have the ability to sue their employers for damages caused by labor abuse. It also spread awareness of the dangers of radium, and all of the radium-laced products were removed from stores.

If you’d like to learn more about the Radium Girls, we recommend the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast. They posted a recording of their September 2011 episode about the Radium Girls on YouTube here.

You can read more about Mae Keane from an article by NPR here.

If you have someone in your family who enjoys playing video games, specifically Fortnight, they might be interested in a YouTube video recently put out by a channel called “The Game Theorists,” that speculates a power-up drink in Fortnight might be related to the historical Radithor. You can find that video here. This might help them connect to the story a bit more, especially if they plan to attend a performance!

And don’t forget to reserve your tickets for Radium Girls. Performances are May 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, & 12. You can visit or call 402-234-2553.

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