Radiation expert and historian Bert Coursey, who has worked at NIST for 50 years, writes extensively on the history of radium and radiation standards. He recently reviewed NIST’s connection with the radium dial workers — notably the role of one heroic woman — in the Journal of Research of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Below is a condensed version of the full story that you can read here.
Beginning in the 1910s and continuing through the 1920s, more than 3,000 girls and young women seized upon a new and unusual work opportunity: painting glow-in-the-dark numerals on the dials of watches, clocks and military equipment. The numerals glowed because the paint contained radium.
Because the work required fine detail to paint the tiny numbers, the factory supervisors instructed the women to lick their camel-hair brushes to a point before and after dipping the brushes in the radium paint. When some of the women inquired whether lip pointing, as the technique was known, was really safe, the supervisors assured them it was.
The women had little reason to doubt those assurances: Radium had been hailed as a miracle substance ever since Marie and Pierre Curie had discovered it in 1898. The stuff fizzed and gave off a mysterious blue-green light. Doctors used it to treat colds and cancers. Salesmen hawked radium face creams that would literally set the skin aglow and, they promised, extend the lives of those who used it.
But by the late 1920s, many of the women involved in this work had fallen dangerously ill, and several had died of suspected radiation poisoning. The alpha radiation in the paint they had ingested had eaten away their bones from the inside out. Some had aplastic anemia, others had collapsed hips and backbones so damaged that they needed braces from the neck to the waist in order to stand up straight. Mollie Maggia, who had worked at the Orange, New Jersey, plant for four years, began complaining of severe mouth pain. Her dentist extracted several teeth, but the wounds from those extractions never healed and Mollie’s pain worsened. Her teeth began falling out on their own, and during one examination her jawbone shattered against the light touch of her dentist’s hand.
The radium girls, as the newspapers called them, were still in their 20s; many were newlyweds with young children. And all of them were dying.
In 1925, five of the women filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Radium Corporation (USRC), based in Orange, New Jersey. Apparently hoping that the plaintiffs would die by the time the trial began, the company lawyers tried various delay tactics. They argued that because the women had left the job several years before they fell ill, the radium paint could not have caused their ailments. The judge rejected their claims, and a hearing finally took place in 1928.
Raymond Berry, the lawyer representing the women, needed an expert who could measure the radiation and present the data in a convincing manner to the court.
Enter 30-year-old physicist Elizabeth Hughes. As a former laboratory assistant in the radium section of NIST, then called the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), Hughes had just the right credentials. Hired in 1919, she had been tasked with calibrating sealed radium sources using a gold-leaf electroscope that her supervisor, physicist Noah Dorsey, had helped develop.
NBS gold leaf electroscope
This 1928 photo from NIST’s archives shows a gold-leaf electroscope used for radioactivity measurements.
That device consisted of a small lead-lined chamber with a thin gold leaf suspended from a metal rod. When Hughes applied a voltage to the electroscope, the suspended gold leaf accumulated charge and tilted relative to its original position. When Hughes placed a small amount of radium at a fixed distance from the electroscope, gamma radiation emitted by the radioactive sample entered the chamber and ionized the air, causing the electroscope to discharge and the leaf to move back to its original position. The faster the leaf moved — observed through a small window in the electroscope — the more radioactive the sample. From Hughes’ first days on the job, Dorsey had alerted her to the hazards of radium — information not known to the public. He had firsthand knowledge about the dangers: Handling radium samples had burned Dorsey’s hands.
Shortly after Dorsey took a leave of absence from NBS in June 1920, Hughes left to take a position as a physicist at the USRC, then known as the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation. She was most likely recruited because of her experience at NBS and perhaps recommended by Dorsey.
Hughes worked at the corporation for two years, measuring the amount of radioactivity in paint samples for quality control at the New Jersey plant. In 1922, she co-authored a journal article with her supervisor at the USRC, the renowned Austrian physicist Victor Hess, on rapid methods for measuring radium found in rocks and sediments.
By late 1922, however, she had left the company and from 1925 until 1927 worked only occasionally as a consultant for the former president of USRC, measuring the radioactivity in radium samples.
Historical newspaper article shows photo of Elizabeth Damon with unnamed man and headline “Gram of Radium For New York State.”
In her work for the plaintiff’s lawyer, Berry, she once again employed an electroscope to measure radioactivity, but this time her samples were the breath of the five dial painters who had filed a lawsuit against the USRC. (She used another type of electroscope, the Lind electroscope, for these measurements.)
On the witness stand in April 1928, Hughes testified that all workers and scientists alike should be protected from exposure to radium, noting that the radioactive material had burned the hands of almost everyone who had been in direct contact with the substance. At the NBS as well as at other research institutions, she testified, scientists were told to follow safety procedures when handling radioactive material. But in court, a critical question remained unasked: Why did those research institutions, so aware of the dangers of radioactive material, never warn the public or the radium-dial workers about the serious health effects?
Instead, the company’s lawyer, Edward Markley, attacked Hughes’ credentials. Under a barrage of questions, she acknowledged that her current occupation was a housewife, that she had not worked regularly in a laboratory for five years, and that her breath measurements provided qualitative, not quantitative, indicators of radioactivity. Markley tried to establish that the radioactivity she measured was insignificant. But the judge intervened, declaring that he did not agree with the lawyer’s characterization of Hughes’ testimony and wanted to hear more about the breath measurements she had conducted.
Hughes then described the procedure for collecting samples. For five minutes, each woman breathed through a series of bottles containing calcium chloride to remove moisture, glass wool to remove dust, and sulfuric acid to trap any other chemicals, allowing only air and the noble gas radon to be collected for analysis.
As the breath accumulated, the bottles were connected to one port of the electroscope’s chamber; a suction pump connected to a second port drew the breath through the chamber. A voltage was applied to the chamber. If there was sufficient alpha radiation from the women’s breath, it would cause the leaf to discharge and move. Hughes testified that for all five women, the gold leaf moved at least twice as fast as the normal drift rate she had measured with controls — a clear indication that the women had ingested so much radium that their breath was toxic.
“Elizabeth Damon Hughes was an unsung heroine in the saga of the radium dial painters, and she made the critical measurements that helped them win their day in court.” —Bert Coursey
The evidence Hughes provided, along with that of the other doctors and scientists who testified on behalf of the five women, garnered worldwide attention. In April 1928, when the USRC asked for a monthslong postponement because many of their experts would be traveling abroad in the summer, newspaper columnists and the public condemned the delay tactic. The ailing women, they pointed out, might not live to see the end of the trial.
Anxious to avoid more bad publicity, the company decided to settle out of court. The USRC initially offered the women a lump sum of $10,000 — but with the stipulation that all doctor and lawyer fees would be deducted from that amount. Realizing that would leave them with almost nothing, the women refused. Finally, the company offered them the $10,000 sum plus payment of doctor’s bills and a yearly pension of $600. This the ailing women accepted on June 4, 1928.
Although radiation was slowly and painfully killing the five women who had filed suit — Quinta Maggia McDonald, Edna Hussman, Albina Larice, Katherine Schaub and Grace Fryer — they smiled during the barrage of flashbulbs as press photographers captured their portraits. It was the first of many small victories for women at radium dial companies who had unwittingly poisoned themselves with their own paintbrushes. And Hughes had played an important role.
Hughes worked with Berry for another year. In October 1929, she analyzed a breath sample from the dial painter Mae Cubberley Canfield, in preparation for a lawsuit the woman had filed. Once again, the USRC settled out of court. Hughes received 10% of the settlement, $800. It was the last court case for Berry and Hughes. As part of the settlement, Berry agreed he would no longer represent dial painters who filed suit against the company.
In 1931, Hughes returned to NBS.
For Hughes’ first few years back, she occupied an office in the same hallway as scientists in the radium laboratory and may have helped analyze a last set of breath samples for radium and radon testing from the poisoned women. She stayed at NBS until 1961, pursuing studies in physical chemistry entirely independent of her former work with radium. Hughes died in 1988.
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