A Dark And Sad Story: Radium Girls


Radium became so popular after WWI. Everybody seemed to be fascinated by this "magical" element. At that time, radium was actually the "magical" element that shines in darkness. The endless consumption combined with a fascination with the radium, and people started adding it to everything, including beauty creams and toothpaste.

However, there was something that nobody knew: radium would make lots of people's lives miserable. Radium is a radioactive element, but again, nobody knew.

What happened next? Let's see together.

Let's travel back in time and set our time machine to the period following WWI.


The suffering the war brought was still ongoing when a brand was enjoying its golden era: Waterbury. The factory, which produced high technology watches that glowed in the dark, had to hire more young women once the demand increased.

Mae Kaene, about whom we will be talking a lot in this post, was one of those young women. The job was easy: use a thin brush to paint the dials of the watches with this glowing material.

What was the deal about this paint and the watches?


This wonder compound was made up by zinc and radium salts. Once these atoms interact, they emit a faint green light. Although you couldn't see this light during the day time, it did glow enough at night. The reason these watches became popular during the war was that the soldiers could see the time at night, without having to risk being detected by the enemy.

And after the war, these watches started to be a luxury item.

Let's get back to Mae Kaene:


Mae didn't really like her job. The watches she painted looked worse than those of others, but unlike others, she didn't lick the tip of the brush to make it thinner. As she found the paint disgusting, the watches she made looked pretty bad.

This wasn't the only thing that made her different than her fellow workers.

Other young women used this paint personally. They put it on their teeth, hair, fingernails and faces. That's how they thought they were using the beauty creams made with radium that were produced at the time. Contrary to them, Mae came in contact with this paint as little as possible, without knowing that she was actually doing the right thing.

Because of all of these, Mae was about to lose her job.


After a while, the management was no longer able to tolerate Mae's behavior and they removed her from that position. Later on, she started doing another job for the same company.

Moving on... After Mae quit her job, very mysterious events started to take place.


The nightmare was just beginning. The young women working at the factory started catching weird diseases. They had big wounds in their mouths, their teeth started to fall out, and their jaw bones were melting and breaking. One of these young women visited a dentist because of tooth ache. During the tooth extraction, her jaw bone came loose completely, resulting a big wound on her cheek.

By the end of 1924, seven had already died of this weird disease.

Despite the increasing cases of death and diseases, nobody had a clue that radium, the miraculous invention of the century, was to blame.


The young women kept on getting sick and nobody thought it was the radium. However, over time, the number of the cases increased and the situation became more and more dire. A group of scientists from Harvard were authorized to investigate this baffling case.

The group started to work right away.


Analyses showed the truth: they found out that there were higher levels of radium in the body parts of the workers where they had put the paint. What was even worse was that they breathed radioactive gas out of their lungs.

Upon their investigations, the scientists certainly determined that these weird diseases that these young women were going through were all caused by radium.


Meanwhile, all the young women working at the factory showed various symptoms; however the most horrible symptoms such as jaw bone melting and the festering mouth wounds were observed in those who chose to lick the tip of the brush to make it sharper.

Following all of these, the long expected legal war started: Radium Girls vs. Waterbury.


Five young women (Grace Fryer, Quinta McDonald, Albina Larice , Edna Husman and Katherine Schaub), who worked at the factory, were named "Radium Girls" by the media and sued the factory. In a very short amount of time, many other sick workers joined in this case. They all demanded $250,000 of compensation each; but as the factory had solid financial and political support, the case dragged on and on.

The famous sentence that became historic: “If I won my $250,000, mightn't I have lots of roses?" (for her funeral).


As the lawsuit kept on dragging, the lives of the Radium girls deteriorated more and more. During the case, one had both of her hip bones broken, one became invalid, one was no longer able to walk, and another one's hair was still glowing at night, although she stopped working years ago. One of the girls with a destroyed jaw bone asked that famous question to her lawyer.

13 of the Radium girls died due to the various symptoms caused by radium poisoning, while the lawsuit was still going on.


Finally, in the fall of 1928, the lawsuit was finalized. The jury decided that the firm must pay $10,000 of compensation to each and every worker, as well as a life long monthly payment of $600; and all the medical bills.

And lastly, let's get back to Mae Kaene, who got fired because she wouldn't lick the brush:


Although Mae only worked with radium for a couple of weeks, she had lost all her teeth by the time she was 30. She also suffered from breast and colon cancer. However, despite all of that, she lived until she was 107.

Mae, who is known as the last Radium Girl, passed away on May 1st, 2014.

"We were young, didn't know anything about the paint."

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