This post was written by Kate Burch, Library Page.
Radium, a naturally occurring element first isolated by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898, fascinated the world with its radioactive and luminescent properties. With no understanding of the ill effects of radiation poisoning, radium became a fashionable trend, a medical cure-all, and an industrial wonder. Newspapers imagined future cities lit by radium lamps, restaurants serving glow-in-the-dark radium cocktails and candy, radium fertilizer improving the output of farms, and doctors using radium to cure cancer forever.
The radium industry took hold in New York in the early twentieth century. Beginning in 1904 with L.D. Gardner’s Manhattan-based company producing his patented radium “health” water, Liquid Sunshine, and his glow-in-the-dark radium ink, factories producing radium cures and novelty products began to appear all over the city and surrounding suburbs.
After scientists successfully killed cancer cells with radium in early experiments in Europe, the demand for the element soared. Sick patients all over the world demanded to be treated with “radium the wonderful.” While some doctors experimented in earnest with a radium cure for diseases like cancer, tuberculosis, and lupus, their work was overshadowed by unscrupulous businessmen and quack doctors marketing radium cures for almost every ailment. They aggressively advertised and sold, with enormous success, radium creams, drinks, salts, and suppositories that claimed to cure acne, anemia, arthritis, asthma, baldness, birthmarks, blindness, constipation, diabetes, goiters, hardened arteries, headaches, impotence, insanity, rickets, tooth decay, and warts.
Often (and perhaps luckily) these quack products did not even contain real radium. The demand for the metal far outpaced the ability to extract it, and by 1915 radium was valued at $84,500/gram (about $1.9 million in today’s dollars). City authorities urged consumers to look out for fake radium.
In addition to its popularity as a cure-all, radium was a huge commercial success for its luminescent properties. Many competing companies patented glow-in-the-dark paints and products that ranged from the practical- house numbers and light switches that could be seen in the dark- to the playful- glowing eyes for children’s toys and Christmas tree lights that were “safer” than real candles.
The radium craze even spread to the New York stage, where radium plays and dances featuring performers in glow-in-the-dark costumes were shown in theaters throughout the city. However, due to the prohibitively high cost of the element, many critics suspected the glowing costumes were not made of radium, but of plain old phosphorous.
By the peak of the radium craze, some scientists had begun to suspect that the “radium cure” was not only ineffective, but in fact extremely harmful to humans and other living things. Unfortunately, their cautions were not heeded until the tragic deaths of young radium workers at a factory in East Orange, New Jersey made headlines around the world.
In 1917, the United States Radium Company patented a radium paint called Undark, which was mainly used to produce luminous watch and clock dials at their factory in East Orange. The dial-painting factory was staffed by young women, mostly Italian immigrants, who mixed their own paints from radium powder. To achieve a fine brush point for painting the small numbers, the factory workers wetted the brush tip between their lips. Some even painted their lips and teeth with the luminescent paint to surprise their husbands and boyfriends.
By 1922, many of the women who had worked as dial painters began to develop troubling health problems. When they went to see doctors about painful mouth sores and tooth decay, the doctors were shocked to find that the bones in their faces and jaws had disintegrated. Many women then developed cancer. Doctors suspected that the sudden onset of this terrible disease in healthy young women was caused by the exposure to radium paint. However, the United States Radium Company maintained that the paint was totally safe and attempted to smear the reputations of the women by suggesting their illnesses were instead caused by syphilis. The scandal forced the closure of the East Orange factory, and the women became known in the press as the “radium girls.”
Five young women filed a suit against the United States Radium Company in 1927. The litigation was settled out of court a year later, but the shocking images of the dying girls being wheeled into a courtroom to testify made a lasting impression. Most of the women died before receiving much financial remuneration, but the suit formed the foundation for occupational hazard labor law and set a precedent for compensation in suits involving environmentally-contracted cancers.
By the mid-1930s, the radium craze subsided, as the scientists and inventors who had pioneered the use of radium slowly died of cancer. Their radioactive bodies were buried in lead-lined graves. Radium, the marvel of the future, had become a menace.