Original publish date: January 2, 2015
2014 has come and gone and along with it, the passing of many notables whose time on this earth has run out. Lost among them is a woman you may have never heard of. Mae Keane died this year. She was the last of the radium girls.
On December 21, 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the radioactive element radium after extracting it from uraninite. Five years after that, they won a Nobel Prize in physics for their discovery, making her the first woman to win one. She went on to win a second Nobel Prize in 1911; this time in chemistry, for isolating radium, making her the first person to win two.
Radium was soon all the rage: bottled radium water was used as a health tonic, radium filled facial creams were used to “rejuvenate the skin”; the Radium Institute in New York City was giving radium injections to all who could pay for them; some toothpastes started to include Radium; high-end spas began adding radium to the water of their pools and some hospitals were using radium as a treatment for those who had cancer after it was observed that exposing tumors to radium salts would shrink them. Although the latter sounds admirably feasible, the former should sound shocking when you consider that radium is highly radioactive.
Additionally, it was found that when radium salts were mixed with zinc sulfide and a glue agent, the result was a glow-in-the-dark paint. During World War I the advent of trench warfare necessitated the invention of many things. Trenches were dark, damp and dirty. A single match lit by a soldier hunkered down in a pitch dark trench might be the spark to draw enough enemy fire to wipe out an entire company of soldiers. Time dragged on endlessly; when you couldn’t see your own hand in front of your face, you had no hope of seeing the hands of a clock face.
Not only were soldiers crawling and wading around in the mud unable to see their watch dials at night, their pocket watches weren’t suitable for this environment. Soon, watchmakers created men’s watches with straps designed to be worn on a wrist rather than placed in a pocket. Before the great war, wrist watches were primarily worn only by women, with men favoring pocket watches. By November of 1915, British soldiers were putting dots of radium paint next to the hour numerals to make them visible at night. The dimness of the glow was beneficial as they could tell the time without giving away their position.
Of course, at this time, the dangers of radioactivity were not fully understood. Enter Mary “Mae” O’Donnell Keane and the radium girls. In the early 1920s, the hot new gadget was a wristwatch with a glow-in-the-dark dial. Their ads extolled “the magic of radium!” And according to some, radium was magic. Salesmen promised that it could extend your life, pump up your sex drive and make women more beautiful. Doctors used it to treat everything from colds to cancer. In the Roaring Twenties, women earned the right to vote, got the urge to smoke and marched to work in factories alongside their male counterparts.
Young women ranging in age from the mid teens to the early 20’s were employed to apply the paint to clock dials and watch faces. The job was promoted as ideally suited for delicate female hands. The work was easy, the wages high and most dial painters were typically single and living with their parents. Over the first 10 years about 4000 women were employed at 3 locations: Orange, NJ, Waterbury, CT and Ottawa, IL.
The first dial painters came from the china painting industry. These seasoned workers used a technique called lip-pointing which involved wetting their camel hair paintbrushes between the lips to bring it to a sharper point. The practice was passed on to the radium painting industry whose products required fine brush work. In 1924, 18-year-old Mae Keane was hired at the U.S. Radium Corporation factory in Waterbury Connecticut. The pay was $18 a week for a 40-hour work week, and 8 cents a dial. A pretty good salary for a woman back then.
Twelve numbers per watch, 200 watches per day-and with every glowing digit, the radium girls swallowed a little bit more poison. Mae said that on her very first day, she decided that she didn’t like the taste of the gritty radium paint. “I wouldn’t put the brush in my mouth,” she recalled years later. During breaks and at lunchtime, it was a popular pastime of the radium girls to paint comic faces on each other, then turn out the lights for a laugh. “The girls sneaked the radium out of the factory to paint their toe nails and teeth to make them glow,” Keane said.
Mae couldn’t remember what led her to work at the watch & clock factory but did remember that she disliked the work more than she liked the paycheck. Luckily, she was not as fast as her supervisor wanted her to be. “I made 62 cents one day,” Keane once said, which translates to a high of 8 watches in a day. “That’s when my boss came to me and said I better find another job.” That poor performance probably saved her life. She worked in the dial painting room for eight to nine weeks, then transferred to another job at the company. “I often wish I had met him after to thank him,” Keane said, “because I would have been like the rest of them.”
The dial painters would become some of the earliest victims of radioactive poisoning. By the late-1920s, they were falling ill by the dozens, afflicted with horrific diseases. The radium they had swallowed was now slowly eating their bones away from the inside out. “We were young,” Mae told The Hartford Courant in 2004. “We didn’t know anything about the paint. I don’t think the bosses even knew it was poison. The foreman would tell us it was very expensive, and to be careful. We had no idea. But when they did find out, they hid it.”
Reports of maladies afflicting the radium girls began to bubble up to the surface. Dial painters began to suffer from a variety of illnesses, often crippling and frequently fatal as a result of ingesting radium paint. One account describes a woman (Frances Splettstocher) visiting her dentist to have a tooth pulled only to have her entire jaw yanked out in the process. Soon, her gums and cheek rotted away, ultimately resulting in a hole in her cheek. Her health continued to deteriorate and she was dead within the month.
Other radium girls had their legs snap underneath them and more still had their spines collapse. Dozens of women died, many while still in their 20s. Ingested radium is known to deposit permanently in bone structures damaging bone marrow. In all, by 1927, more than 50 women had died as a result of radium paint poisoning. Many of them developed cancerous tumors, honeycombed and fragile bones, and suffered painful amputations. At a factory in New Jersey, 5 of the women sued the U.S. Radium Corporation for poisoning. The trial would have a profound impact on workplace regulations.
Ironically, many in these factory towns blamed the women for the loss of jobs during the Great Depression. Furthermore, it would be discovered that U.S. Radium had paid off doctors and dentists to claim the girls were suffering from the sexually transmitted disease syphilis (often having this listed as the cause of death when the girls died), with the hope that it would not only shield the corporation from litigation, but also sully the girls’ reputations.
At every turn U.S. Radium sought to delay the trial as much as possible with the hope that all the women in the case would die before an outcome could be reached (in fact all five of the original radium girls were dead by the mid-1930s). With the company asking for delay after delay, the trial crawled along at a painful pace. Marie Curie herself chimed in on the issue, but had little comfort to give the radium girls by stating, “I would be only too happy to give any aid that I could, [but] there is absolutely no means of destroying the substance once it enters the human body.” Curie herself would die on July 4th, 1934 from leukemia; likely caused by her long term exposure to radium.
By the time the girls finally got a chance to testify in January of 1928, none of them were able to raise their arms to take the oath, and two were bedridden. After their testimonies, the case was once again postponed for a few months for no good reason. The case was settled in the fall of 1928, before it could be deliberated by the jury, and the settlement for each of the radium girls was $10,000 ($135,000 in 2014 dollars) and a $600 per year annuity while they lived, and all medical and legal expenses would also be paid by the company. Many of the victims would ultimately end up using the money to pay for their own funerals. The lawsuit and resulting publicity was a factor in the establishment of occupational disease labor law. Most importantly, the trial proved that the injuries suffered by the radium girls were completely preventable.
As part of the settlement, the girls agreed not to hold U.S. Radium liable for their health problems. So what was U.S. Radium’s official position in the aftermath? They stated they didn’t settle because they were wrong, but rather because the public was biased against them and they couldn’t have received a fair trial. U.S. Radium’s president, Clarence Lee, stated: “We unfortunately gave work to a great many people who were physically unfit to procure employment in other lines of industry. Cripples and persons similarly incapacitated were engaged. What was then considered an act of kindness on our part has since been turned against us.”
But these radium town’s plight didn’t end when the case was settled in court. The chemical element found its way into the soil and groundwater, contaminating residential and commercial properties around the towns. The dangers of radium no longer was isolated to those who worked in the radium dial plant, it now threatened the populace. The factory sites became EPA Superfund cleanup sites in the 1980s. The plight of the radium girls was now known to, and shared by, everyone.
But Mae Keane was a proud survivor. Over the years, she had some health problems: she developed numerous skin ailments and eye problems, suffered from migraines and had two bouts with cancer. “The doctor wanted to give me chemotherapy,” Keane said. “I told him ‘no.'” Keane lost all of her teeth in her 30s and suffered pain in her gums until the day she died. “I was left with different things, but I lived through them. You just don’t know what to blame,” she said. The only prescription medication she ever took was to control her blood pressure. Despite her ailments, Mae admitted, “I was one of the fortunate ones.”
Keane, a Red Sox fan, was once asked about her secret to longevity. “I’m lazy,” Keane said, adding she never smoked, loved to walk and dance, and enjoyed caramel candy, chocolate and an occasional apricot sour or Bailey’s Irish Cream. “I didn’t get old until I was 98,” she once said.” She was 107 when she died on March 1 in Middlebury, CT.; the last living participant in one of the darkest moments in American industrial history.