Thursday, December 5, 2019

Cause of Death: Radium Poisoning

On September 12, 1922, a twenty-four year old woman died in her home. The tissue of her mouth, jaw, and throat had disintegrated so thoroughly that she bled out while her horrified family helplessly looked on. For months, she had been visiting doctors and dentists, searching for a solution, or at least a diagnosis. No one could help Mollie Maggia. She deteriorated quickly and died a horrible death.

Unable to determine what had plagued her and unwilling to investigate the idea that it might have had something to do with her work as a dial painter, the coroner listed Mollie Maggia's cause of death as syphilis. Mollie's family not only had to cope with grief, but they were burdened with the blackening of Mollie's name.

Then, on June 3, 1923, Helen Quinlan died in her home. She was twenty-two and had suffered from a raging infection in her mouth, jaw, and throat.

Irene Rudolph died on July 15, 1923. She was twenty-one years old and suffered from jaw necrosis.

Each of these girls lived in Orange, New Jersey, and worked at US Radium Corporation.

During the 1920s, hundreds of products containing radium were sold. The element, recently discovered by the Curies, was considered magical. Products claimed to cure cancer, clear skin, and improve digestion. At US Radium Corporation in New Jersey, young women worked as dial painters, tracing the digits on watches and clocks with radium infused paint so that they would glow in the dark.

Since radium was believed to have health benefits, little control was exercised over the use of radium paint. The girls would paint their nails and use it like makeup. Their dresses would glow in the evening from the dust that settled on them while at work. When applying paint to the tiny watch faces, the girls would create a fine point on their brushes by placing it between their lips.

The radium consumed by the dial painters was absorbed by their bodies like calcium, where it attacked their bones and infected them with an incurable radioactivity. Women continued to die of complications of jaw necrosis. Others suffered from cancerous tumors or disintegration of the bones in their limbs and spines. Dozens suffered before radium poisoning was recognized as their cause of death.

These women's deaths began a crusade to end worker exploitation and hold employers responsible for putting employees' lives at risk. Significant changes in workers' compensation laws were made and OSHA was created. Greater caution was used in handling radioactive materials, protecting the scientists who developed nuclear weapons during World War II.

Five years after her death, Mollie Maggia's body was exhumed, glowing with radiation, and her name was cleared. Cause of death: radium poisoning. However, it was too late to save her sisters, who had counted themselves lucky to obtain high-paying jobs at US Radium Corporation alongside each other. Mollie's sister, Quinta, died of a leg sarcoma in 1929, as did another sister, Albina, in 1946.

Further Reading:
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore
Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy by Ross Mullner
Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935 by Claudia Clark


  1. It is terribly sad. I look forward to your new book.

  2. This is also what killed Madame Curie.

    1. Yes, it is. When she was asked about the condition of the dial painters, she said that she saw no hope for them.

  3. My parents lived in an area somewhat related. Samantha i passed you my dads email.