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A photo of a young woman is highlighted with rays of light coming from behind the image. The rays of light continue behind text to the left of the young woman.
“Radium and Beauty” Radior Co. ad, New York Tribune, November 10, 1918, Graphic Section, part 5, p. 12.

Radium Girls: Living Dead Women

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Catherine Wolfe Donohue is not a well-known name, but in the late 1930s newspapers featured her as she lay dying. She was among the women who painted luminous numbers on watch, clock, and instrument dials using radium-laced paint in factories in New Jersey, Illinois, and Connecticut. Dubbed “Radium Girls” and “Living Dead,” they suffered radium poisoning and painful, early deaths.

“‘Living Death’ Victims,” The Times-News (Hendersonville, NC), February 14, 1938, p.1.

Donohue, along with others, fought back: they brought lawsuits against the companies that employed them and they won, even though some did not live to receive their compensation.

The women were hopeful when they began working in the radium dial factories. For its time, the work was well-paid skilled labor for women. By 1917, women were dial-painting at the United States Radium Corporation plant in Orange, New Jersey. With America entering the First World War on April 6, 1917, some viewed their work as a patriotic contribution to the war effort. They painted watch dials for soldiers and instrument panels for military equipment—all glowing in the dark.

“Xmas Gifts for Men Over There, and Those Who Are Going!” Franklin Simon & Co. ad, The New York Times, November 4, 1917, Rotogravure Picture Section, part 6, p. 5.
“Radium Dial Studio” employment ad, Free Trader-Journal and Ottawa Fair Dealer (Ottawa, IL), October 25, 1922, 4 O’Clock Edition, p. 2.

Radium watches and clocks continued to be popular after World War I. A different company, Radium Dial, opened a facility in Ottawa, Illinois in late 1922 and Donohue was hired.

When Marie and Paul Curie discovered radium in 1898, it was soon viewed as a wondrous and powerful element: a cure for cancer, and a source of beauty and vitality.

“Radium to Extend Life to 100 Years,” The New York Herald, October 14, 1921, p. 1.

Well into the 1920s, the dangers of radium were not known to the public, although some executives and scientists in the industry were increasingly aware and protected themselves in the factories where the women worked. Especially deadly to the dial-painters, they were instructed to point (lick) their paintbrush tips while painting the numbers on the dials. They were not warned about dangers and did not suspect problems until they began to suffer severe symptoms, including anemia, radium jaw (deterioration of their jaw bones), and deadly cancerous tumors.

“Five Women Doomed to Die,” The World (New York, NY), May 10, 1928, p. 14.

Five sickened former dial-painters in New Jersey sued the U.S. Radium Corporation beginning in 1927, but their case was hampered by a two-year statute of limitations. After the women testified in January and April 1928, the U.S. Radium Corporation was granted an adjournment until September. The delay provoked a backlash of newspaper criticism.

“Five Women Dying of Radium Poison,” The Sunday Star (Washington, DC), May 13, 1928, part 3, p. 14.

On June 4, 1928, the New Jersey women accepted an out-of-court settlement.

“Settlement of a Pathetic Case,” The Evening Star (Washington, DC), June 5, 1928, p. 8.

The dial-painters in Ottawa, Illinois would have read news coverage about the New Jersey workers, but the Radium Dial Company claimed that it was the element mesothorium that was the culprit in New Jersey and that Radium Dial paint was safe because it contained no mesothorium—only radium. As with the New Jersey case, the statute of limitations stymied debilitated Ottawa dial-painters in 1935 when Donohue and others tried to sue. This time there was no settlement. Another two years passed before the Ottawa women had their hearing on July 23, 1937 with the Illinois Industrial Commission. Their lawyer, Leonard Grossman, had accepted the case only two days earlier. By that time, the Radium Dial Company had closed its Ottawa plant, opened one in New York, and claimed the previous company was defunct.

In 1938, after more testimony before the Illinois Industrial Commission, including Donohue’s from her sickbed after she collapsed at the hearing, the Ottawa dial-painters won their case. The Radium Dial Company filed numerous appeals. Donohue survived long enough to know that the company’s first appeal before the Commission was unanimously denied. She died on July 27, 1938, the day after Radium Dial’s attorneys filed their next appeal. On October 23, 1939, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the company’s final appeal and the lower court ruling was upheld. The Ottawa dial-painters had a measure of justice after Donohue’s death.

“Hear Case of Dying Woman,” Worcester Democrat and the Ledger-Enterprise (Pocomoke City, MD), March 4, 1938, p. 9.

Catherine Wolfe Donohue was one of several radium-poisoned women who died before their cases were finalized and many other suffering dial-painters never sued, but the cases are remembered as significant in the development of occupational safety and health standards.

“Doomed Mother Dies,” The Evening Star (Washington, DC), July 28, 1938, p. B-1.


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Comments (13)

  1. A nice posting – History Day students may see how Chronicling America can really help them

  2. American capitalism at its finest.

  3. I love the radium girls I did a PowerPoint on them. I’m hoping to get a book about them

  4. I never knew about this being born and raised in Ottawa iL. And I am so mad because I want informed. I can’t believe this happened to a small town in the Midwest. And then for to be closed and another plant open a few blocks away. How did that happen ?

  5. It’s not American capitalism, it’s the evil of greed and money. It happens in all corners of the world…African diamond fields, Philippine factories, Chinese industry…wherever a profit can be made.

  6. Capitalism only thrives when all seven sins are indulged in yet we, humans allow this, but why?

  7. My uncle’s 1st wife died from radium poisoning in the late 1940’s. My uncle was born in 1919. He would have been 29 in 1948 and they were married 1 year before that. She died on their 1st wedding anniversary. I’m wondering if it is feasible for her to have worked in a factory that used radium for watch dials. She licked the brush tips that were then dipped in radium. She was 2 years younger than my uncle and apparently was sick for sometime before their marrige tho he didn’t know that. Also, I only know her married name, but is there a way to find out the names of the women that died of radium poisoning after working working in New Jersey factories or would she have been to young? There is no one left in my family that I can ask, I’m almost 70 now. Perhap it was another family member. The story was so specific. If I could see the names of the victims maybe I would recognize her or another family member. I know its an extremely long shot, but I really want to know.My aunt was buried in her wedding dress which had become much to lsrge for her. If anyone can help me if she, or another member, was a victim. At the time of her death we lived in Ridgefield PARK, NJ.
    Thank you

    • Maureen, I am so sorry to hear your tragic connection to this story. I do not know if there is a complete list of the victims’ names, but we will follow up with you through our Ask A Librarian service to help you to find more information.

  8. It’s a lot like the way the pharmaceutical companies and the CDC are covering up the “covid vaccine” deaths and injuries. In a few years we will look back on today’s events and feel outrage.

  9. My mother told me about the plight of the Radium Dial Painters, when I was just 4 years old in 1967. I was in hospital being treated for a sprained neck. The old waiting room wall clock had a Radium face and glowed eerie green… I never forgot that lesson.

  10. This webpage helped me tremendously on acquiring knowledge about them their grills. Thank you so very much :))

  11. Very sad. I’m doing a report on this and found this website very helpful.

  12. people should have belived that guy

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