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.
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.
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.
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 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.
On June 4, 1928, the New Jersey women accepted an out-of-court settlement.
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.
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.
- Kate Moore, The Radium Girls: They Paid with Their Lives, Their Final Fight was for Justice (London: Simon & Schuster, 2016); U.S. edition: The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2017).
- Claudia Clark, Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).
- Ross Mullner, Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy (Washington, DC: American Public Health Association, 1999).