The Women Who Tragically Died For Making Radioactive Watches
What's on

The Women Who Tragically Died For Making Radioactive Watches

Avatar of Alonso Martínez

By: Alonso Martínez

March 8, 2017

What's on The Women Who Tragically Died For Making Radioactive Watches
Avatar of Alonso Martínez

By: Alonso Martínez

March 8, 2017

Would you be able to sleep knowing you were responsible for the death of several innocent people?

It might be hard to imagine ourselves being nonchalant about being the reason behind the death of innocents. We can think of Hitler and his lack of remorse when he ordered the execution of millions. We can picture the pre-Columbian genocide perpetrated by European conquerors who saw natives as savages. We can think of the apathy with which President Truman authorized the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, murdering thousands of citizens.

Do you think they regretted their despicable actions or did they defend their actions until the very end?

There's an event that reminds us of the negligent actions men did for the sake of money. During the first half of the twentieth century, a controversial event filled the headlines of the newspapers. It was the story of a group of women fighting against Radium Luminous Material Corporation (RLMC), the company responsible for the death of many working women.

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The incident drew the attention of the world, and the victims were known as the "Radium Girls." Their case became a significant moment regarding the rights of workers in the twentieth century.

Radioluminescence was discovered around 1910; it offered the opportunity to create permanent light by using, as the name says, ionizing radiation. Although the RLMC company knew it was risky to work with radioactive materials, between 1917 and 1926 they recruited around seventy women to work directly with the substance by painting the numbers and hands of clocks, so these could glow in the dark. The RLMC thought nothing would happen to their employees, but soon they saw the dire consequences of their negligence.

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Although most of the chemists and high ranked experts of the company wore special suits and masks to manipulate radium, women employees weren't even provided with gloves. They used a mixture of radium, water, and glue. To give firmness to the brushes, they would use their tongues. 

Most of them would find the job frustrating because the company ignored them. Also, they would spend their spare time painting their nails with the substance they used, unaware of the chemical's toxic effects. In fact, it's said that more than a thousand employees were directly exposed to this substance, but unfortunately, there is no actual record of the deaths it caused.

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Some of the girls started suffering anemia and "radium jaw," a condition that damages the bones, makes the patient's gums bleed, and makes them prone to develop malignant tumors in the bone structure of the jaw. They found out the origin of these symptoms and started suing their bosses and the people involved.

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Grace Fryer was the first who dared to sue the company in January 1928, but she couldn't find a lawyer who would believe her story or even understand the damages caused by radioactivity. Meanwhile, the trials of two other women took place at their homes because they couldn't get out of bed, or even lift their arms to take the oath. When Fryer and four women joined them, the press named them "Radium Girls." Soon after, they were also known as the "living dead" because they had irreparable health damages.

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Many experts, scientists, and academics tried to diminish these women's credibility by claiming they had syphilis, an STI that also causes deterioration of the body. But the trial didn't last long, since the victims had conclusive evidence. Trying to avoid a serious sentence, the company decided to settle with the afflicted. Each received 140 thousand dollars (in today's currency) plus 8,400 per year. Besides, the RLMC agreed to pay any medical expenses.

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It sounds like a happy ending, isn't it? Well, that's not the case. During the process, 12 women died, and those who were doomed to stay in bed didn't live for long. After the trial, the employees perished one by one. This tragedy became a turning point for two reasons: it showed how companies were willing to risk their employees' lives for the sake of money, and since then, laws were created to protect workers' rights and security. The second reason is that employees realized they had the right to sue their employers for labor abuse and get compensation for the inflicted damages.


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The leaders of the company paid the consequences of these fourth-degree homicides caused by negligence. But was their conscience clear?

Probably. The lack of humanity and moral values in people is more common than we'd like to believe. It's a part of human condition. These women won't have their lives back. The number of radioactive substances in their bodies was so high doctors were unable to do something for them. However, their story has inspired many to fight for their rights.

Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards