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I had intended to conclude the Radium Girls' story today, and in fact had it prepared to post that way with one final (albeit very long) installment as of yesterday, but a last minute decision led to a furious re-write for reasons that will be revealed inside.  So be forewarned that this is part 2 of 3.  But no more, I promise.  Just three.

In our first installment How Regulation came to be:  Radium Girls - Part I we were introduced to the Radium Girls, both collectively as well as to the first of the specific subset of Radium Girls who would eventually take on the powerful United States Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey.  Inside, the story of the Radium girls continues with a story of business, governmental, scientific, and institutional entanglements that may sound eerily familiar to survivors of a certain recent Republican Presidency.

Thomas Frank, in his book The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, quotes liberal Republican (!) George Norris's essay "Boring from Within", written in 1925, around the same time Grace Fryer mounted her fight for justice against U.S. Radium:

If the Federal Trade Commission, established for the purpose of protecting the small businessman against the machinations of trusts and monopolies, is to be administered by men who believe that best results can be obtained by giving monopoly full sway, then why have the commission at all?  If the men and corporations that are intended to be regulated by it are themselves to mange it and run it, then why not take the logical step -- repeal the law and abolish the commission.
George Norris, quoted in Thomas Frank, The Wrecking Crew.

Although Norris was talking about the Federal Trade Commission specifically, his words could have referred to any number of government agencies in the nineteen-twenties.  Indeed, no sooner had the regulators and trust-busters of the Progressive Era established mechanisms to protect the public and the country from the abuses of wealthy robber barons and monopolistic corporations, than those same tycoons and corporations set about to infiltrate and co-opt and install themselves into the very architecture that was supposed to constrain them.  By the time Grace Fryer set out in search of a lawyer to represent her against U.S. Radium, representatives of the vested interests were well-established in the bureaucracies that were supposed to be regulating them.  No lawyer would touch the case.  Few doctors would come forward and implicate radium in the gruesome ailments afflicting the U.S. Radium workers.  No scientist, no regulator, no educator -- for far too many of them it was because they owed livelihoods to just the sort of business interests they ought to have been standing up to.



"To live means to buy, to buy means to have power, to have power means to have responsibility."
-- Florence Kelley, first Executive Secretary, National Consumers League

When Orange, New Jersey-area public health officials encountered several unusual cases of jaw and tooth problems in the early twenties, they contacted, not a government agency, but an independent organization called the National Consumers League, an organization that still exists today.  Founded by Jane Addams and Josephine Lowell  in 1899 with  Florence Kelley as its first executive secretary, the League had been active in the fight for an end to child labor; for a safe workplace, minimum pay, and decent working hours for women; and a variety of other causes of the Progressive Era.  

One of Kelley's early victories with the Consumers League was the landmark 1907 Muller v. Oregon Supreme Court decision which established the legality of a 10-hour working day for women.  The victory seems all the more impressive coming, as it did, just two years after Lochner v. New York.  In concert with Consumers League legal counsel Louis Brandeis, Kelley used an unprecedented and risky application of scientific and social data -- the same sort of approach as would be prepared for the Radium Girls' case -- as a basis for legal argument.

Today the Brandeis Brief is so widely copied --the presentation of economic, scientific and social facts is so generally made part of the legal defense of a labor law -- that the boldness of the initial experiment is hard to realize. But in 1907 the use of such facts in a legal brief presented to the Supreme Court was hazardous and venturesome. (Goldmark, 1953, p. 157)
Daniel Huff: Florence Kelley -- A Woman of Fierce Fidelity

By the twenties the Nationall Consumers League had established a reputation as impassioned and resourceful investigators highly adept at scientific and statistical analysis and were frequently called in on just the sort of public health mysteries as the officials in New Jersey were experiencing.

Katherine Wiley of the New Jersey Consumers League and an important and influential character in the early history of the national organization had initially investigated the early cases in 1924.  She called for back-up.

[Katherine Wiley] brought in a statistical expert and also contacted Alice Hamilton, a Harvard University authority on workers' health issues. Hamilton was on the league's national board, and as it turned out, she was already involved in another aspect of the same case. A few years earlier, a colleague at Harvard, physiology professor Cecil Drinker, had been asked to study the working conditions at U.S. Radium and report back to the company. Drinker found a heavily contaminated work force, unusual blood conditions in virtually everyone, and advanced radium necrosis in several workers.
Bill Kovarik,  The Radium Girls

Curiously, although Dr. Drinker's report found extensive evidence of contamination and industrial disease, by the time United States Radium turned the report over to New Jersey officials, it had, unknown to him, mysteriously come to a dramatically different conclusion.

The report which the company provided to the New Jersey Department of Labor credited Cecil Drinker as the author, however the ominous descriptions of unhealthy conditions were replaced with glowing praise, stating that "every girl is in perfect condition." Even worse, US Radium's president disregarded all of the advice in Drinker's original report, making none of the recommended changes to protect the workers.
Alan Bellows, Undark and the Radium Girls


Alice Hamilton Commemorative Stamp

Alice Hamilton, whom Katherine Wiley called in, was no one to be trifled with. She was "the first woman appointed to the faculty of Harvard University and was a leading expert in the field of occupational health. She was a pioneer in the field of toxicology, studying occupational illnesses and the dangerous effects of industrial metals and chemical compounds on the human body," and "[f]rom 1924 to 1930 [was] the only woman member of the League of Nations Health Committee." (Wikipedia)  She was also a dedicated reformer, advocate for women, and like Florence Kelley, had been an active member of the inner sanctum of Hull House prior to her appointment to Harvard.  

However, she was also subordinate to Dr. Drinker at Harvard and although she deferred to his refusal to release his findings without permission from U.S. Radium, who technically owned the data, she worked surreptitiously to feed advice and information to Wiley and the Consumer's League members investigating in New Jersey.  She also worked to encourage the Dr. Drinker to go public.  Her letter to Dr. Drinker's wife and professional partner, Katherine, also a PhD, on Hull House stationery, laid out the misuse of the report:

"... Mr. Roeder [U.S. Radium president] is not giving you and Dr. Drinker a very square deal. I had heard before that he tells everyone he is absolutely safe because he has a report from you exonerating him from any possible responsibility in the illness of the girls, but now it looks as if he has gone still farther... [The New Jersey Department of Labor] has a copy of your report and it shows that 'every girl is in perfect condition.' Do you suppose Roeder could do such as thing as to issue a forged report in your name?"
Bill Kovarik,  The Radium Girls

The relationship between the universities involved in industrial hygiene studies and their business clients was complicated and the source of considerable concern in some academic circles of the time.  The Drinker's reluctance to cross their client was not uncommon.   Dr. Fredrick Flinn of Columbia, the industrial toxicologist who had fraudulently given  Grace Fryer a clean bill of health in Part I, while extreme, was not so much of an aberration as he might seem.  The private higher education programs working in the field depended predominantly on donations from businesses and businessmen for their funding, and knew which piper's tune they needed to dance to.  In the end, though, Alice Hamilton and the Consumers League team were able to play on the Drinker's professional jealousy, arranging for a statistician working with them to present a paper on radiation poisoning before the American Medical Association based on the data Consumers League investigators were collecting in New Jersey.


Dial painters at work.

After the Hamilton letter, Drinker sent his original report to the Department of Labor and made arrangements to publish it in a scientific journal, despite U.S. Radium's threats. Meanwhile, a Consumer League consultant trumped the Drinkers by reading a radium necrosis paper at the American Medical Association conference, while the Drinkers fought Roeder for permission over the data.  The Drinkers finally published their paper later that year, concluding:
"Dust samples collected in the workroom from various locations and from chairs not used by the workers were all luminous in the dark room. Their hair, faces, hands, arms, necks, the dresses, the underclothes, even the corsets of the dial painters were luminous. One of the girls showed luminous spots on her legs and thighs. The back of another was luminous almost to the waist...."
Bill Kovarik,  The Radium Girls

The AMA presentation and the publication of the Drinker's report led New Jersey officials to designate radium poisoning as a compensable occupational disease in 1926.  Now things began to come together quickly.  The following year, Raymond Berry, a young Newark, NJ attorney agreed to take Grace Flyer's  case on contingency and filed a lawsuit against United States Radium.  Four other ill New Jersey dialpainters, Edna Hussman, Katherine Schaub,  and sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice, came forward and joined in the suit.  The suit asked the courts to award the girls $250,000 each, the equivalent of about $3 million dollars today.

The first legal obstacle was the two-year statute of limitations.  Berry argued that the limit should start from the time the women first learned the true facts of their exposure to radium, not the date they had quit working for U. S. Radium.  Although the courts of that era were not noted for being receptive to challenges to business autonomy, the court agreed with Berry in this instance.


An extreme case of 'radium jaw', necrosis of the jaw accompanied by tumors.  Radium tended to collect in the jaw and in the legs.

Meanwhile, other evidence began to mount.  Defendants Quinta McDonald and Albina Lawrence were sisters.  A New York dentist, Joseph P. Knef , had treated their sister Amelia Maggia, also a dialpainter, who died in 1922 of what was claimed to be syphilis.  He had removed her decayed jawbone a few months before she died.  Now he wrapped the jawbone in photographic paper used for x-rays, and discovered the jawbone was radioactive enough to expose its own x-ray.

An autopsy could confirm Knef's findings, and after a formal request by the Maggia sisters and Raymond Berry, Amelia's body was exhumed on October 16, 1927. An investigation confirmed that her bones were highly radioactive. Clearly, Maggia had not died of syphilis, but of the new and mysterious necrosis that was also killing her sisters.
Bill Kovarik,  The Radium Girls

When the case was filed in court, larger newspapers took notice and journalists began to look into the case.  One found U. S. Radium had been making out-of-court settlements with families of other radium workers.  While the dialpainters worked unprotected with the radium, it was revealed that in other parts of the factory, especially the laboratory, chemists typically used lead screens, masks and tongs.  The dialpainting companies' doctors were found to have been testing their employees, but never telling them why or revealing the results.  (During a later trial in Ottawa, Illinois, an executive of another dailpainting company, confronted with similar evidence was asked why the girls had never been informed.  He answered, "My dear girls, if we were to give a medical report to you girls, there would be a riot in the place.")  More and more evidence came out indicating that the company executives were well aware of the dangers of radium and what it was doing to their dialpainting employees.

The case was moving forward, but the slow pace was working against the plaintiffs.

Legal maneuvers filled 1927, and the medical condition of the five women worsened considerably. The two sisters were bedridden, and Grace Fryer had lost all of her teeth and could not sit up without the use of a back brace, much less walk. When the first court hearing came up January 11, 1928, the women could not raise their arms to take the oath. All five of the "Radium Girls" were dying.
Bill Kovarik,  The Radium Girls

As legal wrangling dragged on and the condition of the girls deteriorated, "every newspaper you pick up ", in the words of their attorney, printed "what amounts to [the girls'] obituary".  Even Madame Curie, weighed in from France, counseling that the girls should not hold out hope for a cure.  "There is absolutely no means of destroying the substance once it enters the human body," she observed.   Frederick Flinn, the Columbia toxicologist who gave Grace Fryer the fraudulent medical exam in Part I, disagreed publicly and opined that the girls might yet recover.  Whom to believe?

The strategy of  U. S. Radium had been clear from the beginning:

Time was running out, and Berry, Wiley, Hamilton and others had long been concerned that legal maneuvering would delay justice until well after the women were dead. As anticipated, U.S. Radium did not hesitate to use delaying tactics. After the hearing on April 25, 1928, the Chancery court judge adjourned the case until September despite Berry's strenuous objections. Berry reminded the judge that the women were dying, and might not live until September. Berry also found lawyers with cases scheduled in less than a month who were willing to take a September court date to give the "Radium Girls" their day in court. But U.S. Radium attorneys said that their own witnesses would not be available as many were going to Europe for the summer on vacation, and the judge insisted on continuing the case until September.
Bill Kovarik,  The Radium Girls

But Alice Hamilton and her Consumers League colleagues were ready for this moment.


As I was writing what was supposed to the final installment of this story, it struck me that damn!  There are stories upon stories upon stories in this material.  A person could coax a half-dozen or more good diaries out of the personalities and organizations at play in the maneuverings involved in getting justice for the Radium Girls, people who I confess I knew next to nothing about before I started this diary.  It occurred to me that a bio of, say, Alice Hamilton, Florence Kelley, or Katherine Wiley and their roles in the regulations that protect us today would make a good subject for, say,  Women's History Month, which is -- Mr. Google, if you please -- uh oh...   Right Now.  

What can I say?  I'm a guy.  We pretty much go through life oblivious to what's going on around us.  

So anyway, I made a last minute decision to  break the diary into three parts in order to provide a little more background information on the National Consumers League women who championed the cause of the New Jersey Radium Girls.  I hope the narrative hasn't suffered too much for the hasty rework.

Next Sunday, our story of the Radium Girls really does conclude, I promise, with the settlement of the New Jersey case and the nationwide recognition of the occupational disease that was to kill them, the protections put in place as a result, and at least one company that doesn't seem to have gotten the memo.

Thanks for reading.  Hope you'll join us for the conclusion.

How Regulation came to be: Radium Girls - Part I
How Regulation came to be: Radium Girls - Part III

Originally posted to dsteffen on Sun Mar 08, 2009 at 02:05 PM PDT.

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