Grace Fryer and The Radium Girls

Their fight against the U.S. Radium Corporation

Background

From 1917 to 1926, the United States Radium Corporation hired young women to paint watch faces and other instruments with glowing radium paint. The girls would dip their paintbrushes into the radium paint, and then twirl the brushes into their mouths to form a point so that they could paint with higher accuracy Sometimes, the painters would even paint their fingernails and teeth for fun. At the time, most people were not aware that radium was poisonous; radium was often praised for its medicinal purposes! The employers, however, were fully aware of the harmful effects of radium, but chose not to tell the painters as they felt they were expendable.

Grace Fryer

Grace Fryer was a radium painter working in one of the U.S Radium Corporation's factories in Orange, New Jersey. She started working in 1917, and quit about three years later for a better job as a bank teller. Two years later, she began to experience an array of health problems, including the loss of teeth and a painful abscess on her jaw. An x-ray of her jaw revealed serious bone decay, or as it would be known in the future, radium jaw (see picture below). One doctor she visited suggested that there was a link between her previous profession as a radium painter and her ailments. Desperate to find the source of her medical woes, Grace began to research.
Grace Fryer got her answer when the Consumer's League and Cecil Drinker got involved in the U.S. Radium Corporation investigation. Cecil Drinker, a Harvard physiology professor, found "a heavily contaminated work force, unusual blood conditions in virtually everyone, and advanced radium necrosis in several workers." Drinker urged the president of U.S. Radium Corporation to change working conditions to make it safer for the young women working there, but he refused.

The Lawsuit

Now fully aware of the harmful effects of radium, Grace Fryer, along with four other women who had worked at the U.S. Radium Corporation and suffered the consequences, decided to file a lawsuit against the company. They became known as the "Radium Girls." It took them two years to find an attorney who would take their case, and even after that, the court system was slow moving. Meanwhile, the press exploited the girl's hardships and struggles, which may seem inappropriate, but the ghastly tales got the attention of the general public. They were outraged, and wanted justice for the Radium Girls. After many legal struggles, the Radium Girls finally settled for $10,000 each (about $100,000 today) and an additional $600 each year "for life." By this time, two of the Radium Girls were bedridden, and Grace Fryer had lost all her teeth and could not sit without the aid of a back brace.

Aftermath

All five Radium Girls died by the 1930's as a result of radium poisoning, and many other young women suffered similar fates. U.S. Radium alone employed 4,000 radium painters, and there were many other companies using radium paint. Grace Fryer and the Radium Girls brought light to the dangers of radium, against the wishes of the upper management of the U.S. Radium Corporation. Because of their lawsuit, new safety precautions were put in place and painters were given more specific training. Radium paint would still be used in the years that followed, but no radium painter suffered from radium poisoning again.

Works Cited

Kovarik, Bill, and Mark Neuzil. "Radium Girls." Environmental History Timeline. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2013.

Blum, Deborah. "Life in the Undark." Speakeasy Science. N.p., 25 Mar. 2011. Web. 17 Feb. 2013.

Waltz, Vicky. "Factory Workers Who Fought Back." BU Today RSS. N.p., 14 Dec. 2009. Web. 17 Feb. 2013.