The Radium Dial Tragedy Over X-posed

Vol. 17 •Issue 19 • Page 26
The Radium Dial Tragedy Over X-posed

At the turn of the century, a public’s enthusiasm for radium leads to the death of workers who manufactured radium-laced products

In the late 1800s, the Industrial Revolution had its grip on the world and technology was mushrooming at a frenzied pace. Discoveries and inventions were at every turn, and many abandoned caution in favor of cashing in on new products.

The discovery of radium and X-rays during the First World War caused great excitement as uses for radiation saturated the mainstream population. Not only was radium easily portable, but it emitted a steady intensity of radiation as well. It became a popular medical treatment, especially for cancer. People even drank radium cocktails.

A brisk trade in radium thrived into the 1930s as it was touted as the cure for arthritis, high blood pressure and blindness. People sat in uranium mines hoping for a cure.

Popular products included radioactive toothpaste for cleaner teeth and better digestion, face cream to lighten the skin; radioactive hair tonic, suppositories, and a radium-laced chocolate bar marketed in Germany as a “rejuvenator.” As late as 1953, a company in Denver was promoting a radium-based contraceptive jelly.

Thousands of people were attracted to jobs working for companies that supplied the military with luminous instrument dials for airplanes and gear, and for years the public’s enthusiasm went unabated. That is, until a disproportionate amount of young workers began to die from what was initially deemed as natural causes, but gradually was determined to be much more than a coincidence.

How it all began

When German physics professor Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen of Wurzburg University made his big discovery, at first he told no one. For almost two months, Roentgen ate and slept in his laboratory working doggedly to make sense of the strange thing he had seen on Nov. 8, 1895.

That’s the day he had passed an electric current through a Crooke’s tube and was astonished by a soft glow from a barium platino-cyanide coated screen across the room. The screen glowed in response to some invisible energy radiating from the tube. He found that the invisible radiation passed through paper and copper, but that human bones, certain metals and even ordinary glass were relatively opaque to it. He named the new rays X, for mystery.

In the following years, a feverish anticipation surrounded this new discovery. Public lectures and demonstrations were held and American scientist and inventor Thomas Alva Edison brought X-rays to the public’s attention.

In 1901, Roentgen was awarded the first Nobel Prize in physics and Europe and North America were in the grip of Roentgen mania. A farmer in Iowa claimed he had used X-rays to transmute metal to gold. X-rays of the head, it was suggested, might cure criminal behavior. Some believed X-rays could raise the dead.

Doctors and physicists saw the practical potential of X-rays at once and rushed to experiment with them. However, although X-ray therapy sometimes worked, the cure could be worse than the disease.

As early as six months after the initial discovery of X-rays, such precancerous effects as pigmentation, fibrosis, telangiectasia (dilatation of capillaries), alopecia (baldness), scarring, ulceration, and dermatitis were noted. One of the first recorded X-ray injuries occurred right in Edison’s lab in 1896. X-rays poisoned his assistant, Clarence Dally, and his radiation burns developed into cancer. In 1904, at age 39, Clarence Dally was the first person to die from radiation exposure.

Meanwhile, in April 1898, physicist Marie Curie identified a new element–radium– and coined the word “radioactivity” while looking for a subject for her doctoral dissertation. For this discovery, she shared the third Nobel Prize in physics in 1903.1

In her struggle to get radium recognized as a new element, Curie labored for years over buckets and cauldrons of pitchblende, a radioactive mining waste product, and breathed in its fumes. So poisoned was the atmosphere that the notebooks Curie used during this period are still dangerously radioactive.

In March 1902, after four years of back breaking work, Curie obtained 1 gram of radium from 500 tons of mine waste. In 1934, she died of a form of leukemia called aplastic anemia which was most likely induced by her experiments during those years.2

The Radium Paint Industry

Despite deaths like Dally’s and Curie’s, an unsuspecting and enthusiastic public flocked by the thousands to high-paying jobs in the radium paint business. In 1914, physicians Sabin von Sochocky and George Willis founded the Radium Luminous Material Corporation in Newark, N.J., the first company to produce radioluminescent paint in the United States.

Dr. von Sochocky developed a radium-based luminous paint in 1915 which he coined “Undark.” Like other commercial radium paints, Undark’s precise formula was a closely guarded secret, as would its dangers prove to be, but its basic ingredients were radium-226 and luminescent zinc sulfide.3

The Radium Luminous Materials Corporation employed hundreds of girls, some as young as 14, to paint the dials of clocks, watches, light bulbs, and crucifixes with a mixture of radium and zinc sulfide.4

With the United States’ entry into the First World War in 1917, the company’s operations expanded tremendously. The company moved to Orange, N.J., changed its name to the U.S. Radium Corporation, and became an important supplier of luminous instrument dials for airplanes and other military gear. One in six American soldiers wore a radium-lighted watch.

To keep up with the demand, each worker had to paint hundreds of dial faces a day. In order to execute the delicate job, the workers needed a fine tipped paintbrush. They found that wiping the brush on a cloth or with their fingers was too harsh, but they could obtain a proper tip by wiping the brush clean between their lips. Each time they licked their paint-laden brushes to a point, the dial painters swallowed radium.

The radium paint business continued to flourish after the war. In 1920, the United States produced 4 million radium-lighted watches, along with radium-lighted fish bait, doll eyes, gun sights, and stick-on “locator” buttons that could be applied to bedposts, slippers or glasses of water on the nightstand. There were perhaps 50 radium paint studios, employing more than 2,000 dial painters, and the U.S. Radium Corporation was one of the largest.

Mysterious Deaths

However, by 1924, a shadow hung over the radium paint industry. In three years, nine of the U.S. Radium Corporation’s young dial painters had died from what was deemed unrelated natural causes. The death certificates, signed by a family doctor, cited many different causes of death, including stomach ulcer, syphilis, trench mouth, phosphorous poisoning, necrosis of the jaw and anemia. Many of the living dial painters were seeing dentists for severe problems with their teeth and jaws.

Although the destructive power of gamma emissions from radium was well known, radium paint was not thought to be dangerous. It contained only a tiny proportion of radioactive material; one part of radium to 30,000 or more parts of zinc sulfide.

Also, although radium emits alpha particles, which are more biologically damaging than gamma rays, alpha particles were not considered a significant danger to health because they cannot penetrate skin. They can cause skin cancer or clouding of the cornea if they get on the surface of the skin or in the eye. It was assumed that whatever radiation the women swallowed would have been expelled from their bodies almost immediately.

In early 1924, the local Board of Health asked the Consumer’s League of New Jersey to examine working conditions at U.S. Radium Corporation.

What had been thought to be poor dental hygiene among the radium dial workers was now recognized as severe oral infections caused by radioactivity. Doctors began studying the problem and were determined to perform autopsies on the next U.S. Radium workers to die.

In 1925, findings were reported to the American Medical Association suggesting the number of deaths and illnesses involving anemia and infected mouths among former employees of U.S. Radium could not be coincidence.

Researchers reached their conclusions with the help of Dr. von Sochocky, who—troubled by what was happening to the dial painters—had resigned as technical director of the company he helped found and had offered his help to those investigating the deaths.

Incidentally, Dr. von Sochocky died of cancer at the age of 46 and had a level of radium in his body higher than that found in many of the dial painters.

On the first visits to the U.S. Radium plant, investigators found the work area splattered with radium paint. Examining workers in a dark room, they found that “…their hair, faces, hands, arms, necks, the dresses, underclothes, even the corsets of the dial painters were luminous.”5

Tests of 22 employees failed to find a single one whose blood count was normal. When a number of dial painters were tested, investigators found that their bodies contained so much radioactive material that when they exhaled on a zinc sulfide screen, it glowed.

When radioactive materials are eaten or inhaled, they do not pass through the body, as had been thought. Instead, they accumulate in various organs and continually irradiate the surrounding cells. Like calcium, which has a similar chemical structure, radium tends to concentrate in bones. There, it can cause bone cancer and damage bone marrow, the tissue in which blood cells are formed.6

In the spring in 1925, Ewin Lehmon, a U.S. Radium Corporation chemist, was in apparent good health. Within a month he was dead of acute anemia. Though he had not swallowed any paint, he had regularly inhaled radium-contaminated dust, radon gas, and other decay products of radium. His bones were so radioactive that, left on an unexposed photographic plate, they photographed themselves.

Attention was finally directed toward setting tolerance limits around 1941 when the United States was gearing up for war again and large orders were being placed for luminous instrument dials.

Argonne National Laboratories, one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s largest research centers, opened a facility in Ottawa, Ill., in 1948 to study radium dial painters working at a facility called Radium Dial Company, doing work similar to those at the U.S. Radium Corporation. The specialists formally acknowledged what they had known for a long time: no amount of radiation was absolutely safe. This is known as a non-threshold measurement.

In 1977, the International Committee on Radiation Protection (ICRP) set a ceiling on risk. It was declared that radiation work should not be more dangerous than any other occupation recognized as having high standards of safety.

Where we are today

Today, the radiation work force still is growing rapidly. More efficient training, monitoring, work protocol and better equipment have lowered the work force’s exposure to harmful radiation.

Protection measures have been introduced and strengthened. The health and safety regulations governing the use of ionizing radiation worldwide are far beyond those achieved by any other industry. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other state and federal agencies are responsible for regulating the X-ray industry down to microwave ovens and other electronic radiation-emitting products.

Although U.S. experts have determined that only 20 percent of radiation exposure comes from medical X-rays and manmade sources—the remainder is natural exposure from the earth, space, radon gas, smoking products, some foods, and the human body itself—there are still many unanswered questions about the genetic effects of radiation, about its behavior at very low doses and about its link to diseases other than cancer.


1. Coppes-Zantinga A, Coppes M. Madame Marie Curie (1867-1934): A giant connecting two centuries. AJR. Dec. 1998;171:1453-1457.

2. Coppes-Zantinga A, Coppes M.

3. Caufield, C. Chronicles of the radiation age. Multiple Exposures. 1989.

4. Radium City, a film documentary.

5. Caufield, C.

6. Resnick D. Bone and Joint Imaging. 1989;905.

Marcy Kimbro is a sonographer and radiographer at Trinity at Terrace Park in Bettendorf, Iowa.