March 1, 2014
Mae Keane, one of the last living Radium Girls, dies at the age of 107
The Radium Girls, as they were later called, were a collection of women who worked at clock and watch factories, painting radioactive radium on the watch and clock hands and numbers to allow them to glow in the dark. To help the women paint the tiny details, they were encouraged to lick their brushes and spin the bristles in their lips to create a fine point.
At the time, the effects of radium were largely unknown, and various radium products were sold as beneficial, from hair treatments to dietary supplements. The Radium Girls, likewise, were unaware of the radium was hazardous and exposed themselves to copious doses of the radioactive material over time. Some even painted their teeth with the material or wore evening gowns to work to shine on dates later.
Keane was 18 when she worked at the factory, and left within a few days in the summer of 1924. Keane had not been as precise at painting as her contemporaries; she did not like the taste or gritty texture of the paint and did not place the brush in her mouth as often. Despite the relatively low amount of radium exposure, Keane lost all her teeth within twenty years, and survived both colon and breast cancer.
Other women began displaying side effects of the radium exposure, including severe tooth decay, stillborn births, jaw cancer which crumbled the bone, and extremely thin skin which would tear and cut easily. According to Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, “There was one woman who the dentist went to pull a tooth and he pulled her entire jaw out when he did it.” Death took dozens, though hundreds of women from multiple factories survived.
Lawsuits against the factories using the radium paint were brought to court. The companies were able to avoid the suits temporarily, primarily because the women’s symptoms were so varied. In 1927, Amelia “Mollie” Maggia’s body was exhumed five years after her death. Originally, the family of the 24-year-old had believed she had died of syphilis. When her corpse emitted a “soft luminescence,” the distinctive glow showed proof she had died from radium poisoning. Maggia’s body helped in part to finally win a suit following eight appeals in October of 1939. The case played a significant role in shaping current health and labor rights.
Moore, Kate. The Radium Girls. Sourcebooks: 2017
“Radium Girls: The dark times of luminous watches.” CNN. December 19, 2017. https://www.cnn.com/style/amp/radium-girls-radioactive-paint/index.html
Fergusson, Maggie. “The Radium Girls — still glowing in their coffins.” The Spectator. June 11, 2016. https://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/06/the-radium-girls-still-glowing-in-their-coffins/
“Mae Keane, One Of The Last ‘Radium Girls,’ Dies At 107.” NPR. December 28, 2014. https://www.npr.org/2014/12/28/373510029/saved-by-a-bad-taste-one-of-the-last-radium-girls-dies-at-107
Yardley, William. “Mae Keane, Whose Job Brought Radium to Her Lips, Dies at 107.” New York Times. March 13, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/14/nyregion/mae-keane-who-painted-watch-dials-with-a-radium-mixture-dies-at-107.html