Carla Killough McClafferty
Illuminating lives from the past,
impacting lives in the present
Radium is a radioactive element that glows. In the early decades of the twentieth century, companies such as the U.S. Radium Corporation made money from this unusual characteristic. They manufactured watches that were painted with radium paint that allowed users to tell time in the dark.
The employees hired to paint the tiny numbers and hands of watch faces were mostly young immigrant women. It was a good job with better than average pay. Also, it was exciting to work with the world-famous radium. Just for fun sometimes the girls would use radium paint on their teeth or fingernails to show their boyfriends how they glowed in the dark. After all, the company told the girls that radium was harmless.
Each girl painted the faces of 250 to 300 watch dials in a typical workday. To do this delicate work it took a steady hand and a pointed paint brush. Throughout the day, in order to keep a sharp point on their brushes, the girls would put the tip between their lips then dip it into the radium paint.
In 1921 Amelia Maggia, one of the dial painters, had a swollen cheek and terrible toothache. She had the tooth pulled but her gums would not heal. Infection set in and destroyed her jawbone. She died the next year from her mysterious condition. Then another young woman developed the same symptoms. Then another. Then another. Each of the girls had one thing in common: they were radium dial painters. Ultimately they learned that every time they put their brushes to their mouths their bodies absorbed radium, and that radiation was harmful to people.
In 1928, five “radium girls” sued U.S. Radium Corporation. By the time the case went to trial each woman was dying from radium poisoning. One of the girls, Grace Fryer, had so much radium in her system that when she blew her nose, the handkerchief glowed in the dark. The company decided to settle the case and agreed to pay their medical bills, and give them each a one-time lump sum of $10,000, plus $600 per year for the rest of their lives—which weren't very long. Sadly, it took the deaths of the “radium girls” and many others to understand the dangers of radium.
Carla Killough McClafferty writes about radium and the amazing scientist who discovered it in Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium. This book focuses on the life of the most famous female scientist of all time. In it you will learn how Marie Curie overcame poverty and prejudice to achieve her dreams. Also included are the fascinating details of the “radium girls” and how companies added radium to all sorts of products including water, toothpaste, bath salts and medicine.
Carla Killough McClafferty is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
McClafferty, Carla Killough. "The Taste of Death." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 19 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/ The-Taste-of-Death. Accessed 19 Dec. 2017.
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