Image result for radium watch
A picture of a radium watch (c) Mdf, CC BY-SA 3.0

When we look back in history, it is easy to look at tragedies in hindsight and realize the errors. For instance, I would often think that if the Titanic had enough lifeboats, then it would have easily prevented the death of more than 1500 people. However, these mistakes do not appear to be obvious as the tragedies are unfolding. The radium girls are a great example of this.

Marie and Pierre Curie discovered and isolated radium in 1898. They discovered this element by purifying pitchblende, an ore in which Martin Heinrich Klaproth discovered uranium. The name, radium, came from the fact that the purified element gave off a very strong glow. While Pierre Curie died from a road accident, prolonged exposure to radiation was the cause of Marie’s death.

Sadly, the death of Marie did not alarm the public about the potential effects of radium. Instead, there was a craze for radium merchandise around the world. People loved the newly discovered element for its ability to glow in the dark. Companies saw this as an opportunity, and they used radium as a selling point in their products. For example, some of these products included chocolates, water, toothpaste, and cosmetics. Since radium emitted energy, no one thought that adding energy to oneself would cause any harm. 

During the first world war, there was a large demand for radium watches. Most of the watch factory workers were women who wanted to support their country. The managers instructed the workers to use their mouth to wet the tip of their paint brushes. This lead to the consumption of radium of the workers. It was only years later that the public found out about the harmful effects of radium.

The first radium dial worker who died was Mollie Maggia. Her symptoms included the falling out of teeth, the losing of her jaw bones, and eventually death. We now know this condition as radium jaw, but back then people thought it was just a normal case of syphilis. As more workers experience similar symptoms as Mollie, the correlation between radium and their disease was more clear. In the end, the workers came together to file a lawsuit against their company, and they won the hard-fought battle.

It is hard to believe that less than 100 years ago, people thought radium was good for their health. Who knows if our actions today won’t look absurd for people in the future.

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