Category: Women in Science

29 Jul 2022
Female dial painter at the US Radium Corporation

What the Radium Girls Taught Us About Radiation Safety

The plight of the Radium Girls in the 1920s would teach us a great deal about the radioactive element radium and its effect on the human body. It brought to light the dangers of working with radium and created a universal understanding of the need for occupational and radiation safety measures.

What is radium?

Radium is a naturally occurring radioactive metal formed when uranium and thorium decay. In the environment, radium is present at low levels in groundwater, soil, rocks, and plants.

There are four radium isotopes, all of which are radioactive and have drastically different half-lives.

As radium decays it releases ionizing radiation in the form of alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. This radiation excites certain fluorescent chemicals in the metal and results in radioluminescence. It can also form other elements, such as radon.

Radium was discovered by Marie Sklodowska Curie and her husband Pierre Curie in 1898, although it would be more than a decade before the pair had isolated a sample large enough to work with.

Early Misinformation About Radium

Soon after the Curies discovered radium, medical professionals began using the radioactive substance as a cancer treatment. Before it could be properly studied, this initial use led to an explosion of interest from the American public and a host of false medical claims that radium was “healthful rather than medicinal.” 

Radium was initially considered a cure-all for a variety of health conditions, including arthritis, tuberculosis, rheumatism, gout, and high blood pressure. It was also thought to improve vitality in the elderly, treat skin conditions like eczema, and cure insomnia.

Because of its seemingly magical healing properties, major corporations began putting radium into their products and heavily promoting its use. Radium-infused toothpaste, pillows, facial creams, and tonic water were popular amongst the public, as were radium spas and clinics.

Radium-based cosmetics were trendy among women. They used these products to combat signs of aging in the form of wrinkles, crows-feet, and even unwanted body or facial hair.

The radium cosmetics gave the women’s skin a warm and cheerful glow and came to be known as “liquid sunshine.” This further cemented the idea that the products contained restorative properties that would revitalize the body and improve its overall health.

Who Were the Radium Girls?

In 1917, the United States entered World War I. There was a sudden demand for instruments and watches that could be read in the dark by U.S. soldiers. Thanks to a high-tech, glow-in-the-dark paint called UnDark, which was made with radium, this became possible.

With most of the country’s men on foreign battlefields, the United States Radium Corporation (USRC) in New Jersey began hiring young women to paint a variety of radium-lit instruments for use in the trenches. These women were called dial painters.

The dial painters would mix the radium-based paint in a crucible at their workstations and used fine, camel hair paint brushes to paint on the tiny, delicate numbers. The brushes quickly lost their shape after a couple of strokes. Management encouraged the women to use their lips to bring the brushes to a fine point for better precision. They were told repeatedly that radium was safe to ingest, and so continued with the “lip, dip, paint” process while they worked.

However, the dial painters didn’t just ingest the radium at their workstations. Due to its many reported health claims, workers would often paint their teeth or nails with radium-based paint before going out for the evening to impress their dates or amaze party guests. The dust from the hand-mixed paint coated the women’s hair and dresses, giving them a ghost-like glow that earned the women the nickname “ghost girls.”

For many dial painters, who were mostly between the ages of 14 and 20, this work was as desirable as it was glamorous. Radium’s luminous, sparkling appearance gave them a unique status. Furthermore, America’s obsession with its magical healing properties combined with the available compensation for the work had entire families flocking to the factory for a position.

Radiation Sickness

By the early 1920s, medical professionals throughout the area were noticing a frightening increase in the young worker’s health complaints. Many of their female patients complained of stiff and cracking joints, painful toothaches, oozing mouth sores, and listlessness, while others had broken out or developed severe anemia.

Dentists began pulling multiple teeth from young dial painters at a time. There were several instances where, during the tooth extraction, pieces of the woman’s decaying jawbone would come out with the tooth. In many cases, the tooth extractions wouldn’t heal.

Other symptoms of radium poisoning in the dial painters, which would later become understood as radiation sickness, were sterility, cataracts, leukopenia, eosinophilia, leukemia, anemia, and menstruation issues.

Mollie Maggia was the first dial painter to fall ill and die. She first developed increasingly painful toothaches that traveled from tooth to tooth. Severe pain in her limbs also prohibited her from walking.

Although dentists didn’t know it at the time, Mollie had developed “radium jaw.” This occupational disease involved necrosis of the upper and lower jawbones, bleeding gums, ulcers, and bone tumors. At the end of her life, Mollie’s dentists merely lifted her jaw from her mouth to remove it. Mollie died in 1922 just days before her 25th birthday.

Another 12 women who worked for the U.S. Radium Corporation as dial painters died the following year, with an additional 50 women falling severely ill.

Radium’s Effect on the Human Body

Radium has similar effects on the human body as calcium and strontium when inhaled or ingested. Once it enters the bloodstream, radium concentrates in the bones in high quantities. It emits alpha particles as it decays, which irradiates the cells on the bone’s surface. Over time radium will settle into the bone where it wreaks havoc on bone marrow and blood cell production.

If radium is ingested with food or water, over 80% of the element is excreted through urine or feces. The other 20% will travel throughout the body, settling in the bones and remaining there throughout the person’s life.

Historical Impact & Worker’s Rights

The surviving dial painters sued the U.S. Radium Corporation, although the road to doing so was not easy. The case was eventually settled out of court in 1928. The women were awarded $15,000 plus $600 per year for future medical expenses because of radium poisoning.

This landmark case was one of the first instances of workers receiving compensation for a disease developed because of their occupation. However, most of the women who received the money died within two years of the settlement.

At the time of the dial painters, there were no radiation safety measures put into place to prevent direct contact with the radioactive substance from occurring. The case of the Radium Girls opened people’s eyes to the dangers of radium and other radioactive substances. They were seen as an example of what could go wrong in an occupational setting and completely changed the course of occupational disease labor laws and regulations.

Their case had a direct impact on scientists’ approach to radiation safety during The Manhattan Project. It was also a leading cause for the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970.

Radium would continue to be used as a luminescent paint until the early 1960s when its toxicity and danger to human life could no longer be ignored.

24 Aug 2021

The Seven Most Influential Women in Radiation History

The role of women in science is often overlooked. However, the research and discoveries of these brilliant minds have drastically altered commonly held theories in particle physics, chemistry, and nuclear medicine, and contributed to our modern understanding of radiation. In this post, we highlight seven of the most influential women in radiation history and their outstanding accomplishments.

Marie Curie (1867-1934)

Madame Marie Curie was a physicist and chemist whose pioneering research in radioactivity won her two Nobel Prizes in two scientific fields. In addition to her groundbreaking work in nuclear physics and chemistry, she developed the mobile X-ray unit which was first used to diagnose injuries during World War I.

Born in Poland in 1867, Curie moved to France to study physics, chemistry, and math at the University of Paris in 1891. There she met her future husband and research partner Pierre Curie. She earned two degrees from the institution, one in 1893 and another in 1894.

In 1903, Curie and her husband received the Nobel Prize for their joint research in radioactivity alongside Henri Becquerel. They were responsible for the discovery of new elements radium and polonium which came from the radioactive mineral pitchblende, now commonly known as uraninite. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize.

In 1910, she was successful in producing radium as a pure metal, further proving the element’s existence, and was awarded her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911.

Curie served in World War I as the director of the Red Cross Radiology Service. She created small, mobile X-ray units called “Petite Curies” which were vehicles containing an X-ray machine and darkroom equipment. She trained over 150 women to operate the units which ultimately helped treat over one million soldiers near the battlefront.

Curie died in 1934 of aplastic anemia, likely a result of her work with radiation.  

Awards & Recognition

  • 1903 – Received the Nobel Prize in Physics (with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel)
  • 1911 – Awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry
  • 1920 – Became the first female member of The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters
  • 1924 – Became an Honorary Member of the Polish Chemical Society
  • Received 4 honorary doctorates from Polish universities
  • The radioactivity unit “curie” is named in honor of Marie and Pierre Curie
  • Element 96 was named curium

Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

Dr. Lise Meitner was an Austrian-Swedish physicist who helped discover the element protactinium-231 and nuclear fission. She received her doctorate in physics—the second woman to do so—at the University of Vienna in 1906. In 1926 she became Germany’s first female professor of physics, a role she held until the rise of Nazi Germany and the Nuremberg Laws forced her to flee to Sweden to escape religious persecution.

She worked closely with Otto Hahn, a prominent chemist, throughout the years. Their work on discovering isotopes resulted in the introduction of protactinium-231.

In 1939, Dr. Meitner coined the term “fission” after discovering that uranium atoms split when bombarded with neutrons. Her role in this major discovery, which allowed for nuclear energy and nuclear bombs, was overlooked by the Nobel Prize committee, and the award was given exclusively to Otto Hahn in 1944. Because of this discovery, she was invited to work on the Manhattan Project, however, she opposed the atomic bomb and declined the offer. She was ultimately nominated for the Nobel Prize 48 times for physics and chemistry projects but never won.

She was a strong supporter of women in science and spent the last half of her life traveling and speaking to female students.

Awards & Recognition

  • 1925 – Awarded the Lieben Prize from the Austrian Academy of Sciences
  • 1944 – Named “Woman of the Year” by the Women’s National Press Club in Washington D.C.
  • 1945 – Became a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
  • 1954 – Awarded the inaugural Otto Hahn Prize of the German Chemical Society
  • 1966 – She was awarded the Enrico Fermi Award alongside chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann for her “pioneering research in the naturally occurring radioactivities and extensive experimental studies leading to the discovery of fission”
  • 1997- The chemical element meitnerium was named in her honor

Irene Joliot-Curie (1897-1956)

Irene Joliot-Curie was a chemist and physicist known for her work on natural and artificial radioactivity, transmutation of elements, and nuclear physics.  

She was born in Paris, France in 1897 to Marie and Pierre Curie. She studied chemistry at the Radium Institute and completed her Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Paris. Her doctoral thesis focused on radiation emitted by polonium.

During World War I, Irene worked alongside her mother on the battlefield as a nurse radiographer. For a time, she also taught doctors how to locate shrapnel in soldiers using radiological equipment.

Alongside her husband, chemical engineer Frederic Joliot, Irene studied atomic nuclei. Together they were the first to calculate the accurate mass of the neutron and discovered that radioactive elements can be artificially produced from stable elements. The pair shared the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry in recognition of this discovery, which had practical applications in radiochemistry, specifically in medicine and the treatment of thyroid diseases. In addition, her research on the action of neutrons on heavy elements was an important step in the discovery of nuclear fission.

Outside of her research, Irene was the Chair of Nuclear Physics at the Sorbonne and a Professor in the Faculty of Science in Paris. Beginning in 1946 she served as the director of the Radium Institute and was instrumental in the design of the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Orsay, France. She died in 1956 of leukemia, likely a result of her work with polonium-210.

Awards & Recognition

  • 1935 – Received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of artificial radioactivity (with Frederic Joliot-Curie)
  • 1940 – Received the Barnard Gold Medal for Meritorious Service to Science (with Frederic Joliot-Curie)
  • Was an Officer of the Legion of Honour

Edith Quimby (1891-1982)

Edith Quimby was a pioneer in the field of radiation physics, a founder of nuclear medicine, and is considered the first female medical physicist in the United States.

She was born in 1891 in Rockford, Illinois, and earned degrees in physics and mathematics from Whitman College and the University of California, Berkeley. Much of her early work at the Memorial Hospital for Cancer and Allied Diseases in New York focused on the medical effects of radiation and limiting side effects with proper dosages. Furthermore, she was also interested in the safe application of radioactive isotopes in the treatment of thyroid disease, brain tumors, and other cancers.

Edith Quimby helped found the Radiological Research Laboratory at Columbia University, was the first female physicist president of the American Radium Society and was influential in the founding of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine. She was a professor at both Cornell University Medical College and Columbia University, and she authored several books throughout her career, including the classic Physical Foundations of Radiology (1944), and over 70 scientific papers.

Awards & Recognition

  • 1940 – Recipient of the Janeway Medal from the American Radium Society
  • 1941 – Awarded the Gold Medal of the Radiological Society of North America
  • 1963 – Awarded the Gold Medal from the American College of Radiology
  • AAPM established a lifetime achievement award in her honor

Tikvah Alper (1909-1995)

Tikvah Alper was a renowned radiobiologist and physicist whose work on identifying the infection agent in Scrapie revolutionized scientific understanding of diseases like mad cow disease and kuru.

She was born in 1909 in South Africa and graduated with a distinction in physics from the University of Cape Town in 1929. She was mentored by Lise Meitner as a doctoral student in Berlin from 1930 to 1932 where she published an award-winning paper on delta rays produced by alpha particles.

In addition to her life as a mother and homemaker, she was a physics lecturer at Witwatersrand University and researched in Britain on the irradiation of bacteriophage. She became head of the Biophysics Section in South Africa’s National Physics Laboratory; however, she was forced out of this position in 1951 due to her opposition to apartheid. Afterward, she moved to London with her family and worked her way up to director of Hammersmith Hospital’s MRC Experimental Radiopathology Research Unit in 1962.

Alper found that radiation did not kill the infective agent in Scrapie, an infectious brain disease found in sheep. Instead, by irradiating scrapie samples with different wavelengths of UV light, Alper was able to prove the infective agent was able to replicate despite its lack of nucleic acid. This work became extremely important during Britain’s Mad cow disease outbreak in the 1990s.

Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997)

Chien-Shiung Wu, also known as the “First Lady of Physics,” was a Chinese American particle and experimental physicist who worked on the Manhattan project and played an important role in the advancement of nuclear and particle physics.

Madame Wu was born in 1912 in Shanghai. She received a degree in physics from what is now known as Nanjing University and later enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley where she completed her Ph.D. She worked as a physics instructor at Princeton University and Smith College before joining the Manhattan Project in 1944. Her work at the Substitute Alloy Materials Lab was meant to support the gaseous diffusion program for uranium enrichment. Her research also improved Geiger counters for radiation detection.

As a leading physicist on beta decay, Madame Wu was able to confirm Enrico Fermi’s 1933 theory of beta decay. She was also responsible for disproving “the law of conservation of parity” in what is known as the Wu Experiment. In this experiment, she measured the small particles released from cobalt-60 atoms and found that they were emitted asymmetrically. This proved the theory that parity is not reserved for beta decay, vastly altering long-held beliefs in the physics community.

Awards & Recognition

  • 1958 – Became the 7th female member elected to the National Academy of Sciences
  • 1964 – Was the first woman to win the Comstock Prize in Physics from the National Academy of Sciences
  • 1975 – Became the first woman president of the American Physical Society
  • 1975 – Honored with the National Medal of Science
  • 1978 – Received the first Wolf Prize in Physics
  • 1990 – 2753 Wu Chien-Shiung asteroid was named after her
  • Held honorary degrees from Harvard University, Dickinson College, University of South Carolina, University of Albany, SUNY, Columbia University, and National Central University

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Rosalind Franklin was a chemist and X-ray crystallographer who is best known for her work on the structure of DNA, RNA, and coal. She also performed cutting-edge research on the molecular structure of viruses that cause plant and human diseases.

Franklin was born in London, England in 1920. She studied physical chemistry at Newnham Women’s College at the University of Cambridge. During World War II, Franklin researched the physical chemistry of coal and carbon under the British Coal Utilisation Research Association. By studying the porosity of coal, she concluded that substances were expelled in order of molecular size as temperature increased. This work was important for accurately classifying and predicting coal performance for fuel and wartime production and served as her Ph.D. thesis.

After the war, Franklin accepted a position as a research fellow at King’s College London. During this time, she investigated DNA samples. She took clear x-ray diffraction photos of DNA and was able to conclude that the forms had two helices. Her work–specifically her image Photo 51–was the foundation of James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery that the structure of DNA was a double-helix polymer, for which she was not cited or credited.

Afterward, she continued working with x-ray diffraction photos of viruses at the J.D. Bernal’s crystallography laboratory at Birkbeck College and collaborated with virus researchers from around the world. She studied RNA of the tobacco mosaic virus and contributed to published works on cucumber virus 4 and turnip yellow mosaic virus.

During her career, she published 19 articles on coal and carbons, 21 on viruses, and 5 on DNA.

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Forum Article "Radiopharmaceutical Extravasation: Pragmatic Radiation Protection" published ahead of print

An article written by Versant team members Dr. Darrell R. Fisher, Ph.D. and Misty Liverett, M.S., CNMT was recently published ahead of print in Health Physics. The article provides an unbiased, scientific assessment of pragmatic and reasonable health physics actions that should be taken in response to inadvertent extravasation events. Click the link below to view the article.



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