It seemed like a harmless painter’s trick. “Just use your lips to form the perfect point on your brush!” However, using that trick with radioactive material tended to have a devastating effect on the “licker”. The “lickers” referred to in this article are the unfortunate “Radium Girls” affected so severely by the effects of a radioactive element radium after painting faces on watches with paint that glowed in the dark. They were exposed every day that they worked at US Radium Corporation to the fatal effects of radium ingestion.
This is the same radium that was boasted as a miracle drug! They were selling it in tonics and using it to cure tumors. These girls went on painting their teeth and hair for fun with the glowing paint, not knowing the harm in which they were putting themselves. In the blog by Speakeasy Science, they said, “Physicians reported what seemed to be miraculous healing effects, especially compared to the therapies of old. The newspapers compared radium’s magic to the golden healthful rays of the sun. Everyone wanted to stand in what seemed to be a naturally healing light.” How could it be that this discovery with such wonderful effects turn out so harmful to these specific girls? Marie Curie, her husband, and another scientist won a Nobel Prize for the discovery of this element and the beneficial use of it!
In their time working, painting the faces on watches for those working in the armed services, they began to develop illnesses. The gravity of the situation increased drastically, as their teeth started falling out. Many girls eventually died, and a case was brought against the corporation, but they prolonged it for at approximately three years. They were finally able to bring the case to trial, but only after scientists proved (by exhuming and investigating the body of one the girls years after her death) the effects the radiation still had on the body. The judge ruled in favor of those girls, and the corporation was forced to pay damages.
What lessons can be learned from examples like this? Should we jump on every miracle cure as it is discovered and ask no questions about the possibly harmful repercussions? I learned about the “Radium Girls” in an astronomy course I took a couple of years ago, but I did not link it to Madame Curie’s discovery. The professor spoke about the “fun” effects of their tongues glowing in the dark, and not the devastating effects of the radiation poisoning. It was a bit off-topic for the course, but now that I know what actually happened… it is quite disturbing.
It leads me to think of the saying about sacrificing a few for the greater good. But… really, what was the greater good that came out of their pain? The production of watches that glowed in the dark? It seems to me like an unfair trade; especially when they requested help for the illnesses (or just to pay for a funeral service) and were denied.
Why was action not taken sooner? Why isn’t this a part of the story that gets coupled with Marie Curie’s story more often? Maybe, as a society, we tend to focus more on the stories of celebration in order to shelter ourselves from the horrific details that show a darker side of humanity.
**The information in this blog post was found from Speakeasy Science. The image was taken from wikimedia, attribution: “By Not given [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons”.