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You're listening to American Shadows, a production of I Heart Radio and Greyman Mild from Aaron Manque, listener discretion advised. It's beautiful, she told her husband it was Christmastime in Paris, 1898, but Marie and Peter weren't looking at the glow of Paris city lights and soft snowfall. The couple were inside a dilapidated brick building that purchased as a makeshift laboratory, sitting on well-worn chairs and odd wooden work table littered with an array of flimsy wires, scopes and cheap instruments.
A radiant, almost magical light broke the darkness surrounding them, and Marie found the luminescent glow captivating. Having married just three years earlier when Marie was 27 and Pierre was 36. The two didn't have a lot of money yet. Despite the tottering chairs, Otwock work tables in the isolation chamber made out of wooden grocery crates. The couple couldn't be happier. Science had brought them together and their love of it had become an intimate bond between them. So Mary looked on the beautiful gleaming object still nestled deep within one of her pockets, the shimmering glow bright enough to allow Pierre to jot down a single word in their notebook.
They chose a name for it at the Latin word for Ray. They called it radium. Before long, though, this new discovery would enchant more than just the carries. The whole world was about to encounter a scientific miracle, and soon enough interest in it would transform into obsession. But as we're about to find out, not all obsessions are good for us. I'm Lauren Vagabond. Welcome to American Shadows. It all started back in February of 1898, Marie Ampere had immersed themselves in their lab.
Marie began working with a heavy black substance known as Pitchblende, noting that the naturally occurring mineral contained uranium. After that, uranium had been removed.
Though the material left behind was still highly radioactive when she studied those remains, Marie discovered an unknown, luminous element. The couple worked tirelessly. Days after completing their notes, the Curies announced their discovery to the French Academy of Sciences on December 26, 1898, and radium quickly became a breakthrough discovery.
Substance destroyed human tissue, but as ghastly as that sounds, scientists around the world would soon put that property to use in the fight against cancer. Radium didn't disappoint either. Its effect on cancerous tumors proved nothing short of astounding.
Newspapers printed articles that speculated on everything from the use of radium as fertilizer to supercharge the growth of crops to using it to make brilliantly glowing candies and shimmering cocktails.
There were seemingly practical uses to companies marketed paint for reflective house numbers. Radium Christmas tree lights were touted as being much safer than candles. Glowing light switches made it easier to find them in a dark room. In certain pharmacies, people bought radium laced pills and bandages. New types of clinics and spots opened up, promising a variety of radium induced health benefits if you could afford them. That is, in 1984, a Manhattan based company produced a patented health water called Liquid Sunshine.
The same company also created and sold a glow in the dark ink. Another company made glow in the dark eyes for children's toys.
Now, creepy, glowing eyes in the middle of the night aside, Radames luminescence was indeed stunningly beautiful, and other products soon followed drinks, elixirs, salt soaps and even suppositories. Many products claimed radium cured everything from acne to warts and just about every ailment in between. For the general public, though, most of these products were a sham. Most didn't contain any radium at all because the stuff was outrageously expensive. In 1915, a gram of radium cost eighty four thousand five hundred dollars.
That's one point nine million dollars in today's economy, making it one of the most expensive elements on earth in its day. So, as you might expect, only the super rich were able to purchase anything with much radium in it. That didn't stop the wave of products or the people who clamored for them, though radium toothpaste promised to dazzle smiles, intensifying the brightness with every brushing radio or cosmetics, sold creams, roug and powders designed to restore that youthful glow, companies made radium, butter and radium milk.
Even clothing like lingerie and jockstraps boasted radium to boost virility. No wonder officials began to warn citizens to be on the lookout for radium scams. Companies found instant wealth in radio factories cropped up to meet the demand for radium enhanced products. And they didn't just build factories in cities. Factories were built in the suburbs to radium seemed to be everywhere, and demand for it skyrocketed. While more and more commercial products continue to emerge, medical science enamored with Radames, groundbreaking use for cancer research to the elements, impact on other diseases, sick patients began to call for treatment with radium.
Doctors even wondered if radium might help them not only treat cancer, but actually cure it. In the early nineteen hundreds, radium was referred to as one of history's greatest finds. In 1983, Marie Curie became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in physics in 1911. She was awarded a second Nobel Prize, making her the first scientist to win two of these awards. Radium prompted the U.S. surgeon general at the time to say that the element reminded him of a mythological super being an English physician called Radium the Unknown God.
Some had even said radium had been predicted in the Bible. Within a few short years, radium? S future grew to be the new, bright and shiny object, bigger and brighter than a full moon on a clear night in the world, mesmerized by its brilliance and allure, couldn't get enough. But as it turned out, Marie's beautiful, glowing miracle had a darker side.
Radium occurs naturally in our soil, groundwater, food in small doses, usually one picogram or less per gram of soil. For perspective, Marie Curie sifted through tons of pitchblende just to find one tenth of a gram of radium without getting too technical. The amount of radium would contact through soil is probably negligible. Still, radium is about a million times more radioactive than uranium in much larger amounts, though radium can cause anemia, cataracts, fractured teeth, ulcerated skin, lung cancer and various forms of bone cancers like leukemia.
While the Curies knew about radioactive material, little was understood about the long term effects on humans. And sure, radium could destroy tumors, but it also killed off healthy tissue as well. But who could fault them? The Curies were physicists, after all, not physicians. Besides, tests for radium exposure simply didn't exist. Then in 1917, the end of World War One was still a year away. In the United States, patriotism was as common as apple pie.
The economy was booming and women took jobs in factories while the men were off fighting in the war, the popularity of radium was still soaring. A company called the U.S. Radium Corp. patented under a glowing paint made from radium while they specialized in watch and clock dials that also signed a profitable contract with the U.S. government to use Umbach on gun sites and chip companies for nighttime use. U.S. radium set up shop in Orange, New Jersey, right in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
Huge windows surrounded the two storey brick building and more light streamed in from above. All, that light was both charming and perfect for painting. And while they painted dials and instruments, the women workers enjoyed a beautiful view of the neighborhood. U.S. radium hired single immigrants, Italian mostly. They paid them well, too often three times more than factory workers. The women brought home three hundred and seventy dollars a week, which was just over nineteen thousand dollars a year.
The fast ones, though, they often doubled that, making them the top five percent. A female wage earners painting Dial's became a highly sought after dream job. Demand for luminescent Dial's continued to grow when U.S. radium needed more painters, the girls told their family and friends. Soon, almost three hundred and seventy five women sat shoulder to shoulder, painting dials. The women used fine camil hairbrushes to paint the small watch dials. The bristles often separated after the application of radium powder, glue and water.
To solve this, the girls licked the tip of the brush and used their lips to smooth the fibers into a fine point. Now you and I wouldn't imagine doing such a thing, but the company assured the women that the mixture was perfectly safe. Besides, the method of lip pointing was just how it was done. Lip pointing allowed the women to work faster. Faster work meant more products. When their workday ended, the girls would paint their nails, lips and teeth with radium powder and then meet their dates for an evening out.
Everyone knew them. As they walked out into the night, they simply glowed. But soon enough, the girls began to get sick and not just a little sick either. In 1922, Grace Friar, who'd left two years earlier, lost several teeth, dentists began to treat a large number of young girls with abscesses and rotting jaws. When one dentist asked us radium for the paint's formula, they refused. Dr Haneef treated Molly, a young girl who complained that the pain in her face had become unbearable gently, Dr Haneef pressed a finger to Molly's jaw, accidentally causing the bone to break when he looked inside her mouth.
He discovered a piece of exposed bone. All he had to do was lift the fragment from her mouth.
A week later, Dr Haneef simply pulled out the remainder of Molly's lower jaw. No incisions or operation required. Other dentists experienced similar issues with their patients. One doctor reported case of poisoning by phosphorus to the industrial hygiene division on December 26, 1922, upon visiting U.S. radium factory.
The inspector called attention to the technique of lip pointing. I've warned them it's dangerous. Harold Veitch, U.S. Radio's vice president, told the inspector as they watched the girls put the brushes to their lips again and again. I told them repeatedly, but they won't stop. This was, of course, a direct contradiction to telling the girls the material was absolutely harmless, yet four months earlier they had written an internal article on the dangers of radium, and it wasn't the first either.
The company later admitted 10 such internal memos existed, some dating back to 1986. In the end, the Public Health Services Report found only a couple of cases with side effects connected to the radium paint. One case of skin erosion and one case of anemia.
The health services formal recommendation, take care when handling radium. And what that meant was vague at best. Meanwhile, and despite the investigation, women continued to die, the most gruesome of deaths, deaths the company claimed were due to syphilis. Doctors and dentists didn't agree and felt certain that the women were dying from radium. They called for US radium to shut down complaints to the Department of Labor and the public health services fell on deaf ears, though even a letter asking for help from the National Consumers League went unanswered.
No one, it seemed, cared much about the health or working conditions of the young women. An independent study in nineteen twenty four found a direct correlation between radium in the deaths and illnesses of the women. Outraged U.S. Radeon paid researchers to prove radium safety. The company's president also claimed the women were attempting to extract money from the company for their health issues. Still, the rumors flew and when two doctors from the Harvard School of Public Health asked US Radames president if they could do a case study, he saw an opportunity.
After interviewing chemists and twenty five women painters, the Harvard doctors delivered their report.
Two weeks later, I handed over part of the Harvard report to the Department of Labor, claiming the report clearly showed that employee blood work was perfectly normal. That was only part of the report, though, Harvard had a table for each ingredient used which removed the report on radium, which concluded enough evidence regarding overexposure. And the Harvard doctors caught wind of the admission, they decided to publish their own report, as you can imagine, this didn't go over well with Wright.
He threatened a lawsuit on behalf of U.S. radium, claiming the Harvard doctors had signed a confidentiality contract. Meanwhile, the women kept dying. In 1925, another U.S. radium employee died, this time was different. Officials took notice. The employee you see was male. Shortly after the new investigation started, a new doctor assigned to the case finally found proof that the women had overexposure to radium. Not only were their bodies emitting radiation, but the material was punching holes in their bones.
Grace Friar, who had experienced earlier tooth loss, now had a deteriorating spine, another girl's jaw bone had disintegrated into nothing more than a stump. The doctors even determined that the women's legs were shortening from bone loss. And one woman, upon looking at herself in the mirror one night, noticed that her skin actually glowed in the dark. All of this sounds horrific and yes, it was, but the radiation wasn't done with the women, their illnesses would continue to worsen over time.
Grace Frier new, this is how she would die, according to the doctors, there was no cure, no slowing the radiation inside her, so she decided to take on US radium in court for two years. She searched for an attorney to take the case. Finally, on May 18th of nineteen twenty seven, a young lawyer named Raymond Berry accepted her case, filing the suit on Grace's behalf entirely on contingency.
Four more women soon joined her and her husband, Catherine Job and sisters CUENTA McDonald and Alpina Lloris. Each woman asked for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars for medical expenses and compensation. There were obstacles to overcome, though, the first New Jersey's two year statute of limitations, the second living long enough to see the case through U.S. radium, responded to Berry's filing first by attacking his character and then by going to the bar and threatening charges. Berry remained undaunted, though medical examiners in both New York and New Jersey were looking into employee deaths.
And, of course, there were newspaper reporters. Once the story leaked to the press, it became a front page headline. Day after day, the paper's printed a news story. The women's suffering U.S. regime's defense speculation on how the women would spend their quarter million dollar windfall if they won. And even stories about the effects of radium and how much longer the women had to live. It's hard to imagine what it was like for those women knowing they would die, but still reading headlines at all, but predicted it.
The newspapers reported Barry's stance on his client's health. He said, When you have heard that you are going to die, that there is no hope and every newspaper you pick up prints. What really amounts to your obituary? There is nothing else. Youth radio managed to keep the case going through nineteen twenty seven, all while each of the defendants health predictably worsened. In January of nineteen twenty eight, Grace and the other women became so sick that raising their arms to take the oath in court proved impossible.
In April, their health deteriorated to the point they could no longer attend court hearings. Hearing this news, Marie Curie offered her deepest condolences. Regrettably, she confirmed that there was no cure, no way of destroying or removing radium once in the body. Harry went on to strongly suggest that changing the way radium was handled was imperative for the safety of those working with it. The radium girls who'd held out hope for so long were grief stricken.
The case between U.S. radium and the women ultimately became a waiting game. The company used one delay tactic after another on April 25th of 1928. Despite Maria's objections, the judge postponed the case until September. The reason? U.S. Radames witnesses planned on vacationing in Europe all summer long. Barry's worst fears seemed to be coming true. U.S. radium was stalling. The company was hedging their bets that the women would die. Before the trial, public support for the women sought.
The radium girls plight continued to dominate the headlines. Pictures of Grace and the others being wheeled in and out of court shocked the nation, and photos of the damage done to them enraged the public. U.S. radium, in an attempt to subdue public outcry, hired a consultant from Columbia University to run tests and hold a press conference on its findings. Consultant Frederic Flynn stood before a crowd of spectators and press and declared that the women could survive their illnesses. And even more unbelievably, the tests showed no trace of radioactivity in the women.
The press turned to the women's lawyer for a response. Again, Barry remained undaunted. He simply replied he'd see U.S. radium in court. With continued public outrage and pressure on the New Jersey court system, the trial date was moved up to early June of 1928. Meanwhile, sympathy cards inundated the women's homes, along with letters from scammers looking to profit from the women, claiming they had a cure. With growing empathy and compassion from the public, going to court started to look a lot less favorable to U.S. radium.
A judge offered to mediate and the company sat down with Berry to negotiate a settlement within days of the trial. They reached an agreement. Each of the women would get just ten thousand dollars up front and a six hundred dollar yearly annuity. The company also agreed to pay all their current and future medical expenses. In doing so, though, U.S. Radion became the first company in American history to be held responsible for the health of their employees for the radium girls.
The settlement was a far cry from two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Some of the women died within months of the agreement. Grace Frier passed away a few years later at the age of 30 for her spine shattered and all her teeth gone. She was unable to even sit without a back brace to hold her upright. It may sound like justice wasn't fully served, and maybe that's true, the women paid the ultimate price after all, and their deaths have been nothing short of brutal, but their legacy has outlived them.
Five women stood up to a Goliath corporation. Their case set the precedent for suits involving environmental cancers and even helped form occupational hazard law for employees laws that are still saving lives. Today, Grace and the others lost their lives to it. But radium would never match their grit or inner glow or be as fierce as they turned out to be. They truly were the radium girls. Marie Curie knew a lot about tenacity and grit, she lost power in 1986 to an unfortunate accident dedicated to serving science and helping others.
Marie used her skills and resources during World War One to invent portable X-rays for use in the field called affectionately Little Pieris. Later, Marie joined forces Albert Einstein and Max Planck at the Congress of Physics, where the trio discussed groundbreaking discoveries in their field. Marie's love of her glowing radium became her life's work. She understood radium power and that just because it occurred naturally didn't mean that it was altogether safe. Although she saw the promise the good in radium, others wielded the other side of the sword, using it for profit and at great cost to others.
Marie Curie lived to be 66, passing away on July 4th of 1930 for her aplastic anemia caused, of course, by radiation. As a woman scientist, she overcame a lot of obstacles in her enduring spirit, still serves as an inspiration to other women in the field. Her daughter Irene became a physicist and her granddaughter became a nuclear physicist. Countless educational and research facilities also bear her name, including the Curie Institute, in 1995. Officials moved Marie's remains to the pantheon in Paris, where she became the first woman ever to be buried among the greatest minds of France.
Her notebooks are also considered both the national and scientific treasure they're kept safe in France's National Library in Paris. You're not likely to see them, though. Not without signing a liability waiver and wearing protective gear.
You see, Marie's notebooks are still highly radioactive, as are her physical remains. And they will be for a very long time until the year 35 34. There's more to this story. Stick around after the brief sponsor break to hear all about it. Evan Byers had it all, he was the president of the world's largest steel corporation, the AM buyers company in Pittsburgh, and a well-known former professional golfer. But while celebrating aboard a party train after a Harvard Yale football game in 1927, he injured an arm in a fall.
Upon returning home, he followed up with his physician. His doctor recommended a drink to help him heal rate. A thaw was made by Bailey Radium Laboratories in East Orange, New Jersey, and it boasted all the benefits of radium in a convenient drink. Thinking more was better. Buyers drank three of the two ounce bottles a day every day. The drink was extremely expensive, as you might guess, but buyers could easily afford it. At first, he felt invigorated, so much so that he bought cases of rape to thaw for his colleagues.
He owned racehorses and he made sure they were given to thought to. Buyers, having once been known for his smooth moves with the ladies, found that rate thaw helped him regain his virility as well. Naturally, his many girlfriends also had plentiful stashes of the drink. The guy was rich. Things went well for buyers until his teeth began to fall out in nineteen thirty after he complained, the Federal Trade Commission sent an investigator out to his estate. Amid the extravagant setting, they couldn't have been met with a more grisly sight.
Half of buyers face had disintegrated to small teeth jutted from his upper jaw and his lower jaw and chin had decomposed. Bandages wrapped his head to cover the holes large enough to see his brain. And much like the radium girls, bones throughout his body had disintegrated as well. Yes, Ebon Byers was still alive, speaking, as you can imagine, was difficult for him. He endured two surgeries already, one to remove most of his decayed upper jaw and another to remove a part of the lower portion.
Still, he managed to testify about whether the FTC filed a cease and desist letter to Bailey Radium Laboratories on December 19th. Nineteen thirty one. Not only did the government want the company to stop claiming the drink had therapeutic value, they wanted them to stop promising that it was harmless. The manufacturer didn't fight like U.S. radium had. After the testimony of Ebon Buyers, the company stopped making radar entirely later on, the founder claimed he went out of business due to depression and not anything to do with the FTC investigation when Ebon Buyers passed away in nineteen thirty two.
The press covered it extensively. Being wealthy and well-connected had made buyers a celebrity of sorts, and having died from radiation poisoning, he was buried in a coffin lined with lead. And his death spurred the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which outlawed deceptive packaging. In nineteen sixty five thirty three years after bias death, an MIT scientist exhumed the man's remains. Buyers' skeleton still contained the same amount of radiation as the day he died. Like Marie Curie and the radium girls, his remains will be radioactive for centuries to come.
American Shadows is hosted by Lauren Vogel Bomb. This episode was written by Michelle Muto with researcher Robin Miniter and produced by Miranda Hawkins and Trevor Young with executive producers Aaron Manque, Alex Williams and Matt Frederich. To learn more about the show, visit Greyman, Millicom for more podcast from My Heart Radio, visit the I Heart radio app, Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.