Amelia “Mollie” Maggia was just in her early 20s, and never before had dental problems. Yet for no reason she could see, she was suddenly plagued by dental pain, mouth sores and, then, tooth loss. So she doubled down on her regimen of oral care and proper nutrition.
Yet the agony continued. Eventually her jaw bone began to deteriorate and had to be removed. Despite many visits to dentists and doctors, Mollie’s disease progressed to include extreme fatigue and debilitating joint pain. On Sept. 12, 1922, Mollie died at age 24. The coroner declared her cause of death was syphilis.
Along with her parents and sisters, Mollie was also mourned by a young woman named Grace Fryer. In 1917, Grace and Mollie had been co-workers and friends. Side by side, in support of the World War I effort, the two young women painted glow-in-the-dark numbers on watch dials, touching the paintbrush tip to their lips to keep a precise point.
Grace refused to believe the coroner’s report about her friend’s death. It turns out Grace was right. Mollie’s body was later exhumed and the true cause of her death revealed.
One year after Mollie’s death, Grace, by then a bank teller, began experiencing back and foot pain. Like her friend, she developed agonizing tooth loss. Her jaw became swollen, inflamed, and full of pus. While a dental evaluation revealed a decaying jaw, two doctors told her that she was in fine health.
Grace died Oct. 27, 1933. She was 34 years old. But the words on her death certificate reflected Grace’s determination to uncover the truth.
When Amelia Maggia’s body was exhumed, her tissues and bones revealed evidence of radioactivity.
At the time, radium was considered a miracle medicine, believed to extend life. It was enlisted in the battle against cancer and treatment of fevers, constipation, and gout. Radium was the ingredient in the paint that made watch dials glow. It wasn’t syphilis that killed her. It was radium.
Three years after Grace’s health issues began, a doctor suggested that her jaw problems may have had something to do with her former dial painting job at U.S. Radium Corp. (USRC). It is notable that Grace’s previous care providers had been on the USRC payroll.
Grace and her co-workers wanted USRC held accountable. It took them two years to find a lawyer (Raymond Berry) willing to take the case. The factory refused to accept responsibility. By the time the case came to trial, the young women were so debilitated, they could barely take the witness stand. It wasn’t until 1938 that the owners of the factories were found responsible for the deaths of the young women. Grace’s death certificate reads, “radium sarcoma, industrial poisoning.”
Grace, Amelia, and about 70 other women in Essex County, N.J., were known as the Radium Girls because of the paint that they so diligently placed between their lips. More than 50 of those women died as a direct result of radium paint poisoning that destroyed their bones. USRC had two additional locations, in Waterbury, Conn., and Ottawa, Ill., where young women suffered the effects from radium. It is unknown how many other women died from radium poisoning. Of those who survived, many endured disabling pain throughout their lives.
I learned about the radium girls through D.W. Gregory’s play performed by Shakesperience Productions in Waterbury. This prompted me to read the book Radium Girls by Kate Moore. Grace Fryer and her fellow radium girls fought for justice. Their determination made a significant contribution to industrial safety standards, and their legacy lives on in the establishment, decades later, of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). These vibrant young women were robbed of full lives, but they did not die in vain.
Sherri Becker, RN, DNP is a nursing instructor at Gwynedd Mercy University, Gwynedd Valley, Pa.