In their joint announcement to the French Academy of Sciences on December 26, 1898, the Curies described the years of painstaking work that had led to the discovery of a remarkable new element which they later christened radium. First extracted from pitchblende, the new element received its name from the Latin word for "ray" (due to the mysterious rays which the new substance emitted). Although Pierre Curie had already made a name for himself with the discovery of nuclear energy as well as the Curie Dysymmetry Principle, it was through his work with the brilliant Marie Sklodowska that he is best known.
In the years that followed, Pierre and Marie Curie would continue their work with radium as well as with another element which they discovered together (named "polonium" after Marie's native Poland). While Pierre was quick to give Marie much of the credit for their work, forcing the scientific community to recognize her contribution was often an uphill battle. Even after Pierre's untimely death from a street accident in 1906, Marie Curie often faced considerable opposition from the male-dominated scientific and academic community. Despite this resistance and her grief over her husband's death, she went on to develop the process by which pure radium could be extracted. Marie Curie also presided over the first medical research using radium in the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Her fame as a scientist, the growing public fascination with the mysterious properties of radium, and its value in medical research ensured that a strange new industry would soon get underway.
Marie Curie actually helped launch the radium industry with her decision not to patent the radium-isolation process which she had perfected through her research. Although she had intended this move to permit scientists to work with radium without legal interference, it also meant that companies around the world could pursue industrial applications using radium without having to pay patent fees. By 1917, the United States Radium Corporation had patented the first glow-in-the-dark radium-based paint (with the brand name of Undark). Between 1917 and 1926, the company employed hundreds of female workers to paint luminous watch dials under uncontrolled conditions. The workers (later known as the Radium girls) had been reassured that radium-based paint was harmless and no industrial safeguards were in place to limit contamination. Since the factory workers spent hours in pain-staking work painting watch dials, the brushes that they used to apply the paint often lost its shape and, to keep the brushes sharp and clean, the factory managers encouraged the workers to use their lips and tongues to wipe off the paint. Some of the workers even went to far as to use Undark to paint their fingernails as an odd fashion statement. By the time the toxic consequences of radium exposure became apparent, it was far too late for them.
The notion that radium was harmless was hardly limited to that one factory. The use of radium as an ingredient in patent medications had quickly become big business by the early 1920s. Numerous radium-laced products began to be sold (including radium-laced beauty creams, toothpaste, chocolate bars, soap, etc). Given the lack of real consumer protection legislation, the companies selling the products were free to make grandiose claims about the effectiveness of radiation in curing disease. It was an interesting quirk of the times that the only companies that were prosecuted were the ones whose products didn't contain the promised radioactive substances (false advertising was a criminal offense).
The radium industry managed to lurch along through the 1920s despite disturbing revelations concerning the real health risks associated with radium. By 1922, the first of the Radium Girls, Grace Fryer, went to her doctor complaining of tooth loss and an inflamed jaw. After using a primitive x-ray machine to diagnose serious jaw decay, similar cases began appearing throughout her hometown. All of the victims were women who had been employed at the same radium paint factory where Grace Fryer had worked. By 1925, Grace Fryer's unusual condition atracted enough attention that United States Radium began a disinformation campaign against her and other former workers at their factory. A "doctor" who had examined Fryer and declared her to be in excellent health later turned out to be a toxicologist on the company's payroll. When former workers began dying, the company was quick to blame the deaths on syphilis (thus further stigmatizing the women who had worked at the plant).
When U.S. Radium hired Harvard physiologist Cecil Drinker to investigate the plant in the early 1920s, he provided them with a grim analysis of the factory and its working conditions. Not only did the company ignore the series of far-reaching recommendations that Drinker made, but they falsified the report that they released to the New Jersey Department of Labor. Although Drinker was still listed as the author, the altered reported stressed that all of the affected workers were in perfect health. After Drinker discovered the fraud and published his original report in a scientific journal, the company threatened him with legal action. With all of the company's influence, it took years before Grace Fryer was finally able to bring a lawsuit against U.S. Radium on the behalf of all the affected workers. The lawsuit demanded $250,000 in compensation for each of the plaintiffs.
By 1928 when the case finally came to trial, the affected women were in such poor health that they were unable to raise their hands to take the oath. Grace Fryer was unable to walk and required a back brace just to sit up. Several of the other plaintiffs were completely bedridden. The trial of the "Radium Girls" generated international publicity and even Marie Curie took a personal interest in the case. She publicly stated that she wished to do all that she could to help but could offer no solution for the deadly effects of radium poisoning. Throughout the trial, U.S. Radium attempted to put up roadblocks to delay proceedings for as long as possible. While it was painfully apparent that the plaintiffs had little time left, the company's lawyers still arranged for the case to be adjourned since several key witnesses were "summering in Europe" and unavailable to testify until September. Walter Lippmann wrote a series of damning editorials blasting the judge for allowing the adjournment and nationwide outrage led to the hearing being rescheduled to June.
Just days before the trial was set to begin, U.S. Radium and the plaintiffs' attorney Raymond Berry agreed to allow U.S. District Court Judge William Clark to mediate an out-of-court settlement. According to the terms of the proposed settlement, each of the plaintiffs would receive $10,000 and payment of all legal and medical bills as well as an annual sum of $600 for as long as each plaintiff lived. The fact that Judge Clark was a U.S. Radium stockholder gave the Radium Girls pause but they had little real choice but to accept the settlement. All of the plaintiffs would be dead after another decade passed and the resulting publicity over the case would spur the passing of the first laws protecting U.S. workers from occupational health hazards. Of the thousands of workers who were exposed to radium in the years before more stringent safeguards were in place, only those five received anything resembling justice.