The Radium Girls: An Illinois Tragedy

Jan 25, 2018

Part 1: Radium poisoning took the lives of perhaps thousands of female factory workers, many in Ottawa, Illinois, in the last century.

She was among the last of her kind, but longevity in this club was a mixed blessing. On August 25, 1959, Beatrice Workman died of radium poisoning. The 54-year-old Park Ridge, Illinois resident had worked in the 1920s at the Ottawa, Illinois Radium Dial Company, which hired women to paint watch  and clock dials with radium-laced, glow-in-the-dark paint. Workman first experienced pain in 1936, but doctors told her it was arthritis. "The real source of her trouble wasn't found until she was examined at Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital," the August 27, 1959 Rockford Register-Republic reported. That was 21 years later.

There were likely thousands of dial painters who died from radium poisoning, although there's no definite number, according to Kate Moore, author of the 2017 book, The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women. Besides  the Ottawa plant, the women had worked at radium companies in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. Most died young, decades before Workman.

That included many women in Illinois. Some of the Ottawa painters, despite their long, agonizing illnesses with crippling sarcomas, crumbling jawbones, crushed spines, amputated limbs and other maladies, were among the luckier ones. Because of Illinois' progressive workers' compensation laws, some of the Radium Dial workers received financial awards.

"Illinois was one of the earliest adopters of workers compensation law in 1911. The final state to adopt it was Mississippi in 1948," says Russell Lewis, executive vice president and chief historian of the Chicago History Museum. Illinois' law led to the creation of the Illinois Industrial Commission in 1917, and it was this body that sided with one of Ottawa's most well-known dial painters in 1938. Although dial painters in other states sought retribution for their fatal illnesses, those in Ottawa were the only ones "to win state sanctioned compensation for radium poisoning," wrote Claudia Clark in Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935.

In the 1920s, watch advertisements touted the wonderful radium dials that let owners tell time in the dark. They became top sellers and production ramped up. Radium Dial hired women, girls mostly — some as young as 11 and 13 according to Moore's book — to paint the watch dials. Precision was key, so the girls were taught to create a fine point of the paintbrush bristles with their lips. With each lick, they ingested radium.

Their bosses said the paint wouldn't hurt them. They told the girls it would make them beautiful. The radium became a toy.

Darlene Halm's aunt, Margaret "Peg" Looney, was one of the first Ottawa painters to die from radium poisoning. Looney started working at Radium Dial when she was 17. She was the oldest sister in a family of 10. "I can remember my family talking about my aunt bringing home the little vials (of radium paint)," says Halm, who still lives in Ottawa. "They would go into their bedroom with the lights off and paint their fingernails, their eyelids, their lips and then they'd laugh at each other because they glowed in the dark." Looney wasn't alone. On their breaks at work, a lot of the painters did the same thing, according to Moore. Some even wore their party dresses to work so they would glow.

Six years later, Looney became sick. Problems had begun much earlier, when she had a tooth removed and the site never healed. She was anemic, couldn't walk from hip pain, and her teeth and bits of jawbone were falling out. Her fiancé "used to pull her around the neighborhood in a wagon when she was too ill to walk," says Halm. "She collapsed at work one day and they sent her to a company hospital. My grandparents and her siblings had no say about her going in the company hospital and were not allowed to visit. They were told she had diphtheria and was quarantined." Looney died in the hospital. She was 24.

Darlene Halm, niece of Margaret "Peg" Looney, one of the first to die of radium poisoning, tells stories of her aunt Friday in Ottawa.
Credit Mary Cullen / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

"The company wanted to bury her right away," according to Halm. "Several family members were at the hospital when she died, although they weren't allowed to see her. (One of them) refused to allow the company to bury her and insisted she have a Catholic funeral." Radium Dial agreed to autopsy her body and to have the Looneys' doctor present for it. But when their doctor arrived, the autopsy was finished, Halm says.

The Looneys were suspicious. They tried to find an attorney to look into Peg's case. No one would take it.

Radium Dial knew what was wrong with Looney; it had known for years. Halms says the family learned this later and found out the company had hired doctors to examine the painters starting in 1925. "They told (Looney) she was very healthy," says Halm. "They never told her she had tested positive for radiation."

"There is evidence, particularly in Illinois, that the executives at the Radium Dial Company … had the knowledge that the radium was poisoning the women," says Moore. "They deliberately lied to the women."

Another one of those women was Catherine Donohue. She started feeling ill in 1925 and limped from pain. In 1931, Radium Dial fired her, "because my limping was causing much talk," Donohue said, according to the July 27, 1938, Rockford Register-Republic. By this time, other dial painters in New Jersey and Illinois had also become sick and died.

Donohue's maladies increased and worsened. She lost half of her body weight. Parts of her jaw fell out. She couldn't eat and became nearly bedridden. A local doctor couldn't diagnose her, but denied that Donohue had radium poisoning. Later, a Chicago doctor confirmed she did. Donohue and some of the other ailing dial painters (one had her arm amputated) decided to sue. They became known as "the society of the living dead," reported the April 6, 1938, Springfield Illinois State Journal. Their first effort failed. Then Illinois passed the Illinois Occupational Disease Act because of the women, according to Moore.  

Credit Len Grossman Jr.

The "society" tried again, but had trouble getting a lawyer. Eventually, they found Leonard Grossman in Chicago. "My father had been working in the area of workers comp for some time," says Leonard Grossman Jr., Grossman's son and a retired attorney in River Forest. "Workers' rights was a major issue for him. He was asked, from what I understand, to take the case by Clarence Darrow, who was one of his heroes." (Darrow was a well-known attorney who took difficult cases; one of his most famous was the 1925 so-called Scopes Monkey Trial in which a teacher was prosecuted for illegally teaching evolution.)

Grossman Sr. took the case to the Illinois Industrial Commission. His clients were "quite poor, that was one reason they were suing," so he handled their case for free, according to his son. During the trial, the "emaciated" Donohue, as the February 11, 1938, Rockford Register-Republic called the young wife and mother of two, learned from a doctor that her condition was fatal and collapsed. The trial was continued at her home because she was too weak to travel. In his closing brief, Grossman Sr. said Radium Dial had denied the women's requests to see their physical examination results, had produced no witnesses to contradict the workers' testimony, and had admitted that radium was a poison, then denied it. He called the company a "predator" and said the radium would "bombard through [Donohue's] very casket, like it wrecked and destroyed her jaw bone and her hip."

The gravesite of Catherine Donohue in Ottawa, Ill.
Credit Mary Cullen / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

The women won. But "at great personal cost," says Moore, who spent a month in Ottawa talking to locals and doing research. "The town didn't really want to acknowledge what had happened. That was certainly true in the time the women were prosecuting the case. There's evidence I've seen in their letters that their neighbors, the clergy, (and) business people kind of shunned them." It was the Great Depression and Radium Dial was providing well-paying jobs. Locals "kind of wanted the women to put up and shut up," she says.

Although they had won, the women's individual financial awards were fairly small. "The company only had to pay $10,000 to the women, collectively, because it fled the state and started a business in New York," Moore says. "There was no way the Illinois Industrial Commission could reach across state lines and grab those assets." Some of the women got nothing. Radium Dial unsuccessfully appealed the decision many times, up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Donohue died before the appeals were finished. "She weighed less than 60 pounds," Moore wrote.

Credit Len Grossman Jr.

Radium Dial's president, Joseph Kelly, was ousted in 1934. He opened another company to produce radium clock dials. He called it "Luminous Processes" and located it in Ottawa, just a "few blocks away" from Radium Dial, Halm says. "They hired a lot of the same girls." Radium Dial went out of business.

Luminous hummed along for decades, until 1976, according to Clark's book. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission fined it that year for having radiation levels "1,666 times" the allowable amount. After failing to make the necessary improvements, Luminous closed. An April 2, 1984, United Press International article, which called the company a "death factory," reported that former workers were suing the company; cancer ran high among the former dial painters. "To escape financial liability for environmental pollution and industrial diseases, Luminous Processes shuffled corporate assets into other holdings, in much the same way that Radium Dial had in the 1930s," Clark wrote.

In 1978, the same year Luminous Processes closed in Ottawa, Peg Looney's body was exhumed. Earlier, when the Cold War threatened nuclear attacks, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission began to study radiation's effects on humans. Dial painters, living and dead, were perfect study subjects. Looney's family gave permission for her body to be exhumed and researched by Argonne National Laboratory near Lemont for the study. "The family was told that they brought her body back encased in lead because she was still so radioactive," Halm says. Halm's mother had saved one of Looney's white gloves that Halm liked to try on occasionally. "She threw it away. She was afraid it was contaminated."

A plaque honoring Ottawa's radium girls is displayed next to the memorial statue in Ottawa.
Credit Mary Cullen / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

Looney and the other ill-fated dial painters had helped start a "movement that ultimately led, not until 1971, to the adoption of the federal OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) Act, which was the big change in having federal workers' safety laws," Grossman Jr. says. He worked for the U.S. Department of Labor for 30 years on workers' rights cases.

The dial painters' case was very important to his father, he adds. "He talked about the frailty, particularly of Catherine Donohue, and the strength of the other girls in supporting her. One of the girls gave him a little piece of wood that looked like a chess pawn with a band of radium painted around it. It was so tiny it wasn't dangerous, but it still had a faint glow when I was a kid."

Grossman Jr. believes their case has lessons for today: "In my work with the Department of Labor, employers make the same kinds of arguments that they made in the Radium Dial case. They say, 'We would never harm our employees, this process is not harmful…' The battle has to keep being won over and over and over."

"It's so easy in our day, 100 years on from the time when the radium girls' story first started happening, to say our health and safety (are) just red tape, bureaucracy, getting in the way of companies' profits," says Moore. "The radium girls' story is a kind of warning call from history that lest we forget, we will repeat the same mistakes."

One day, 40 years ago, Grossman Jr. recalls getting a call out of the blue. "The voice on the other end said, 'Is this attorney Grossman?' I said, 'That was my father.' She said, 'Well, I'm one of the descendants of Catherine Donohue and I just wanted to thank him.'"

In 2011, thanks to an idea from local high schooler Madeline Piller, Ottawa erected a sculpture to honor its radium girls.

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Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.