The Radium Girls | Ottawa, Illinois
In the 1920s hundreds of young women worked at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois, putting tiny strokes of glowing paint on wristwatch dials. Unfortunately, the glow came from radium, and the company encouraged the women to keep their brush tips sharp by licking them. Even after the women began showing horrendous side effects, the company insisted that nothing was wrong. It wasn't until a group of the women -- dubbed "The Radium Girls" by the press -- successfully sued Radium Dial that the practice ended.
The Radium Girls were female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with self-luminous paint. The painting was done by women at three different factories, and the term now applies to the women working at the facilities: one in Orange, New Jersey, beginning around 1917; one in Ottawa, Illinois, beginning in the early 1920s; and a third facility in Waterbury, Connecticut, also in the 1920s.
After being told that the paint was harmless, the women in each facility ingested deadly amounts of radium after being instructed to "point" their brushes on their lips in order to give them a fine tip; some also painted their fingernails, face, and teeth with the glowing substance. The women were instructed to point their brushes in this way because using rags or a water rinse caused them to use more time and material, as the paint was made from powdered radium, gum arabic, and water.
Five of the women in New Jersey challenged their employer in a case over the right of individual workers who contract occupational diseases to sue their employers under New Jersey's occupational injuries law, which at the time had a two-year statute of limitations, but settled out of court in 1928. Five women in Illinois who were employees of the Radium Dial Company (which was unaffiliated with the United States Radium Corporation) sued their employer under Illinois law, winning damages in 1938.
In 2006, an 8th-grade student in Ottawa, Madeline Piller, learned what had happened in her hometown and was amazed that no one else seemed to know about it. She lobbied her elected officials to erect a Radium Girl memorial. Local unions were asked to provide funds and gentle political pressure. The town eventually commissioned Madeline's father, sculptor William Piller, to create a life-size bronze statue of a Radium Girl, which was unveiled in late 2011.
The statue is of a young 1920s woman with paintbrushes in one hand and a tulip in the other. Her long-sleeved blouse makes it impossible to tell if she's wearing a wristwatch of doom. But the tulip bulb that she holds is limp, possibly suggesting she's knocked the life out of it with her radioactive breath.