Departmental Honors Project Title
Date of Award
College of Liberal Arts
From the early 1910s through the Great Depression, the dial painting industry provided opportune jobs for young female workers. Dial painting jobs did not require many skills but were well-paying professions. These careers attracted many young women and girls to work there. However, unknown to the painters at the time, the radium that they were using to paint the dial faces was slowly poisoning them and would later cause major health defects. Many of these women that did not die directly from the radium developed various forms of cancer and radium poisoning, which led to many lawsuits. New industrial and health reforms for workers were created as a result. Along with their impact on workers rights, the women contributed to the scientific understanding of radium by consenting to be test subjects after the court cases. Their unique history helped researchers determine safety levels of radioactive materials in a human being and set precedents for workers working in highly dangerous fields or projects, such as the Manhattan Project. Declassified documents from the testing facilities that these women visited, such as Argonne National Laboratory, help to shed light on the impact of the female dial painters. Doctors’ memos, letters from the women, and test results illuminate the importance of the women’s consent to becoming subjects and also shows that the dial painters’ histories did not end after their trials in court. These documents help to show the importance of the women as subjects and that their legacies impact not only industrial reform, but also the understanding of radioactive materials.
Richter, Elizabeth, "The Radium Dial Painters: Workers’ Rights, Scientific Testing, and the Fight for Humane Treatment" (2018). Departmental Honors Projects. 74.