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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 75.3 (2001) 611-612

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Book Review

Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy

Ross Mullner. Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy. Washington, D.C.: American Public Health Association, 1999. xii + 175 pp. Ill. $32.00 (paperbound, 0-87553-245-4).

Soon after the Curies isolated radium in 1898, its local effects on skin and subcutaneous tissues received some attention; but only a small number of persons were exposed to the new element, and it had the reputation, although false, of being harmless. Ironically, the Curies, although they themselves were injured by radium and they knew of its harmful effects, refused to admit that it caused the illnesses from which they chronically suffered. Simultaneously, medical uses for radium were explored. For example, in 1901 a French physician utilized it in an effort to cure lupus and other skin lesions. Later physicians used it to treat a variety of cancers. Ross Mullner informs his readers that "radium was used internally to treat hundreds of diseases, including everything from acne to insanity. It was administered orally, by inhalation and injection, and by enema and suppository" (p. 33). Before telling the tragic story of the radium dial workers, he introduces his readers to radium in his first three chapters. He includes its discovery, the search for ore, early experiments, and the interesting, but not unusual, idea of medical uses of radium (other dangerous industrial poisons, such as lead and mercury, have also been utilized for medicinal purposes).

The major part of this book is an examination of the story of the radium dial workers' ordeal. It is mainly descriptive, except for the last chapter entitled "Conclusions." Deadly Glow describes in detail the disease of radium poisoning suffered by young women workers who painted mainly watch dials in the 1920s. The United States Radium Company in New Jersey was the most notorious of the companies that employed these young women, exposed to an industrial poison that caused a puzzling new disease. American workers first used small amounts of radium mixed with other chemicals to illuminate gauges and dials, military [End Page 611] instruments, and gun sights during World War I; after the war, radium was utilized to paint watch dials. As illnesses occurred among the young women dial painters, the hazard of using radium became evident. Symptoms included anemia, lesions on the gums, and necrosis of the jaw. The women suffered slow, horrible, and painful deaths. At first, death was not linked to radiation hazard; eventually, however, scientists concluded that the dial painters' disease was occupational in origin and due to radium inhalation and ingestion when the women pointed brush tips with their mouths.

The radium companies refused to accept these findings. Conflict arose over causation and legal issues; for example, a major difference concerned the definition of the occupational hazard involved in dial painting. Many women sued for compensation and payment of their medical bills. Most lost their suits; others received little or no compensation from the courts. They were powerless. This terrible story of injustice becomes even more shocking to the reader because Mullner has utilized medical case reports to describe the suffering of the women.

This story has been told before. It will be told again. This version is well written, interesting, and informative. Although the American Public Health Association published this book, a public health framework does not appear until the last page. However, the author weakly ties later developments in occupational safety and health to this early incident in the history of occupational health: "Without the radium occupational safety standard which was the direct legacy of the dial painters, tens of thousands of American atomic bomb workers might have been exposed to dangerously high levels of radioactivity" (p. 127).

In the last chapter, Mullner finally gets to his public health point--namely, the legacy of the radium dial workers. He cites many of the positive occupational health changes, such as new laws regulating health and safety and protecting workers, right-to-know laws, and retention of medical records. At...


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