History’s Mysteries: The Radium Girls

It seemed like a decent job to the women factory workers. They would paint the numbers on watches and clocks with a special paint that would cause the numbers and hands to glow in the dark.

Appropriately, the paint was referred to by the mysterious name Undark.

Undark’s formula was simple: water, gum arabic and a wonder element called “radium.”

The U.S. Radium Corp. produced the radium at its plant in New Jersey.

The process of using Undark was simple: Dip a fine brush into it and paint the dial of the clock or watch. The brush’s tip frequently needed to be “pointed” to maintain its fine tip. The women were instructed to use their lips or tongue to do this; using a rag or rinse water would take too long. They were told, “Lip, dip, paint.”

The women were assured that Undark was perfectly safe, although the radium-based solution was deadly. Chemists at the production plant used lead screens, masks and tongs to handle the material.

About 4,000 women were hired to paint the dials.

These unsuspecting victims not only used Undark to paint the dials, but also painted their fingernails, faces and teeth for fun.

Over time, many of the women began to suffer from radiation sickness and died. When some initiated a lawsuit, the company’s defense stated that they actually died of syphilis, which smeared the women’s reputation and scared off further lawsuits.

Eventually, some of the Radium Girls received a settlement.

• Professor James Pinkerton is a retired educator who loves to share the mystery in our history. He can be reached at pinkertonjames1914

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