In 1911 Marie Curie was awarded the second of her two Nobel Prizes, both connected to her discovery of radium. The radioactive element was initially hailed as a miracle substance, credited with curing cancer and other ailments, its deadly nature lurking invisibly beneath its luminescent glow.
Beginning in 1917, the U.S. Radium Corporation manufactured glow-in-the-dark watch and clock faces and instrument dials at its factory in Orange, N. J. Young women daubed the dials with radium-based paint. Unlike many factories of the period, the studio they worked in was light and airy, the work was not arduous, and the pay was comparatively good for women’s wages at the time. They were not warned of any risk and were even told to lick the tips of their brushes to keep them sharp for the exacting work.
Before long, the workers began developing symptoms of what later would be recognized as radiation poisoning: anemia, bleeding gums, necrosis of the jaw, bone cancer. And here’s where the story starts sounding pretty familiar.
The company denied any connection between the women’s illnesses and their work, even claiming the symptoms were due to syphilis, undercutting their complaints and impugning their morals in one stroke. Executives falsified reports, withheld information, hired doctors to supply false diagnoses and lawyers to stonewall or arrange piddling cash settlements with non-disclosure/no-liability clauses.
When Grace Fryer and four young coworkers decided to sue their employer, it took them two years to find a lawyer willing to take their case on contingency. The corporation gamed the legal system, dragging out the process in the expectation that the plaintiffs, dubbed “Radium Girls” in the press, would exceed the statute of limitations or die before they got their day in court.
Although the case was ultimately settled by U.S. Radium rather than going to trial, it established a number of precedents in labor and tort law and forced improvements in occupational safety regulations. It also demonstrated the power of the press. The Radium Girls’ plight, related by “sob sister” reporters in local and national tabloids, became a major human interest story and turned the spotlight on the corporation’s activities.
“It’s good to know this kind of thing doesn’t happen any more,” says Robert Freedman with a wink. He’s the director of Radium Girls, a play by D.W. Gregory that dramatizes the case. Produced by Arena Civic Theatre, it runs through this weekend at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls.
When I spoke with Freedman before a dress rehearsal last week, he acknowledged the historical connections to more recent corporate shenanigans involving toxic chemicals (think dioxin and PCBs). The case also highlights parallels between scientists’ early celebration of radium as a miracle cure and other medical marvels with tragic side effects (think thalidomide, a treatment for morning sickness that caused horrible birth defects). But Freedman’s interest in the story and the play revolves primarily around its personalities: “I was interested in why these young ‘nobodies’ decided to take on a corporation” (think Erin Brockovich).
“It’s the story of average girls who went to work and were happy to have the job,” he told me. “They didn’t question anybody. They did what they were told. Painting the watch dials was very delicate and precise work, and the girls considered themselves artists. The corporation knew there were major potential hazards with this substance, but for whatever reason they didn’t tell the girls. They actually encouraged them to put the brush tips in their mouths.”
In his research while preparing his production, Freedman learned that this work, and the resulting illness and contamination, was not limited to the U.S. Radium factory in Orange but affected thousands of workers across the country, mostly women, many of whom died. Those factories have since been identified as Superfund hazmat cleanup sites. He also discovered an ironic twist to the story. The work that was killing the young women was touted as a patriotic contribution to the war effort. The luminescent watches were worn by soldiers in the trenches of World War I, so they could check the time without striking a light and exposing their position.
Gregory’s episodic docudrama covers a 10-year period and fields a cast of almost 30. While the playwright sticks closely to the historical facts, she takes dramatic liberties with some of the characters. Where the history shows that U.S. Radium’s executives knew of the dangers early on—and protected their lab technicians, but not the dial painters, from radiation—the play’s depiction of the company’s CEO, Arthur Roeder, is more nuanced. Played here by Jim Lobley, he’s a conflicted figure. At first ignorant of radium’s lethal potential, even sharing glasses of “invigorating” Radium Water with his wife, he becomes a reluctant collaborator in coverup and defiance.
“It’s a gradual progression to the dark side,” Lobley told me. “At each point, one decision after another after another, he’s struggling with the feeling that it’s not what he wants to do, but for one reason or another it seems to make sense at the time. From scene to scene he’s getting further in and struggling to get out.”
Jen Campbell, who plays Grace Fryer, the prime mover in the Radium Girls case, sees not only the small fry’s struggle against the Goliath corporation, but a young woman’s coming of age: “There’s her awareness that something ‘just ain’t right,’ as she would say, then also realizing what kind of power is in her own life. She’s constantly realizing and discovering and battling.”
Grace’s story is also the story of an ordinary person longing for an ordinary life but caught up in extraordinary circumstances. “She wants to get married, she wants to have kids, she’s found a good guy—that’s all she wants,” Campbell said. “I like the idea of a young woman from her generation who wanted to follow the rules so bad, and was put in this life where she couldn’t in good conscience follow the rules.”
Radium Girls plays at the Shea Theater, 71 Avenue A, Turners Falls, April 27-28 at 8 p.m. and April 29 at 2 p.m. Tickets (413) 863-2281, arenacivictheatre.org or at the door.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.