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Factory Workers Who Fought Back

Radium Girls dramatizes a poisonous moment in labor history


In the slide show above, Elaine Vaan Hogue discusses Radium Girls.

It began with an ache.

The pain intensified, and one by one, Grace Fryer lost her teeth. A visit to the dentist confirmed a gruesome fact: Fryer’s jaw was decaying.

It was 1923, and the bank teller from New Jersey was dying, her bones riddled with cancer. Six years earlier, she’d worked as a clock-dial painter at the U.S. Radium Corporation factory, and the radioactive material she worked with was slowly poisoning her. Her story is chronicled in D. W. Gregory’s Radium Girls, the current College of Fine Arts theatrical production.

“Grace Fryer and the Radium Girls are on the periphery of American history,” says director Elaine Vaan Hogue, an assistant professor in the CFA school of theatre. “Their case launched the modern-day labor movement, yet it’s not something widely known.”

Following her diagnosis, Fryer and four other factory workers, dubbed the Radium Girls, sued the U.S. Radium Corporation. The litigation and media sensation helped establish legal precedents and triggered the enactment of regulations governing labor safety standards.

Radium, an alkaline earth metal found in trace amounts in uranium ore, is highly radioactive. Discovered by chemist Marie Curie in 1898, the substance has a half-life of 1,602 years. “Even today,” Vaan Hogue says, “you can’t handle Marie Curie’s notebooks without wearing protective clothing.”

Decades of radiation exposure left Curie ill and nearly blind. The two-time Nobel Prize winner died in 1934, at age 67, from leukemia. After Curie’s death, her daughter and son-in-law continued her work; both died from diseases caused by radium exposure.

“We tend to view Marie Curie as a martyr to science, because she was to some extent aware of the dangers of radium,” says Vaan Hogue. “But these factory workers knew nothing; they were innocent victims.”

The dial painting industry got its start during World War I, filling a military demand for watch faces that glow in the dark. The industry continued to prosper when luminous watches became a fashion fad. During its heyday, the U.S. Radium Corporation employed more than 4,000 dial painters.

“You always knew who the dial painters were,” Vaan Hogue says, “because their hair and shoes glowed as they walked home in the dark.”

Dial painting required a steady hand and a fine-tipped brush. To that end, the company taught “lip-pointing,” using the lips or the tip of the tongue to twirl a sharp point on the brushes. The technique allowed the girls to paint quickly and precisely.

Today, the idea of ingesting radium invokes horror. But during the 1920s, scientists touted the substance as a miracle drug. Representatives from the U.S. Radium Corporation claimed that radium improved the complexion, revitalized damaged hair, and promoted longevity. “They even manufactured a drink, Radithor,” according to Vaan Hogue. The elixir — triple distilled water laced with radium — cost $1 and was advertised as “a cure for the living dead.”

Radium Girls opens in 1917 and focuses on Fryer and Arthur Reader, president of U.S. Radium Corporation. “We see Grace transform from a timid woman to someone who stands up for her rights,” Vaan Hogue says. “And we see Arthur go from a greedy, opportunistic man to someone eaten by guilt.”

The play shifts from factory to office to courtroom. The cast of characters is large: 9 actors play more than 30 roles, and many character transformations take place on stage with the change of a jacket or donning of an apron.

“The actors are worried they won’t do their real-life counterparts justice,” Vaan Hogue says. “I have to remind them that we’re not doing a literal portrayal of these people — we’re integrating facts with imagination to bring the characters to life.”

Radium Girls runs at the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) Calderwood Pavilion Wimberley Theatre, 527 Tremont St., Boston, from Thursday, December 10, to Sunday, December 13, and Wednesday, December 16, to Saturday, December 19. Tickets are $12 for general admission and $10 for seniors, Huntington Theatre Company subscribers, WGBH members, and non-BU students; one free ticket is available for members of the BU community (ID required) at the door on the day of performance, subject to availability. Tickets may be purchased online, by phone at 617-933-8600, or in person at the BCA box office or the BU Theatre box office, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Performance times vary, and some will be followed by discussions; check the calendar.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

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