• U.S.

Medicine: Poison Paintbrush

5 minute read

That the world may see streaks of light through the long hours of darkness, Orange, N. J., women hired themselves to the U. S. Radium Corporation. Daily they took up watch dials and painted the blind numerals with a magic dye which made them glow at night. The company paid a high price for the paint. When a few drops were left in the glass after the brushes were twirled and pointed, supervisors complained. The girls were taught to point and clean the brushes with their lips. Thirteen died. Last week the U. S. Radium Corporation was defendant in a suit for a million and a quarter dollars filed by one Raymond H. Berry, lawyer, in behalf of five more female hirelings of the corporation, sick, according to Lawyer Berry and many doctors, unto death. For these five there is no light in darkness except the glow of gold indemnity. Their malady is incurable. Eleven years ago, merry giggling girls of 16, 17, 18, they got jobs to help out at home, learned to paint the luminous numerals on watch faces. Quinta, Albina, and Amelia Maggia thought themselves lucky to find work in the same plant. Amelia is dead—her body was exhumed to prove that the death diagnosis was wrong but her dead bones are still luminous with the radium she swallowed. Quinta and Albina left their jobs after two years for the romance of marriage, romance that has become tragedy. Mrs. Edna Hussman also left the company for marriage in 1922. Katherine Schaub and Grace Fryer found better positions in 1920. More than six years have passed since the young women pointed the paintbrushes between pursed lips. A New Jersey statute of limitations says suit for damages must be brought within two years after the inception of disease. But, for four years, these girls were unaware of the disease eating its way into their bones. Last month the case was presented before the Court of Chancery* to obtain a ruling on whether the statute applies to a disease which did not manifest itself until years after its inception. The hearing was set for September, but because of the rapid progress of the disease, and the destitute condition of the women, the case is being tried by the Essex County Circuit of the Supreme Court while still pending in chancery. There is little precedent to point the way legally. There is even less precedent to point the way medically. The Disease. From the Greek, necrosis (making dead) has come its ghoulish name, radium necrosis. The Cause. The paint contained radium and mesothorium salts which continually shoot out Alpha, Beta, Gamma rays. Dr. Harrison S. Martland, Chief Medical Examiner of Essex County found 95% of these to be Alpha rays. Most of the paint the girls swallowed was eliminated through the intestinal tract; a small but daily accumulating amount was absorbed; deposited in the bones, spleen, liver. While the girls worked, played, slept, the paint shot out its rays. Alpha rays cannot travel very far. In the bones they do not need to. The centre of bone, as everyone knows, is marrow; in this marrow are bloodmaking elements. At first the rays stimulated the blood forming centres. The girls felt fine. Then destruction set in. The Symptoms. The girls became anemic. Teeth ached, became loose, fell out. Jaws decayed, agonizing rheumatic pains developed in the joints, long bones rotted, making the legs unequal in length. Quinta Maggia McDonald now can scarcely walk, her hip bones are so destroyed; she spends sleepless nights wondering whether her two children’s lives are poisoned too. Her sister Albina Maggia Larice cannot walk at all. Her two children were born dead. Mrs. Edna Hussman hobbles about her household duties. Katherine Schaub developed pains in the skull. Her jaws crumbled; her features were curiously altered; then her mind sickened. For some time she was confined in a hospital for “nervous disorders.” Her cousin Virginia Randolph is numbered among the first thirteen victims. Her death certificate read Vincent’s Angina— Crippled Grace Fryer still sticks to her job. She has worked in a Newark bank ever since leaving the radium company seven years ago; still runs her department although her left elbow cannot move and she wears a brace from neck to hips. Twenty operations have been performed on her jaw. The Treatment. None. There is no way known to medical science of removing the radium from the bones of these doomed young women. Said Dr. Martland: “The deposits can be removed only by cremating the bone and then boiling the ash in hydrochloric acid.” Keen observers suggested that the bodies of all the unconscious martyrs be exhumed, given to hospitals and laboratories for study, that this great tragedy might add its contribution to scientific knowledge. Newspapers took these five dying women to their ample bosoms. Heartbreaking were the tales of their torture. Publicity hastened the case to trial through the lagging courts. Some found doctors who thought the women might not die. No one found a doctor who thought they might be completely cured. Said Katherine Schaub: “Do you think getting married will help me? . . . I don’t buy anything. . . . I haven’t any money. . . . I’m-worried. . . . When I die I’ll only have lilies on my coffin, not roses as I’d like. . . . If I won my $250,000, mightn’t I have lots of roses?”

*Literally, the Court of King’s Conscience dating from the early eighteenth century. Chancery had jurisdiction when there were no forms of action by which relief could be obtained at law, in respect of rights which ought to be enforced. Said King James, speaking in the Star Chamber: “Where the rigour of the law in many cases will undo a subject, then the chancery tempers the law with equity, and so mixes mercy with justice, as it preserves a man from destruction.”

*Ulcers caused by Vincent’s organisms. Trench mouth is one type of this disease.

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