MFDJ 05/03/24: Death of Irene Rudolph

Today’s Luminous Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

The Radium Girls were female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting radium dials – watch dials and hands with self-luminous paint. The incidents occurred at three factories in United States: one in Orange, New Jersey, beginning around 1917; one in Ottawa, Illinois, beginning in the early 1920s; and one in Waterbury, Connecticut, also in the 1920s.

After being told that the paint was harmless, the women in each facility ingested deadly amounts of radium after being instructed to “point” their brushes on their lips in order to give them a fine tip;  some also painted their fingernails, faces, and teeth with the glowing substance. The women were instructed to point their brushes in this way because using rags or a water rinse caused them to use more time and material, as the paint was made from powdered radium, zinc sulfide (a phosphor), gum arabic, and water.

Five of the women in New Jersey challenged their employer in a case over the right of individual workers who contract occupational diseases to sue their employers under New Jersey’s occupational injuries law, which at the time had a two-year statute of limitations, but settled out of court in 1928. Five women in Illinois who were employees of the Radium Dial Company (which was unaffiliated with the United States Radium Corporation) sued their employer under Illinois law, winning damages in 1938.

Here is the sad story of one of the Radium Girls.

Radium girls at work

As 1923 drew on and Szamatolski ran his tests, Irene Rudolph, who had been sent home from the hospital, continued to endure the horrific ulcers and sores that had tortured Mollie Maggia. Irene’s anemia grew more serious, as did Helen Quinlan’s. They were pale, weak creatures, with no energy to them, no life. Doctors treated them first for one thing and then another—but not a single treatment helped. And they weren’t the only ones who were sick. Since George Willis, the cofounder of the Orange radium firm, had been ousted from his company, things had deteriorated for him. It seemed a long time ago that he had thoughtlessly carried tubes of radium with his bare hands every day at work—but all time is relative. With a half-life of 1,600 years, radium could take its time to make itself known.

As the months had passed since his departure from the company, Willis had sickened, and in September 1922, the same month Mollie Maggia died, he’d had his right thumb amputated; test revealed it was riddled with cancer.

“We used to paint our eyebrows, our lips, and our eyelashes [with the remaining radium paint], and then look at ourselves in the darkroom,” recalled Marie. The girls would always get fresh jars of material for the afternoon’s work, so they had carte blanche to use up the surplus paint from the morning. Marie used to dab the glowing mixture freely around her nostrils and along her eyebrows, and then give herself an elaborate mustache and a comedy chin. The girls would all make faces at each other; they thought it was hilarious. Charlotte Nevins remembered that they would “turn the lights off and then [we] could look in the mirror and laugh a lot. [We] glowed in the dark!” Yet for all the laughter, it was a strangely spooky vision. In the darkroom, no daylight shone. There was no light at all—except for the glowing element the girls had painted on their bare skin. They themselves were completely invisible. All you could see was the radium. But, as Marie herself said, it was all “just for fun.”

Irene Rudolph died on July 15, 1923 at twelve noon, in Newark General Hospital, where she’d been admitted the day before. She was twenty-one. At the time of her death, the necrosis in her jaw was said to be “complete.” Her death was attributed to her work, but the cause was given as phosphorus poisoning, a diagnosis admitted by the attending physician to be “not decisive.”

Culled from: Radium Girls


Arcane Excerpts!

Here’s another bizarre excerpt from the fabulous Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine by George M. Gould and Walter L. Pyle (1896):

Parvis mentions an instance of the influence of maternal impression in the causation of a large, vivid, red mark or splotch on the face: “When the mother was in Ireland she was badly frightened by a fire in which some cattle were burned. Again, during the early months of her pregnancy she was frightened by seeing another woman suddenly light the fire with kerosene and at that time became firmly impressed with the idea that her child would be marked.” Parvin also pictures the “turtle-man,” an individual with deformed extremities, who might be classed as an ectromelus, perhaps as a phocomelus, or seal-like monster. According to the story, when the mother was a few weeks pregnant her husband, a coarse, rough fisherman, fond of rude jokes, put a large live turtle in the cupboard. In the twilight the wife went to the cupboard and the huge turtle fell out, greatly startling her by its hideous appearance as it fell suddenly to the floor and began to move vigorously.


Copeland mentions a curious case in which a woman was attacked by a rattlesnake when in her sixth month of pregnancy, and gave birth to a child whose arm exhibited the shape and action of a snake, and involuntarily went through snake-like movements. The face and mouth also markedly resembled the head of a snake. The teeth were situated like a serpent’s fangs. The mere mention of a snake filled the child (a man of twenty-nine) with great horror and rage, “particularly in the snake season.” Beale gives the history of a case of a child born with its left eye blacked as by a blow, whose mother was struck in a corresponding portion of the face eight hours before confinement. There is on record an account of a young man of twenty-one suffering from congenital deformities attributed to the fact that his mother was frightened by a guinea-pig having been thrust into her face during pregnancy. [Women! They’re so damn weak! – DeSpair] He also had congenital deformity of the right auricle. At the autopsy, all the skin, tissues, muscles, and bones were found involved. Owen speaks of a woman who was greatly excited ten months previously by a prurient curiosity to see what appearance the genitals of her brother presented after he had submitted to amputation of the penis on account of carcinoma. The whole penis had been removed. The woman stated that from the time she had thus satisfied herself, her mind was unceasingly engaged in reflecting a sympathizing on the forlorn condition of her brother. While in this mental state she gave birth to a son whose penis was entirely absent [Thanks a lot, Mom! – DeSpair], but who was otherwise well and likely to live. The other portions of the genitals were perfect and well-developed. The appearance of the nephew and the uncle was identical. A most peculiar case is stated by Clerc as  occurring int he experience of Küss of Strasburg. A woman had a negro paramour in America with whom she had had sexual intercourse several times. She was put in a convent on the Continent, where she stayed two years. On leaving the convent she married a white man, and nine months after she gave birth to a dark-skinned child. The supposition was that during her abode in the convent and the nine months subsequently she had the image of her black paramour constantly before her.  [Nice story! – DeSpair] Loin speaks of a woman who was greatly impressed by the actions of a clown at a circus, and who brought into the world a child that resembled the fantastic features of the clown in a most striking manner. [Oh no!! Not the dreaded Harlequin Fetus!? – DeSpair]

Mackay describes five cases in which fright produced distinct marks on the fetus. There is a case mentioned in which a pregnant woman was informed that an intimate friend had been thrown from his horse; the immediate cause of death was fracture of the skull, produced by the corner of a dray against which the rider was thrown. The mother was profoundly impressed by the circumstance, which was minutely described to her by an eye-witness. Her child at birth presented a red and sensitive area upon the scalp corresponding in location with the fatal injury of the rider. The child is now an adult woman, and this area upon the scalp remains red and sensitive to pressure, and is almost devoid of hair. Mastin of Mobile, Alabama, reports a curious instance of maternal impression. During the sixth month of the pregnancy of the mother her husband was shot, the ball passing out through the left breast. The woman was naturally much shocked, and remarked to Dr. Mastin: “Doctor, my baby will be ruined, for when I saw the wound I put my hands over my face, and got it covered with blood, and I know my baby will have a bloody face.” The child came to term without a bloody face. It had, however, a well-defined spot on the left breast just below the site of exit of the ball from its father’s chest. The spot was about the size of a silver half-dollar, and had elevated edges of a bright red color, and was quite visible at the distance of one hundred feet. The authors have had personal communication with Dr. Mastin in regard to this case, which he considers the most positive evidence of a case of maternal impressions that he has ever met.


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