PHOTO:The Maggia Family in the 1920s, Alerio and Antoinette, parents, center, with Irma, left, Josephine, right. Standing in rear are Irma, Albina, Louise, Amelia, Clara and Quinta
One of the saddest stories coupled with great inventions and discoveries is one that occurred in New Jersey, after the discovery of radium by Madame Marie Curry. It’s the story of the Radium Girls of Orange, NJ. And even though the story is filled with grief for those girls, and others like them as well as their families, it is also an important part of the story of the first Medical Examiner in Essex County, Dr. Harrison Martland, for whom the 19th century Newark City Hospital was named. The former hospital is now a Medical Center and part of Rutgers University.
The sad part of the story started in the 1920s and took place in Orange where the United States Radium Corporation ran a small watch factory at the corner of Alden and High streets. They were one of the few companies at that time that hired women, and their pay was comparatively good, so it wasn’t hard to find help. The ladies were all assembly line workers, and it was their job to paint the tiny numbers on watch faces with luminous paint....the paint made the numbers glow in the dark, thanks to the minute amounts of radioactivity it contained. The work had to be done with tiny camel’s hair paint brushes, and the female workers were instructed to lick the tips of the brushes every so often to keep the tip straight and pointed. They were advised there was no danger. Indeed. At the same time others were touting the medical benefits of radium, so what could go wrong? Enter Dr. Martland, who didn’t believe the research the company was putting out and conducted his own tests, even exhuming at least one body to verify his conclusions. His work was complete enough and early enough to later enable the Atomic Energy Commission to carry on atomic development in safety. But for the Radium girls, it was too late.
Many of the girls suffered excruciating pain, even years after they had left their jobs. Some had such deterioration of their jaws, they had to be removed; others had teeth that simply fell out; many had severe bone problems throughout their bodies, many were permanently disfigured, some lost babies through still birth, others lost limbs, and many died young. Dr. Martland had a personal conviction the radium on the tongues of the female workers was connected to their awful physical problems. Coupled with the fact that the founder and technical director of the company Dr. Sabin von Sochocky continued to say there was no wrong with the element in spite of a former chemist at the plant dying from high levels of radiation, Dr. Martland worked with Sochocky to design a Geiger type counter. When one of the Radium Girls, who was dying at the hospital, breathed into it, the counter registered a high degree of radiation. Sochocky also breathed into it and was stunned to see how high his own radiation level registered.
But back to the female workers. Among these group were six sisters, the daughters of Italian immigrants, Alerio and Antoinette Maggia, and, like their parents, they were hardworking, industrious, and proud to be first generation Americans. Their parents had raised them with love, respect for their country, and pride and love in family. They worked side by side at the watch factory. Their youngest sister, Josephine, was too young in the early 1920s to have a job; the second youngest, Irma, only worked there a brief time. The older girls, Albina, Louise, Amelia, Clara and Quinta, all suffered the devastation, pain and agony of radiation poisoning and died young. At the time when the US Radium Corporation was still denying that the lip licking brushes caused the workers to ingest dangerous amounts of radium, the death certificate of one of the girls was listed as syhilis, an attempt to bring even further shame on hard working and well brought up young women.
So where is the connection between this horrible event form the 1920s in Orange, NJ and the Bayshore?
Rose Penta, former owner with her husband, former Highlands Councilman the late Luke Penta, is the daughter of Irma Maggia. And after her mom, Irma, died, and medical scientists were still looking into the causes of death of women who had worked at the watch company, Rose was contacted and asked for permission to exhume her mother’s body so further tests could be run. Rose’s mom died of cancer, believed to have been the result of the watch painting days of the 1920s.
Rose, now a nonagenarian with the same vitality, energy and sense of duty that has been her trademark throughout her life, sadly recalls the grief generations of her family have faced because of the US Radium Corporation. But ever the optimist, she still points to the advances made from discoveries that have come about in large part because of the agonies of the generation before her and the willingness of her family, and others like them, to share their grief with the medical industry.