Occupational Disease and Women: From the Radium Girls to Garment Workers
by Grim Kim Kelly / March 28, 2023

“All occupational diseases start somewhere. Sometimes they have a well-known history and treatment, as with certain cancers, tuberculosis, and more common stress-related ailments and fractures. Coal miners develop pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung. Meatpacking and poultry-plant workers get repetitive stress injuries. Other occupational ailments are so specific they almost sound comical: Mad hatter’s disease, which afflicted Victorian-era hat makers who fell victim to mercury poisoning that damaged the nerves and brain (“mad as a hatter,” get it?); workers and artists who used lead-based paint and found themselves poisoned and in pain had painters’ colic; and as potters worked at their kilns, they breathed in tiny shards of silica dust, which lodged in and scarred their lungs, giving them potters’ rot. No matter what an occupational disease is called, the reality has always been uglier. Sometimes capitalism extracts its pound of flesh metaphorically, and sometimes more literally, but it’s always the workers who pay the price. Throughout history, women have faced particular occupational diseases, with a spectrum evolving across time as our employment options have expanded.

This is not an especially rosy part of Women’s History Month, but it’s important to remember what these workers were forced to endure in the name of profit — and how some organized to fight back so that future generations would not suffer the same way they did. In June 2022, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health interviewed 142 nail salon workers in New York City about their workplace conditions, and the results were grim. The workers reported a higher prevalence of reproductive health issues than the general population, including severe pain with menstruation, complications during pregnancy, and birth defects among children. “Working in a nail salon and being pregnant is very difficult for the health and well-being of each one, but [you] need to have an income,” says one worker. “Sometimes being the head of the household, it’s hard not being able to stop working, having to be in an environment like that, inhaling chemicals when you do not have the appropriate security measures.”  Thirty-nine percent of the workers interviewed said there were strong chemical odors in their salons, and a majority said the strongest smells were acetone and acrylic acid; prolonged exposure to both chemicals can irritate the skin, nose, throat, and eyes. In response to these conditions, the New York Healthy Nail Salons Coalition has been working to pass a pair of bills in New York State: A378 and S1800, the Nail Salon Minimum Standards Council Act, to establish a council to give workers a voice in how their industry is run and raise standards industry-wide.

Over 100 years ago, another group of women workers were exposed to dangerous chemicals on the job and suffered horribly as a result. You may even have heard of the so-called Radium Girls, who were the subject of a 2018 movie and a few books, too, including Kate Moore’s phenomenal The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women. In death, they became poster girls for vintage occupational disease. It started as a practical response to a fiddly workplace problem. As Moore explained in an article for BuzzFeed, during long shifts at the factory painting watch faces and military dials, the young women dipped their brushes into their paint pots and then wet the brush between their lips to sharpen the point before painting yet another itty-bitty numeral. Each time they did this, they ingested a tiny dose of poison. The magical ingredient that made those watch faces glow in the dark was radium, a radioactive element discovered in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie. The women workers — also dubbed the “Ghost Girls” — loved how the shiny radium dust in the factory made their dresses look, and would even paint the luminous substance on their teeth, Moore wrote.

The factory owners swore that radium was perfectly safe, but the workers quickly discovered how wrong they were. The main ingredient in the sparkling paint was approximately one million times more active than uranium. Workers felt agonizing pain as they succumbed to jaw necrosis. Their teeth rotted, jawbones shattered; they grew massive, cancerous bone tumors. Some of the women even began to glow in the dark. The workers knew as early as 1917 that radium was causing their health problems, but executives at the US Radium Corporation encouraged doctors to instead diagnose the women with syphilis in an effort to shame them into silence, and it suppressed a report that showed how dangerous the substance really was.  As more of their coworkers fell victim to the ravages of radium jaw, five women in the US Radium factory in Orange, New Jersey — Grace Fryer, Edna Hussman, Katherine Schaub, and sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice — decided to sue. By the time their case went to court, all five women were dying, yet US Radium did everything it could to drag out the court proceedings. The five Radium Girls ended up settling with the company in 1928. They had accomplished their goal of publicizing the dangers of radium and helped save thousands of other young women workers from horrific deaths by warning them of the dangers they faced. As Moore noted, “The radium girls’ case was one of the first in which an employer was made responsible for the health of the company’s employees,” which set an important precedent for labor laws and safety regulations to come.

Only a few years after the Radium Girls launched their public plea for justice, women workers in San Antonio battled a nasty occupational disease while also leading a historic strike. On January 31, 1938, about 12,000 pecan shellers — the vast majority of them Mexican and Mexican American women — went on strike against their employers at the Southern Pecan Shelling Company. Their major complaints were economic in nature; the company had cut their already meager pay, which then averaged $2-3 per week, causing the workers to walk out in protest. But the most dangerous part of their job wasn’t necessarily low, exploitative pay; it was the air quality, and more specifically, the pecan dust that floated through the poorly ventilated workplace and into the workers’ lungs. “They had to all sit together at this long table under very crowded conditions,” University of Texas history professor Gabriela Gonzalez told Texas Public Radio in 2018. “There was a lot of brown dust in the air from the pecan shelling that would get into the lungs. Some of these folks would end up with asthma, tuberculosis.” Tuberculosis became an endemic problem in the local population; at that time, the rate of tuberculosis-related deaths among San Antonio’s pecan shellers was almost three times the national average. During the strike, originally led by young Mexican American Communist labor organizer Emma Tenayucathe women were smeared by local politicians and attacked on the picket line by police. But the strike action resulted in a wage increase, and the workers’ union, the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America’s Pecan Workers Local 172, was officially acknowledged.

Still, the risk of tuberculosis haunted the pecan shellers until they were laid off soon after. As I wrote for The Nation, in an effort to avoid complying with the newly passed Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which would have required them to pay the workers an hourly minimum wage of 25 cents, Southern Pecan and its cohorts replaced over 10,000 union workers with pecan-shelling machines. Metal can’t cough — or protest. While some occupation-specific risks have become obsolete, respiratory diseases remain a major threat to the health of women workers. The vast majority of the worldwide garment industry’s workforce is made up of women, and they are consistently exposed to unsafe, unhygienic, and outright dangerous conditions. Like the pecan shellers in Texas, garment workers are constantly breathing in harmful material — in this case, cotton dust from the fabric they handle. In a report on the conditions experienced by garment workers in Los Angeles, the center of the US garment industry, the Garment Workers Center noted: “Garment factory workstations are commonly snowed over with a film of cotton dust, and researchers have persistently demonstrated the relationship between garment work, endotoxin exposure, and higher levels of respiratory illness, including some forms that can go undiagnosed.” In addition to asthma and bronchitis, breathing in cotton dust can also cause a worker to develop byssinosis, an age-old scourge also known as brown lung disease. It was first described in 1705 by Bernardino Ramazzini, “the Father of occupational medicine.” By the 1970s, a group of labor activists, including retired and disabled textile workers, formed the Brown Lung Association with the goal of lowering dust exposure in the region’s mills and helping sick workers get compensation.

Robert E. Botsch’s book, Organizing the Breathless Cotton Dust, Southern Politics, and the Brown Lung Association, lays out the group’s history, its partial victories, and its demise at the hands of President Ronald Reagan’s administration, which was hellbent against regulating the textile industry (or any other industry, for that matter). Under Reagan, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a federal agency tasked with ensuring the safety of America’s workforce, destroyed several films and 135,000 copies of a pamphlet about the cotton dust standard, saying that the materials were “too sympathetic” to victims. The administration also wreaked havoc on the Brown Lung Association’s funding, which doomed the organization.  In 1978, advocates for those with brown lung notched a victory: OSHA implemented a Cotton Dust Standard that lowered the amount of cotton dust that workers could be exposed to during an eight-hour shift. But Reagan’s incredibly anti-union, anti-worker administration spent its early years fighting the group.

More recently, a group of predominantly women workers who spend their workdays high above the factory floor went public with the frightening prevalence of an occupational disease in their ranks: breast cancer. In 2018, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published a report that found flight attendants exhibit a higher prevalence for cancers, including those of the breast, melanoma skin cancer, and non-melanoma skin cancer. The study identified job-related cancer risk factors such as exposure to ionizing radiation, pesticides, and other on-board chemicals, as well as circadian disruption (jet lag). In a contemporaneous study, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported that the frequency of breast cancer was 37% higher in female flight attendants than in women in the US general population, and opined that the reason could be that flight attendants tend to have fewer children and have them later in life. Said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, in a statement following the Harvard report’s release: “The lack of appropriate workplace regulations to protect flight attendants from chemical and other hazards in the cabin puts them at higher risk. The study confirms that flight attendants are at higher risk of certain cancers and it identifies relevant occupational hazards that are consistent with such risk. That is unacceptable and we won’t stop working to fix it.”  As historic and contemporary examples show, the best protection workers have from occupational diseases is the power of their voices and the collective strength that comes from organizing. If your job is making you sick, you owe it to yourself and your coworkers to speak up.”

Telling the Story of the Radium Girls, Who Died to Make Luminous Watch Dials
by Kelly Faircloth  /  May 3, 2017

“In the late 1910s—in an unnerving prologue to the atomic age—there was a brief mania for radium. The newly discovered element, with its seemingly magical radioactive properties, was hailed as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time, a marvel with the potential to cure the sick and provide benefits even to the robustly healthy. Then there were all the commercial applications, including one we don’t even think about, with our electronic devices perpetually shining in the darkness, most notably, luminous dials for watch faces. Companies like the United States Radium Corporation in Newark, New Jersey, and the Radium Dial Corporation in Ottawa, Illinois, hired fleets of working-class teenaged girls for the delicate work of covering tiny numbers with radium paint. Their technique for applying the paint: dipping the brush against the tip of their lips to create a sufficiently fine point for the work.

It was a plum job until several girls began to sicken and die in the most horrifying ways, their jaws essentially rotting inside their bodies. But even as the young women and their doctors began to piece together that their sickness must be related to their work, the companies employing them denied responsibility. The story of their fight for justice is told in Kate Moore’s new book The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, which acts as a powerful reminder about the importance of clear, strong regulations in keeping workers safe. The Radium Girls inspired outrage nationwide, and their struggles would contribute to important workplace safety reforms. Their bodies—of those who died, but also of those who survived—contributed a great deal to what we know, even to this day, about radiation poisoning. I talked to Moore about what happened to these young women and what they did about it, in spite of dogged opposition by the powerful radium industry. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

JEZEBEL: We now, obviously, recognize radium as being deadly. And not to be handled cavalierly. But how did people view radium when your book opens, at the beginning of the 1900s?
Kate Moore:It was absolutely a wonder element. Everyone was entranced by it. You look at some of the adverts and it’s hailed as this miracle worker, really. People thought that it could restore vitality to the elderly. It’s seen as this substance that might even add years to your life, if not create immortality. And, obviously, because people were so entranced by it, and thought it was so magical, it was very quickly exploited by entrepreneurs. As I discuss in the book, people had it in their eyeshadow and lipsticks and face creams, even things like house cleaner. One of the most peculiar things is this idea of drinking radioactive water, radium water, which the rich and famous would drink as a kind of health tonic. Which is just remarkable to us these days, but that is how radium was. It’s this total wonder drug that’s in absolutely everything from clothing to medical treatments and sung about on Broadway.

J: And a lot of those products, it was maybe not actually radium, right?
KM: It can’t have been in everything, because if it was so widespread, there would have been many more cases. But it was definitely in things like the cosmetics and the radioactive water and things like this highly radioactive tonic Radithor, which, I mention later in the book, is the substance which ultimately leads to radium being identified as this fatal substance that we really shouldn’t be selling to consumers as a health tonic. So I think it wasn’t in everything but it was certainly in a lot of the things.

J: One of the applications for this is watches with luminous dials that you can see in the nighttime. Who went to work as dial painters for these watches?
KM: Well, they tended to be young girls. Records show some were as young as 11, but the majority were teenagers that were 14, 15, 16 year olds. And they tended to be from working class families, often the daughters and granddaughters of immigrants. It was very much seen as the elite job for the poor working girl. The girls who got a job there were seen as really lucky. People envied them for the fact that they got to work in this very social workplace where there was a lot of camaraderie, working with radium which, as I said, is this mystical element, and the girls themselves would glow with it. I love the stories of how they would wear their good dresses to the plant so that they could get covered in this luminous dust, in this luminous paint, so that when they went out dancing the radium girls would be the ones in the nightclubs, in the speakeasies, who’d be swirling there in their shining outfits. It’s just such a wonderful vision. But of course, obviously that glow was radioactive.

J: The impression I get from your book is that the handling procedures were unfathomable to a modern reader. Just very cavalier.
KM: Absolutely. The fact that they were taught to lip point—to actually put this radioactive substance inside their mouths—is shocking. There were no warning signs. The girls did ask, is it safe? And they were assured that it was, despite the fact that people had actually died from radium poisoning, even before the first girl picked up her brush. People seem to have thought, oh it’s okay because the girls are dealing with such a small amount of radium that it won’t be harmful to them. But no one seems to have thought, okay, this is a substance that, as Pierre Curie said, burns the skin off people’s bodies, will actually kill a man if he’s left alone in a room with it. As was proved to be the case, the damage it affected inside a girl was many thousand times greater than that devastating damage that they already knew it caused externally. But as you say, there were absolutely no safety standards, they were told it was safe, and they handled it with bare hands, they put it in their mouths, they painted it on themselves, because they thought it was so safe. They’re painting mustaches on their faces and they’re decorating their teeth for a smile that glows in the dark.

J: Anybody who knows anything about radium now, you know what’s going to happen when they start doing all this. And then slowly these girls start to get sick and it’s just the mismatch between what they know and what we know is just—it’s like watching a horror movie.
KM: Yeah, it is. And some of the symptoms they suffer, they’re excruciating to read, let alone to imagine and empathize with what it must have felt like. They were literally falling apart, being killed from the inside out by this horrific, unstoppable force. Something that breaks bones without them being touched, makes their teeth fall out, causes all these ulcers, creates these horrific tumors that bloom anywhere on their body. I reference very briefly that they could spring up anywhere and obviously some of the girls in the book get them in their legs or their hips, but it was the one that said she got it on her eye that really stayed with me. You can imagine the size of these tumors, which were like grapefruits, growing out of your eye. It’s just—as you say, it’s a horror story.

1928 newspaper cartoon

J: One of the most striking details in the book, one of the first girls to get sick, Molly Maggia, in Newark, she’s actually diagnosed with syphilis. To have your employer essentially poison you and then to add insult to injury, people say you died of syphilis, it just seems especially cruel.
KM: Exactly, and you think about the context of that time, as well, to have a sexually transmitted disease, she was a young unmarried woman, and that slur haunted her and the companies used it against the women further down the line, when they are trying to fight for justice. They were using the fact that, well, Molly died of syphilis, and that obviously means she wasn’t a good woman, as it were, and so the companies are using this misdiagnosis against the girls to try and discredit them.

“Young women painting at factory of the United States Radium Corporation”

J: Were there safety precautions being taken elsewhere in the business for employees who weren’t dial painters?
KM: Yeah, that is one of the most shocking things about it, I think. Literally on the same site you have the lab workers, who were dealing with larger amounts of radium. They are wearing lead aprons, they are using ivory-tipped tongs to handle the radium, they are given enforced holidays so that they have to take a vacation every now and again so that they’re not exposed to the radium use. You have the U.S. Public Health Service issuing warnings saying radium is dangerous, everyone handling it should have a care. And then, as we’ve already talked about, the girls are handling it with bare hands, there’s no safety measures at all, and this is happening in exactly the same company. So safety precautions for some, but not for all.

J: And you talk about how they tried different ways of painting the dials that weren’t lip pointing, as it was called, but none of them were effective enough for the bottom line.
KM: Exactly. And obviously that made a difference to the girls, as well, because they were paid by the number of watches they painted, so it was in everyone’s interest—the girls and the company—to have the most efficient method. That was lip pointing. And as you say, they tried several different methods and none of them was effective, so they literally took away from the girls the things that might have enabled them to escape the lip pointing. The cloths were taken away, the water in which they dipped their brushes was taken away.

J: How do the companies react when former employees start saying, you know, my doctor says I have something that might be like phosphorus poisoning and they start getting wind of it? What do they do?
KM: They behaved in an absolutely appalling, callous way. They immediately discredited the idea, they didn’t put any stock in it whatsoever. The United States Radium Corporation in Newark obviously was so confident that there was no link that they commissioned this expert report from Harvard. But when the doctors came to say the girls are right, it is the radium, they covered it up. It’s just shocking to think about. They completely suppressed the report. They issued false documents to people that were investigating these mysterious illnesses and deaths, to say Harvard has said it’s absolutely fine, it’s not our problem, we’re not causing the problem. It was a lie. That was a complete misdirection. And, they continued to hire so-called medical experts who were employed to tell the girls that they were safe.

They completely put profits before people, basically. They were determined to protect the radium industry at all costs. And so they discredited the women publicly, through public statements, through the way that they hired private investigators to dig up dirt on them, through the way that they put out publicity via these doctors and things like that to dismiss the claims and suggest that the women were sick when they started. It was a complete catalog of callous behavior, no care for the fact that these women are being killed, no care for the fact that they are being made penniless, not only them but their parents and husbands are losing life savings and losing their houses as they try and fund medical treatment for the women. But the company, despite being incredibly profitable, will not spare them a single cent to try and help ease the conditions now the women are sick. They completely denied any link and denied all responsibility.

J: And in the case of Ottawa, they put out an ad in the local newspaper, denying it was anything but totally safe.
KM: Which, again, I think the way USRC behaved was appalling, but you could at least say well, until they commissioned the Harvard report, you could maybe weigh it both ways and say well, they didn’t know what was happening. But in Ottawa, by that time, it was medically proven that radium poisoning existed, that that had caused the dial painters’ illnesses, and yet, as you say, the company issued a full-page statement in the local paper which they repeated over several days, which they pinned up on the notice boards, which they brought to the girls’ attention, which said it was completely safe, which said that they would close the studio if there was any problem. And they were lying to the girls. At the point they issued that statement, they had already taken medical tests of the women, which they concealed from them, and those medical tests proved what was happening in Ottawa was identical to what was happening out East. And yet despite having those medical test results, they still issued that statement that said none of the women were hurt and there was never any sign of any radium poisoning in Ottawa, which was a bare-faced lie.

J: So the women start fighting back. They start going to these doctors, the doctors start piecing it together, they assemble a small number of allies who are willing to go against the radium industry. And so they start building their case and they have some successes. In contrast, tell me about what happens when Eben Byers gets sick.
KM: Yeah, it’s interesting that it’s his case, rather than the very well publicized case of the women in New Jersey, which is the one that finally gets the FTC paying attention, that gets the American Medical Journal and things like that paying attention; it’s not when these poor working class women start dying, it’s when a rich white man who’s an industrialist and a playboy dies that suddenly people think, you know, we need to do something about all these radium products that are on our shelves. What happened with him was, he broke his arm in 1927 and he started taking Radithor. Radium water, essentially.

He consumed several thousand bottles. It might even have been hundreds of thousands of bottles. As is the way with radium, you initially start thinking you have health benefits. So he’s started taking it for this broken arm, thought it was this amazing thing, so he not only consumed loads of it himself, he also urged his friends and family to take it. One of his friends also died because he had also bought all these bottles of Radithor for her, which is another tragedy, that he caused the death of one of his closest friends. And yeah, he consumed these hundreds of thousands of bottles and inevitably suffered from radium poisoning, equally in the same horrific conditions that the girls endured. His bones were eaten away by the radium. There’s that horrific headline—“The Radium Water Worked Fine until His Jaw Came Off.” And some of the details of his autopsy are quite shocking, with holes in his scull and things like that, all inflicted while he was alive. But he gave evidence on his deathbed to the FTC to say that Radithor had killed him and it was evidently proven and it was at that stage that the authorities stepped in. They removed radium from the list of approved medicines, they banned the use of Radithor and other radium tonics in 1931. But it wasn’t until that point that consumers were protected, despite the highly publicized trial of the Radium Girls in Newark in 1928. That wasn’t the point where people stepped in. It was only when the rich white man died.

J: As the case wears on, we get into the territory of the Great Depression. The Radium Dial Corporation in Ottawa, Illinois, is a moneymaking company, still doing fairly well because there’s a lot of military applications. How do their communities respond when these women start saying, you know, the company has poisoned us?
KM: Well, they’re shunned, basically. People turn their backs on them, people think they’re doing the wrong thing, and that kind of opprobrium applies to the clergy, to business leaders, to everyone in the community. Their neighbors dismiss them and shun them. And so I think what the Radium Girls did in standing up for justice and to fight is even more impressive, because they did it in the face of complete disapproval from their local communities. And yet they still fought on. And as I say, the radium companies were trying to discredit them as well. So it was partly that the Great Depression was on and people thought you shouldn’t talk out about a company that is giving us work.

But it was also the radium companies, you know, there’s the bit where they try and charge dial painter Catherine Donohue’s husband Tomwith insanity and taking him to court for getting into fistfight with the man who had essentially overseen his wife’s inevitable murder. So you had all those tensions, as well, brewing. Ottawa’s a tiny town, so this really was pitting the women against everyone else surrounding them. And I think one of the most shocking things in my research was reading questionnaires that had been filled in in the 1970s, there was one man in particular who had worked with the Radium Girls in the 1920s and 1930s, and he said then that he still didn’t believe that they had died of radium poisoning. He still thought that it was all a bit of a fix and fit-up and the companies weren’t to blame at all. And I thought that was shocking.

J: I mean it’s especially fascinating when you consider it’s not even that these women get sick and die—their medical care bankrupts entire families. Right?
KM: They’re losing houses. They’re completely bereft. They’re penniless.
J: Eventually, the legal tide turns and they start to get some settlements and some judgements. But does anybody actually make any real money off of this in terms of damages?
KM: No, is the short answer. I mean, the generous settlement was the one in 1928, which was when it had the most media coverage and people were up in arms about it. And the company very carefully decided to settle rather than wait for a judgement that looked as if it was going to go against them. So it was those five women who got the lump sum of $10,000. It’s okay, but when you consider the amount of medical costs that they had, it isn’t a lot of damages. But they were the luckiest in terms of what they received. The Ottawa women only had $10,000 in total to share between them because of the way that their legal case unfolded. I think in some ways it was a kind of a moral victory and for the protection of the workers that they were fighting, because the money just wasn’t there.

J: The book is called the The Radium Girls, and you take this very personal approach to the story. And you really tell the story via the women themselves. Why did you decide to do it that way?
KM: I was really surprised that no one had ever done it that way before. There were two other excellent books about the Radium Girls by Dr. Ross Mullner and Claudia Clark, who look at different angles on the story. Claudia Clark’s book is about occupational health reform, legislation and so on. Dr. Ross Mullner’s book is more generally about radium and the girls’ story is a chapter in amongst everything else that he’s talking about, in terms of mining and the Curies and the Eben Byers case and that sort of thing. And for me, what was compelling about the story was what these women suffered.

And it was very much that they had done this remarkable thing, standing up against these incredibly powerful corporations, standing up against the face of their communities, battling for justice, even though they knew that they themselves were going to die. They didn’t lie down and take it quietly. They stood up and they fought for justice. And I just thought they were so extraordinary, and it was wrong that we don’t know their names and no one has ever traced their stories before—the individual tragedies that they feel. I think it’s really important to put a human face and a human experience behind the history that we see. Even the headlines we see today when we read about environmental damage or scandals. I think it’s only when you know that this was the person’s name, this is what their hopes were, that were then thwarted by what happened to them, this is how their families suffered. I think it’s only then that you can truly appreciate what the human tragedy is, and so that’s why I wanted to write it in the way I have done, because I want the women, the girls themselves, to be remembered.”

How Important Is Lead Poisoning to Becoming a Legendary Artist?
by  Olga Khazan  /   November 25, 2013

“In 1713, Italian physician Bernardinus Ramazzini described in his De Morbis Artificum Diatriba a mysterious set of symptoms he was noticing among artists: “Of the many painters I have known, almost all I found unhealthy … If we search for the cause of the cachectic and colorless appearance of the painters, as well as the melancholy feelings that they are so often victims of, we should look no further than the harmful nature of the pigments…” He was one of the first to make the connection between paint and artists’ health, but it would take centuries for painters to switch to less-harmful materials, even as medicine gradually clued into the bodily havoc “saturnism” could wreak. The 1834 London Medical and Surgical Journal describes sharp stomach pains occurring in patients with no other evidence of intestinal disease, thus leading the authors to suspect that this “painter’s colic” was a “nervous affection” of the intestines that occurs when lead “is absorbed into the system.”

Paints weren’t the only source of lead overdose in past centuries, though. Through the 1500s, lead was a common sweetener in wine, in the form of “litharge,” causing periodic outbreaks of intestinal distress throughout Europe. Occasionally, lead was even used as a medicine; the 11th-century Persian physician Avicenna’s Canon mentioned its usefulness in treating diarrhea. In the Middle Ages, lead could be found in makeup, chastity belts, and spermicides. Though typesetters, tinkers, and drinkers of lead-poisoned wine fell victim to saturnism, the disease was perhaps most widespread among those who worked with paint. The symptoms of this “colic” ranged, but they often included a “cadaverous-looking” pallor, tooth loss, fatigue, painful stomach aches, partial paralysis, and gout, a buildup of uric acid that causes arthritis—all of which resemble the symptoms of chronic lead poisoning seen today. In fact, the ailments that many renowned artists experienced didn’t just prompt their gloomy works—they might have been caused by them, too.

Lead poisoning among historical figures is famously difficult to prove, in part because the condition was not known or recognized in most of their lifetimes. We can’t know whether the delusions, depression, and gout many Renaissance masters experienced can be attributed to their paint or just their physiologies. Julio Montes-Santiago, an internist in Vigo, Spain, recently evaluated the existing evidence of lead poisoning among artists across five centuries for a new paper in Progress in Brain Research. Based on the available descriptions of their materials and symptoms, history’s most famous sufferers of lead poisoning, he argues, likely included Michelangelo Buonarroti, Francisco Goya, Candido Portinari, and possibly Vincent Van Gogh.

“detail from The School of Athens 1509”

Michelangelo, for example, was painted into Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens, with a deformed, likely arthritic knee, according to the author. That, combined with letters from Michelangelo in which he complains of passing stones in his urine, suggests to Montes-Santiago that he might have suffered from paint- and wine-induced gout. Many art historians think Van Gogh might have suffered from epilepsy and bipolar disorder, but Montes-Santiago argues that lead poisoning likely contributed to his delusions and hallucinations. The artist was known to have sucked on his brushes, possibly because lead has a sweet aftertaste. Meanwhile, other scholars have disputed the lead poisoning hypothesis, arguing that the root of Van Gogh’s distress was porphyria, malnutrition, and absinthe abuse. Goya occasionally applied his paints directly to the canvas with his fingers, which Montes-Santiago argues is one reason he experienced problems like constipation, trembling hands, weakness of the limbs, blindness, vertigo, and tinnitus. In his famous 1820 self-portrait, Goya painted himself being embraced by his doctor.

“A self-portrait of Goya being attended to by his doctor, 1820”

Musicians Beethoven and Handel also might have been afflicted with saturnism, but not because of the nature of their craft. Samples of Beethoven’s hair examined by the Pfeiffer Research Center in Illinois showed high lead concentrations, possibly as a result of the “high content of lead in the Hungarian wines that the musician drank, the repeated biting of his lead pencils, and lead-rich medicines prescribed by his doctor,” Montes-Santiago notes. The best evidence for lead poisoning, though, exists for Candido Portinari, the 20th-century Brazilian painter of massive, neorealist murals. Portinari used paints that were similar to those used by Van Gogh and was diagnosed with saturnism after digestive hemorrhages prompted a hospitalization in 1954. He was advised by doctors to switch materials, and he tried, but he ultimately returned to his old paints. He died at age 58 in 1962 after a bout of severe digestive bleeding. Though some of the earlier artists may not have known about the connection between their materials and their health, Portinari certainly must have.

“Discovery of the Land” by Portinari, 1941

By the mid-1800s, the health impacts of lead had become clear. An 1836 book notes, for example, “The business of a Painter or Varnisher is generally, and not without reason, considered an unhealthy one. Many of the substances which he is necessarily in the habit of employing are of a nature to do injury both to the nerves and the inside.” According to Montes-Santiago, though, Portinari seemed to strongly prefer working with the lead paints, reportedly saying “They forbid me to live,” about the doctors who urged him to give them up.”



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