The women radium dial painters as experimental subjects (1920–1990) or what counts as human experimentation

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Abstract

The case of women radium dial painters — women who tipped their brushes while painting the dials of watches and instruments with radioactive paint — has been extensively discussed in the medical and historical literature. Their painful and abhorrent deaths have occupied the interest of physicians, lawyers, politicians, military agencies, and the public. Hardly any discussion has concerned, however, the use of those women as experimental subjects in a number of epidemiological studies that took place from 1920 to 1990. This article addresses the neglected issue of human experimentation in relation to the radium dial painters. Although women’s medical examinations have been classified as simple, routine measurements of radiation burden on the body and presented as a great offer to humanity, for more than fifty years those women had been repeatedly used as experimental subjects without proper consent. I argue that through this case it becomes obvious that the issue of defining what counts as human experimentation shifts from an epistemological to a serious ethical and political question, concerning the making of scientific knowledge while issues of gender related to this process are also discussed.