Dr Sabin Arnold von Sochocky (1883 – 1928)
The latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame is von Sochocky who was an American citizen although was born in the Ukraine. As well as being the victim of his own cleverness he was the cause of the painful demise of many others as we shall see.
One of the problems with human sight compared with many other creatures inhabiting the Earth is that it is pretty ineffective in the dark. We need artificial aid to see where we are going, what we are doing and what is around us. It is hard for us to contemplate these days but until the late 19th century the human existence was pretty dark once the sun went down. Of course, candles made some difference but the light thrown out by them was pretty meagre and the by-products of smoke and smell (from the cheaper tallow candles) were unpleasant. The introduction of, first, gas lighting and then electric lighting was revolutionary and life-changing but was a relatively expensive solution to the inability to see at night. The race was on to find a cheaper and effective alternative.
The Curie’s experimentation with radium seemed to offer a solution. Returning to Paris in 1902 with a gift of radium salt crystals from Pierre and Marie, William Hammer started a series of experiments combining them with glue and zinc sulphide to produce an iridescent paint. It could be applied to almost anything and the result was astonishing – you might say hair-raising or jaw-dropping. Whatever was painted glowed in the dark.
Our friend, Sochocky was the first to see the commercial potential of this breakthrough. He improved its qualities and production methods so that it was capable of being mass-marketed and in 1915 with some colleagues founded the Radium Luminous Materials Co in Orange, New Jersey. It later changed its name to the U.S Radium Corporation. The paint was called Undark, perhaps an unwitting reference to its zombie like qualities, and whilst the marketing puff was up-front about the presence of radium, it reassuringly stated that the substance was present in “such minute quantities that it is absolutely harmless”.
Business boomed and the company had a commission from the US military to produce watches and instrumentation with luminous dials. The factory employed over 100 workers, mainly young girls on piece-work, receiving the princely sum of 1.5 cents an item. Because the paint was odourless and colourless the girls were encouraged to dip their paint brush into the substance, then put the tip of the brush into their mouth to form a point (and thereby ingest a minute dose of radium each time) and then apply it to the paint.
During the early 1920s the first of a rash of mysterious illness and bone injury amongst the dial painters began to occur. By 1924 the situation was so worrying – 9 girls had died by then – that the medical examiner of Essex County began to investigate the factory, its production methods and measure the radioactivity present in the dial painters’ bodies. His findings, published in 1925, incontrovertibly linked their bone disease and aplastic anaemias with the radium component in the paint. Inevitably the matter led to litigation as employees or the relatives of former employees sought compensation. The first case concerned Grace Fryer which was settled in her favour in 1928. Nevertheless, the company didn’t stop the practice of hand painting dials until 1948.
The only bright spot to this sorry tale is that Sochocky himself succumbed to consequences of radium poisoning in 1928. During his illness his teeth dropped out and his fingers turned black and he was only able to prolong his life by taking frequent holidays at high altitude – a well-known cure for anaemia.
Sabin von Sochocky, for being the architect of your own demise you are a worthy inductee.
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