Society News Archive

17 March 2014
Last of the Radium Girls Dies on 1 March 2014 at the Age of 107

Mae Keane worked only one summer for Waterbury Clock Company, but she is still considered to be a radium girl—the last of the radium girls—since she actually applied radium paint to clock dials during the summer of 1924.

Keane and her coworkers at Waterbury Clock Company, all young women, were told they could paint faster and more accurately if they tipped their brushes using their lips. Of course this subjected them to internal exposure and uptake of radium.

Fortunately Keane did not like the taste and refused to tip her brush as instructed. Her boss observed her behavior and transferred her to another job at the company, probably saving her life.
Keane recalled learning of radium's deadly effects when her coworkers from that summer began to die in 1927. About 15 of the young dial painters in Waterbury died from radium poisoning during the 1920s and 1930s. Scores of women from other clock factories died later, after suffering for years from bone cancer. The case of the radium girls eventually led to federal law that placed industrial diseases under workers' compensation rules.

Enter Professor Robley Evans, past president of the Health Physics Society (HPS). The research he did at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, largely based on data from the radium girls’ exposures, enabled him in 1941 to establish the "maximum permissible body burden" for radium.  Evans' book, The Atomic Nucleus (1st edition in 1955), is one of the most notable early works on the subject and remains a collector's item, but you can access it at Today the HPS awards the Robley D. Evans Commemorative Medal in memory and honor of Professor Evans to recipients who demonstrate the extraordinary qualities exemplified by Evans for excellence in scientific achievement, interdisciplinary capabilities, the applicability of science to real-world needs of radiation safety, and insight into simple solutions of difficult problems.

With Keane's death, another important chapter in the history of radiation protection has been completed.

For more information on Keane, see the article in The New York Times by William Yardley.