May 28th, 1906 to March 1st, 2014
May 28th, 1906 to March 1st, 2014
"Mae Keane, Whose Job Brought Radium to Her Lips, Dies at 107"
March 13th, 2014
The New York Times
Like other young women working at the Waterbury Clock Company in the 1920s, Mae Keane was taught a specific technique for applying paint to the numbers on wristwatch dials: Put the tip of the tiny brush between your lips to shape the bristles into the finest of points.
It was not regular paint. It was made with a relatively new material that most people did not know much about, something called radium. Watchmakers liked it because it glowed in the dark. Later, it became clear that it killed.
Had Mrs. Keane stayed longer, she might have become one of the many sad stories involving the so-called radium girls, the hundreds of young women who worked with radium paint in factories early in the 20th century. Many were still in their 20s when they died of cancer from radiation poisoning. Others succumbed later, and to other health problems related to radium exposure. Many lost their teeth; some also lost their jawbones. They did not necessarily know why.
But Mrs. Keane did not like the taste and texture of the paint or the tedium of the work. She was not very good at it, either. Her bosses were not impressed. After a few months, she was gone. It was the summer of 1924. She was 18. Within two decades she had lost all her teeth.
Yet Mrs. Keane was a survivor who later conquered colon and breast cancer. She was 107 when she died on March 1 in Middlebury, Conn., perhaps the last living participant in a particularly dark moment in American industrial history.
By the end of the 1920s, dozens of women had died in plants in Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey. The dangers of radium were becoming more widely understood. New federal safeguards were put in place, in part under pressure from dial painters who worked together to demand compensation and better protection. The practice of “lip pointing” was stopped.
Decades later, scientists dug up bones of the dead and found they were radioactive. Books, poems and at least one play have been written and documentary films have been made about the radium girls. Many years after the Waterbury Watch Company closed, radiation was still present at the site.
“She didn’t know it was bad for her,” Mrs. Keane’s niece Patricia Cohn, who confirmed the death, said in an interview. “She said it was gritty, and she didn’t like putting it into her mouth.”
Mae Keane was born Mary O’Donnell on May 28, 1906, in Waterbury, the daughter of Irish immigrants who gave her the nickname Mae. Her father, William, was a foreman in a Waterbury factory. Her mother, the former Catherine Lynch, worked as a receptionist in a doctor’s office.
She graduated from Wilby High School and, after leaving the watch company, spent many years doing administrative work at the Plume & Atwood Manufacturing Company, which made brass lamps and the parts for them.
Mrs. Keane’s husband of 40 years, Timothy Keane, a police detective, died in 1981. They had no children. She lived the last 13 years with Ms. Cohn’s family. Ms. Cohn’s son, Timothy, a student at Pomperaug High School, won a bronze medal at the 2012 National History Day Contest for his project, a photography exhibition called “Radium Girls: Tragedy Leading to Industrial Reform.”
Painting watch dials was promoted as ideally suited for delicate female hands. Mrs. Keane had expected it to be easy work, and the pay was good: a few cents for each dial she completed.
“We were young,” she told The Hartford Courant in 2004. “We didn’t know anything about the paint.”
"Radium Girls"...a tragedy