This bit of insubordination may have cost her a well-paid (a reported 8 cents per dial; about $1.00 today) summer factory job in 1926, but it probably saved her life. Back then, Mae's workplace friend Elsie gave her some frightening advice: never have a tooth pulled, because the wound would never heal.
"It was kept a secret in my young age and we didn't know what it was all about," Keane said. "People were dying and we didn't know why." Despite a history of health difficulties likely linked to her radiation exposure as a young woman, 105-year old Ms. Keane is the last surviving "Radium Girl."
For years, Middlebury, Vermont high school freshman Tim Cohn had been interested in his aunt Mae's accounts of working at the Waterbury Clock Company. Now Cohn's research on his aunt, her experiences, and the attempt to cover up what happened to the Radium Girls have made him a finalist in the National History Day contest, to be held at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md. this June 10-14. Congratulations, Tim - and best wishes to your aunt Mae!
UPDATE: Tim Cohn was awarded the bronze medal in the Senior Individual Exhibit category at National History Day. Our sincere congratulations!
Here is a small sampling of links dedicated to the remarkable Radium Girls story; not just those who worked at the Waterbury plant, but those at locations around the nation in the 1920's and 30's.
- History Day in Connecticut: check out the May 2 Facebook post for a photo of Tim Cohn and Ms. Mae Keane
- Waterbury Republican-American, Sunday May 13, 2012: "Family Story Becomes Winning Project"
- Hartford Courant (CT) story from January 2004 on the "Radium Girls," featuring an interview with Ms. Keane.
- Hartford Courant story from October 2004 on "Hot Licks," a dance by the Judy Dworin Performance Ensemble commemorating the "Radium Girls"' experience [PDF link].
- "The Case of the Living Dead Women," by Len Grossman - an account of radium exposure among the employees of the Radium Dial Company of Ottawa, Illinois
- ChicagoMag.com: The Radium Girls of Ottawa, Illnois (Includes video)
- "The Radium Girls" by Bill Kovarik, recounts the story of the lawsuit against the U.S. Radium Company of Orange, New Jersey, and of Illinois' own "Radium Girls."
- VOA News, September 2011: "Radium Girls Remembered for the Role in Shaping Labor Law"
- Amherst Bulletin (Daily Hampshire News), April 2012: "Arena Civic Theater Shines Light on History of the 'Radium Girls'"