February 19, 2020
Day 50 of 366
February 19th is the fiftieth day of the year. It is Armed Forces Day in Mexico.
Historical items of note:
- In 1473, Nicolaus Copernicus, the Polish mathematician and astronomer, was born.
- In 1674, England and the Netherlands ended the Third Anglo-Dutch War by signing the Treaty of Westminster. One provision of that agreement transferred the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam to England. The British renamed it New York.
- In 1878, Thomas Edison patented the phonograph.
- In 1940, singer-songwriter and producer Smokey Robinson was born.
- In 1953, the State of Georgia became the first to approve a literature censorship board in the United States.
- In 1960, Bill Keane’s Family Circus premiered.
- In 1963, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published. It reawakened the feminist movement in the United States.
- In 1967, Benicio del Toro was born.
- In 2004, Millie Bobbie Brown was born.
In 1946, Karen Silkwood was born.
Karen Silkwood was a chemical technician and labor union activist who worked at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site in Oklahoma. After being hired at the site, she joined the local Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union and took part in a strike at the plant. Afterward, she was elected to the union’s bargaining committee, becoming the first woman to achieve that position at the plant.
During her assignment to investigate health and safety issues, she discovered what appeared to be numerous violations of health regulations, including exposure of workers to contamination, faulty respiratory equipment and improper storage of samples. Additionally, she believed that the lack of sufficient shower facilities could increase the risk of employee contamination. She eventually testified to the Atomic Energy Commission about her concerns.
Months after her testimony, she performed a routine self-check and found that her body contained nearly 400 times the legal limit for plutonium contamination. She was decontaminated on-site and sent home with a kit to collect bodily samples for later analysis. The odd part was that plutonium was discovered inside her gloves, but the gloves were intact, suggesting that the contamination had come from somewhere else.
The next morning, she tested positive again despite having only done administrative paperwork in the interim and was more vigorously decontaminated in what has become colloquially known as the “Silkwood shower”. The next day, she was tested positive again, and a health physics team followed her home and found plutonium on several surfaces. Her home was intensively decontaminated and Silkwood, her boyfriend, and her roommate were sent to Los Alamos National Laboratory for in-depth testing.
Questions arose about the incident and Silkwood eventually decided to go public with her claims against the site, including extensive documentation. While driving to meet with New York Times journalist David Burnham, she died in a car crash under unclear circumstances. The documents were missing from her car and the police report stated that she fell asleep at the wheel. Rumors suggested that drugs were involved, though forensic evidence at the scene pointed toward foul play.
Her family sued Kerr-McGee for the plutonium contamination, and the company settled out of court for $1.38 million while not admitting liability.
Karen Silkwood’s story was told in the Academy Award-nominated film Silkwood from 1983, in which she was portrayed by Meryl Streep.
The Thing About Today is an effort to look at each day of 2020 with respect to its historical context.
For more creativity with a critical eye, visit Creative Criticality.