Born: Feb. 19, 1946 in Longview, Texas
Died: Nov. 13, 1974
Karen Silkwood was raised in Nederland, Texas. After graduating from high school, she studied medical technology at Lamar State College of Technology in Beaumont. In 1972 Silkwood moved to Oklahoma and got a job as a chemical technician at the Kerr-McGee plutonium fuels production plant in Crescent, Oklahoma.
She soon became an active member of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) where she was an advocate for plant safety. During the week prior to her death, she was reportedly gathering evidence for the Union to support her claim that Kerr-McGee was negligent in maintaining plant safety, and at the same time, she herself was the victim of a number of unexplained exposures to plutonium.
On November 13, 1974, Silkwood had an appointment with a union staff representative and a New York Times investigative reporter. At this meeting, she was to provide documentation to the reporter, showing that her charges that Kerr-McGee had been negligent in quality control and had falsified records were justified. Silkwood was on her way to this meeting when she died in what seems to have been a one-car crash. The documents she was to have turned over to the reporter were never found.
Since her death, her story has achieved worldwide fame as the subject of many books, magazine and newspaper articles, and even a major motion picture. She is still considered a martyr by labor union activists around the world. Her estate filed a civil suit against Kerr-McGee for the alleged inadequate health and safety program that led to Silkwood's exposure to plutonium. In 1986, 12 years after her death, the suit was headed for retrial when it was finally settled out of court for $1.3 million.