Silkwood, Karen Gay (1946–1974)

By: Diana J. Kleiner

Type: Biography

Published: June 1, 1995

Updated: April 6, 2020

Karen Gay Silkwood, union activist, the daughter of William and Merle Silkwood, was born on February 19, 1946, in Longview, Texas. She was raised at Nederland and studied medical technology at Lamar State College in Beaumont on a scholarship from the Business and Professional Women's Club. In 1965 she married William Meadows, with whom she had three children. She left her husband in 1972 and went to Oklahoma City, where she was employed briefly as a clerk in a hospital before being hired as a metallography laboratory technician at the Cimarron River plutonium plant of Kerr-McGee Nuclear Corporation. She lived for a time with Drew Stephens, who introduced her to auto racing through the Sports Car Club, and soon joined the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union; she participated in the union's strike against the company. In 1974 Silkwood became the first female member of the union bargaining committee in Kerr-McGee history. On her first assignment to study health and safety issues at the plant, she discovered evidence of spills, leaks, and missing plutonium. As environmental concerns increased in the 1970s, Kerr-McGee faced litigation involving worker safety and environmental contamination, and Silkwood testified to charges before the Atomic Energy Commission that she had suffered radiation exposure in a series of unexplained incidents. On November 13, 1974, she was killed in an automobile crash while on her way to meet with an Atomic Energy Commission official and a New York Times reporter. Speculations over foul play in her death were never substantiated, but led to a federal investigation into plant security and safety, and a National Public Radio report about forty-four to sixty-six pounds of misplaced plutonium. An autopsy showed Silkwood's body had been contaminated by plutonium. Her case, which began in 1974, emphasized the hazards of nuclear energy and raised questions about corporate accountability and responsibility. According to the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, the Kerr-McGee plant had manufactured faulty fuel rods, falsified product inspection records, and risked employee safety. Eventually, Kerr-McGee closed the plant. Silkwood was the subject of a motion picture, Silkwood, released in 1984. In 1986 her family settled an $11.5 million plutonium-contamination lawsuit against Kerr-McGee for $1.38 million. Kerr-McGee did not admit liability in settling the case. Karen Silkwood was buried in Danville Cemetery, Kilgore, Texas.

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International Directory of Company Histories (Chicago: St. James Press, 1988-). Howard Kohn, Who Killed Karen Silkwood? (New York: Summit, 1981). Richard L. Rashke, The Killing of Karen Silkwood (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981).


  • Oil and Gas Industry
  • Women
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Activists

Time Periods:

  • Texas Post World War II

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Diana J. Kleiner, “Silkwood, Karen Gay,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 24, 2022,

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June 1, 1995
April 6, 2020

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