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New York Tribune via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
New York Tribune via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

15 Glowing Facts About the History of Radiation

New York Tribune via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
New York Tribune via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation, written by Georgetown professor of radiation medicine Timothy Jorgensen and released this month, is a fascinating account of how radiation has both helped and harmed our health. While much of the book is concerned with explaining radiation risks so that consumers can better understand them (one takeaway fact: airport scanners expose you to less radiation than waiting in line for them does), it’s also full of intriguing, if occasionally horrifying, facts and anecdotes about the history of the "strange glow" that has transformed our lives.

1. X-RAYS MOVED FROM THE LAB TO THE HOSPITAL IN RECORD TIME.

Montreal resident Toulson Cunning had an unfortunate Christmas Day in 1895: For reasons Jorgensen does not relate, Cunning was shot in the leg. The injury occurred just a few weeks after German professor Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen noticed a faint glow on a fluorescent screen in his lab while experimenting with cathode rays and a glass vacuum tube. Roentgen’s first paper on the subject, “On a New Kind of Rays,” was published in a local journal on December 28, 1895, and was rapidly picked up in the both the scientific and popular press. A professor at McGill University in Montreal soon replicated the experiment, and after hearing about it, Cunning’s doctor asked for an x-ray of his patient's leg. After a 45-minute exposure, the image was still somewhat faint, yet clear enough for surgeons to see the bullet and remove it—thus saving Cunning’s leg from amputation barely six weeks after Roentgen’s discovery. As Jorgensen tells it, “Never before or since has any scientific discovery moved from bench to patient bedside so quickly.”

2. THE STANDARD UNIT OF RADIOACTIVITY IS NAMED FOR ITS ACCIDENTAL DISCOVERER.

Henri Becquerel. Paul Nadar via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Henri Becquerel, his father, and his grandfather were all chairs of the Department of Physics at the Musee d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, and all conducted experiments on fluorescence and phosphorescence—you might call it their family obsession. The men had even amassed a vast collection of fluorescent minerals to use in their studies.

Becquerel was intrigued Roentgen’s discovery of x-rays, and wondered if any of the minerals in his collection might emit them. He tried a series of experiments in which he sprinkled flakes of various fluorescent materials onto photographic film wrapped in black paper, leaving them outside in the sun to stimulate the fluorescence. To his surprise, the only one that seemed to expose the film at all—whether there was any sunlight or not—was uranium sulfate, which left a faint impression of its granules. Becquerel soon discovered that this property of uranium didn’t have anything to do with x-rays or even fluorescence: It was uranium’s own special type of radiation. By trying to understand fluorescence, Becquerel had discovered radioactivity. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, alongside Marie and Pierre Curie, for his discovery, and the standard international unit for measuring radioactivity is today named the becquerel in his honor.

3. POLONIUM IS NAMED FOR MARIE CURIE’S HOMELAND, POLAND.

Marie Curie's notebook containing notes of experiments, etc. on radioactive substances. Image: Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

The Curies eventually outstripped Henri Becquerel when it came to radioactivity research—to start, they were the ones who introduced the term “radioactive." The pair showed that uranium ore contained at least two substances more radioactive than uranium itself, both previously unknown to science—radium, derived from the Latin for ray, and polonium, named for Marie’s native Poland, then under Russian control.

The Curies would go on to work with so much radiation (and make so many key discoveries) that there was a concern after Marie's death from aplastic anemia in 1934 that her skeleton might be radioactive. When tested during a reinterment in 1995, it wasn't, although her papers still are. (Pierre had died much earlier, in 1906, after an accident with a very non-radioactive horse cart.)

4. MANY OF THE PIONEERS OF RADIATION RESEARCH WERE PRETTY CONFUSED.

Many of the earliest discoverers of radiation and radioactivity didn’t have a great understanding of how their discoveries worked. For example, Becquerel believed for a while that radioactivity was a type of fluorescence, while Marie Curie proposed that uranium and similar elements could absorb x-rays and release them later as radioactivity. Even Guglielmo Marconi, awarded the 1909 Nobel Prize for his work on radio waves, “freely admitted, with some embarrassment, that he had no idea how he was able to transmit radio waves across the entire Atlantic Ocean,” according to Jorgensen. Classical physics said that radio waves shouldn’t have been able to go nearly that far; it was only later that scientists understood that radio waves can cross the globe because they bounce off a reflective layer in the upper atmosphere.

5. RADON WAS THE FIRST RADIOACTIVE ISOTOPE LINKED TO CANCER IN HUMANS.

Radon, produced when radium decays, was first proposed as the cause of lung cancer among German miners in 1913. World War I interrupted further study of the subject, however, and the link between radon and cancer was only accepted after a thorough review of 57 studies published up until 1944.

6. THE PUBLIC LEARNED ABOUT THE DANGERS OF RADIOACTIVE SUBSTANCES THANKS TO THE “RADIUM GIRLS.”

"Radium Girls" at work. Wikimedia // Public Domain

In the 1910s, young women in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Illinois who painted glow-in-the-dark watch dials with radium-laced paint became known as the “Radium Girls.” Perhaps ironically, the wristwatches were specifically marketed to men, who until then had been more likely to wear pocket watches. The glow-in-the-dark dial was popular among soldiers, and thus seen as adding a touch of manliness.

Unfortunately, the women who painted the dials frequently sharpened their paintbrushes by twisting the fibers in their mouths, ingesting small bits of radium as they worked. According to Jorgensen, over the course of a year workers would have consumed about 300 grams of paint. Not surprisingly, the workers began dying of cancer and bone disease, and “radium jaw” became a new type of occupational disease. The watch companies were forced to pay out thousands of dollars in settlements, and the girls began wearing protective gear, including fume hoods and rubber gloves. Sharpening their brushes in their mouths was also banned. But it was too late for some: “By 1927, more than 50 women had died as a direct result of radium paint poisoning," according to NPR.

7. BUT RADIUM WAS STILL SOLD AS A HEALTH TONIC.

Radium ad from 1916. Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Despite the press the Radium Girls received, radium remained on the market as a health-giving tonic. One noted victim was industrialist and amateur golf champion Eben McBurney Byers, who was prescribed Radithor (radium dissolved in water) by his doctor. He proceeded to drink about 1400 bottles of it over the next several years, losing much of his jaw and developing holes in his skull as a result. He died in 1932, about five years after starting his Radithor habit, and now rests at a Pittsburgh cemetery in a lead-lined coffin—reportedly to protect visitors from radiation exposure.

8. THE MANHATTAN PROJECT RAN A SECRET RADIATION BIOLOGY PROGRAM CALLED THE "CHICAGO HEALTH DIVISION."

When the Manhattan Project began in 1939, the effects of radiation on human health still weren't well understood. Staff modeled their protective fume hoods and ventilation systems on the ones used to protect the Radium Girls, but to bolster their knowledge, they also started a new radiation biology research program, code-named the Chicago Health Division. The impetus for the project came from its own physicists, who were concerned about their life expectancy.

9. YOU CAN THANK A RADAR ENGINEER FOR YOUR MICROWAVE.

Raytheon Radarange aboard the NS Savannah nuclear-powered cargo ship, installed circa 1961. Image by Acroterion via Acroterion via Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Radar, which often uses microwave signals, was developed in secrecy by several nations in the years before WWII. In the U.S., a secret lab at MIT worked on improving radar deployment, and contracted with a company called Raytheon to produce magnetrons (microwave signal generators) for their labs.

One day, a Raytheon engineer working on the project, Percy Spencer, noticed that a candy bar in his pocket had completely melted while he was working with a radar apparatus. Intrigued, he focused a microwave beam on a raw egg, which exploded. He later realized he could also use the microwaves to make popcorn. It wasn’t long before Raytheon lawyers filed the patent for the first microwave oven, which they called the Radarange.

10. EXPOSED X-RAY FILM HELPED HIROSHIMA SURVIVORS FIGURE OUT THEY'D BEEN HIT WITH AN ATOMIC BOMB.

When the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the populace had no idea what kind of bomb had hit them. Doctors at the Red Cross hospital got their first clue when they realized that all the x-ray film in the facility had been exposed by the radiation. (It would be a week before the public learned the true nature of the weapon that had devastated their city.) With no need for the exposed film, hospital staff used the x-ray envelopes to hold the ashes of cremated victims.

11. HIROSHIMA AND NAGASAKI SURVIVORS HAVE BEEN KEY TO UNDERSTANDING RADIATION’S EFFECT ON HEALTH.

In the months after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in 1945, scientists realized the events provided an important opportunity to study the effects of radiation on human health. President Harry Truman directed the National Academy of Sciences to begin a long-term study of the bomb’s survivors, which became the Life Span Study (LSS). The LSS has been tracking the medical history of 120,000 atomic bomb survivors and control subjects from 1946 up until the present. Jorgensen calls the LSS “the definitive epidemiological study on the effects of radiation on human health.”

Among other results, the LSS has provided an important metric—the lifetime cancer risk per unit dose of ionizing radiation: 0.005% per millisievert. In other words, a person exposed to 20 millisieverts of radiation—the amount in a whole body spiral CT scan, according to Jorgensen—has a 0.1% increased lifetime risk of contracting cancer (20 millisieverts X 0.005% = 0.1%).

12. THE U.S.’S LARGEST NUCLEAR WEAPONS TEST INCLUDED A MAJOR MISTAKE.

The Castle Bravo blast. US Department of Energy via Wikimedia // Public domain

On March 1, 1954, the U.S. conducted its largest-ever nuclear weapons test, code-named Castle Bravo, at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The hydrogen bomb that exploded—nicknamed “Shrimp”—released more than twice the energy scientists had predicted: 15,000 KT of TNT instead of the anticipated 6000 KT. According to Jorgensen, the extra punch was thanks to an error in the calculations of physicists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, who failed to understand that two, not one, of the lithium deuteride isotopes would contribute to the fusion reaction. The mistake, combined with some unreliable winds, produced fallout in a much larger zone than expected. Among other effects, it contaminated a Japanese fishing boat, Lucky Dragon #5, which led to a diplomatic crisis between Japan and the U.S.

13. THE BIKINI ATOLL WAS RESETTLED—TO DISASTROUS EFFECT—THANKS TO A VERY BAD TYPO.

Before the Castle Bravo tests, the inhabitants of the Bikini Atoll were asked to relocate to another nearby atoll for a project that would benefit all of humankind (according to archaeologists, this ended close to 4000 years of habitation on the atoll). The island of Bikini wasn’t resettled until 1969, until what Jorgensen calls a “blue-ribbon panel” estimated that their risk of radioactivity exposure would be low enough to be safe. Sadly, the panel based its advice on a report with a misplaced decimal point, which underestimated the islanders’ coconut consumption a hundredfold.

The problem wasn’t discovered until 1978, when the islanders were evacuated again. Many have suffered from thyroid and other cancers, and the U.S. has paid more than $83 million in personal injury awards to the Marshall Islanders since then; according to Jorgensen, however, millions remain unpaid, and many of the claimants died while waiting for their settlements.

14. A PENNSYLVANIA HOME HAD ONE OF THE HIGHEST RADON CONCENTRATION LEVELS EVER RECORDED.

In 1984, Stanley Watras repeatedly set off the radiation detector alarms at the nuclear power plant where he worked. Investigators eventually realized his work wasn’t the problem, and traced the contamination via his clothes to his home, which was discovered to be sitting on a massive uranium deposit (radon is produced as part of the uranium decay chain). The Watras family house was found to contain about 20 times as much radon gas as a typical uranium mine. The discovery led the U.S Environmental Protection Agency to survey other homes, and to discover that many in America had hazardous levels of radioactive gas.

The Watras family was told they were seven times more likely to die of lung cancer in the next 10 years than the average person, and that their young children might not live until adulthood. The risk proved to be overestimated: 30 years later, none of them have died of lung cancer. The house was later used as an EPA laboratory for radon remediation technologies, and the family was able to move back in. Stanley and his wife still live there, according to Jorgensen.

15. THE RISK OF NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS HAS BEEN DIFFICULT TO ESTIMATE.

In the early 1970s, an MIT professor of nuclear engineering named Norman Rasmussen headed a federal committee charged with determining the risk of a nuclear reactor core accident. The report concluded that the odds of such an accident at a commercial nuclear power plant were 1 in 20,000 per reactor per year.

The Rasmussen report, as it came to be known, is now seen to have severely underestimated the odds. Just four years later, in 1979, the Three Mile Island accident occurred, in which a nuclear reactor partially melted down. Later studies have estimated other odds, but based on data from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Jorgensen estimates that the accident rate is closer to 1 in 1550 operational years. With 430 operational nuclear reactors in the world, Jorgensen writes, we could reasonably expect a significant reactor core accident once every 3 to 4 years—at least based on accident rates in the past.

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10 of Benjamin Franklin’s Lesser-Known Feats of Awesomeness
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

We all know about Benjamin Franklin’s kite-flyin’, library-establishin’, Declaration-signin’, newspaper-printin’, lady-killin’ ways. But let’s celebrate some of his lesser-known but very cool contributions to society, on what would be his 312th birthday.

1. HE SWAM WITH THE FISHES.

As a youngster, Ben learned to swim in Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River and became somewhat of an expert. On a Thames River boating trip with friends, a 19-year-old Franklin jumped into the river and swam from Chelsea to Blackfriars (around 3.5 miles), performing all sorts of water tricks along the way or, as he described it, “…many feats of activity, both upon and under the water, that surprised and pleased those to whom they were novelties.” Franklin’s Phelpsian feats earned him an honorary induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968.

He was such an excellent swimmer, one of the careers he considered (and seemingly one of the few he did not choose) was running a swimming school of his own. Of course, he also invented his own swim fins.

2. HE PRINTED BENJAMINS, BEFORE THEY WERE BENJAMINS.

Many people know that Ben Franklin owned a printing company and the Pennsylvania Gazette. But it may be new knowledge that his company also printed all of the paper money for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. Beginning in 1929, his face would grace the front of the $100 bill and people would call them “Benjamins” in his honor.

3. HE DEVELOPED AN ELECTRIC VOCABULARY.

Because the things Franklin was doing in his experiments with electricity were so new, he had to make words up for them as he went along. One scholar suggests that Franklin may have been the first to use as many as 25 electrical terms including battery, brushed, charged, conductor, and even electrician.

4. HE WAS NO DEBTOR.

Franklin was terrified of debt and viewed it as similar to slavery because he believed that, through the acquisition of debt, man essentially sold his own freedom. He was so anti-debt that he often spoke (seriously) about forming an international organization called The Society of the Free and Easy for virtuous individuals who, among other things, were free of debt and, therefore, easy in spirit.

5. HE WAS ALWAYS PUTTING OUT FIRES.

In addition to being a famously calming voice of reason and a frequent mediator at the Constitutional Convention, Franklin organized the first volunteer fire company in 1736: The Union Fire Company (nicknamed Benjamin Franklin’s Bucket Brigade). Among his many writings are articles on fire prevention, stressing that an "ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” He was more eloquent than Smokey Bear.

6. HE INVENTED A TON OF COOL STUFF, INCLUDING THE ROCKING CHAIR AND THE ODOMETER.

Of course, you probably know that Franklin is responsible for the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, and the Franklin stove. But in 1761, Franklin also invented the glass harmonica (or "armonica," as he called it). It became quite popular during Franklin’s time and armonica-specific pieces were composed by the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, and Handel.

Some of Franklin’s other inventions include:
• The library stepstool, a chair whose seat could be lifted and folded down to make a short ladder.
• A mechanical arm for reaching books on high shelves. (Book retrieval—clearly a focus of Franklinian innovation.)
• The rocking chair—a chair that rocks.
• The writing chair—a chair with an arm on one side to provide a writing surface. (Activities one can do while seated were also a focus.)
• The odometer—used in Franklin’s time to measure distance along colonial roads used by the postal service.
• A pulley system that enabled him to lock and unlock his bedroom door from his bed.
• The flexible urinary catheter.

7. HE WAS PARTIALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ESTABLISHMENT OF AMERICA'S FIRST HOSPITAL.

Established in 1751 by Ben and Dr. Thomas Bond, Pennsylvania Hospital was built “… to care for the sick-poor and insane who were wandering the streets of Philadelphia” (those sound like some wild streets). While the hospital was Bond’s brainchild, Franklin’s support and advocacy got the project off the ground. He galvanized the Pennsylvania Assembly and helped raise the necessary funds. It appears that Franklin was more proud of this accomplishment than most (even all those outrageous swimming tricks); he said later of the hospital’s establishment, “I do not remember any of my political maneuvers, the success of which gave me at the time more pleasure.”

8. HE HAD SEVERAL PSEUDONYMS.

Franklin was prolifically pseudonymous and his pseudonyms were pretty wonderful:

• Richard Saunders. Richard Saunders is Franklin’s most well-known pseudonym; it’s the one he used for his wildly popular Poor Richard’s Almanac, which ran annually from 1732 to 1758. Poor Richard was partially based on one of Jonathan Swift’s pseudonyms, Isaac Bickerstaff – Saunders and Bickerstaff shared a love of learning and astrology. The Richard character brought a comic frame to what was otherwise a serious resource in the almanac and, over the years of publication, the fun but likely unnecessary character gradually disappeared.

• Silence Dogood. When Ben was 16 years old, he desperately wanted to write for his brother James’s newspaper, The New England Courant, but James was something of a bully and wouldn’t allow it. So, Ben contributed to the paper as a middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood whose witty and satirical letters covered a range of topics from courtship to education. A total of 15 Dogood letters were published, resulting in the amusement of Courant readers, several marriage proposals for the pretend Mrs. Dogood, and, ultimately, a rise in the ire of James Franklin.

• Anthony Afterwit. Mr. Afterwit, a gentleman, wrote humorous letters about married life that appeared in Benjamin Franklin’s own Pennsylvania Gazette.

• Polly Baker. Polly Baker was a pseudonym Franklin used to examine colonial society’s unequal treatment of women. She was pretend punished by society for having pretend children out of pretend wedlock while the fathers of the pretend children went pretend unpunished.

• Alice Addertongue. Alice is another middle-aged widow who wrote what amounts to a gossip column for Franklin’s Gazette in the form of scandalous stories about prominent members of society.

• Caelia Shortface and Martha Careful. These pseudonyms were used by Franklin to settle a personal dispute; they wrote letters mocking Franklin’s former employer, Samuel Keimer, who had stolen some of Franklin’s publishing ideas. Shortface and Careful’s letters were published in The American Weekly Mercury, a publication by a Keimer rival.

Busy Body. Also published in The American Weekly Mercury, Miss Body’s letters were basically gossip stories about local businessmen.

• Benevolous. Benevolous wrote letters to British newspapers while Franklin was in London. The primary focus of the letters was to correct negative statements made about Americans in the British press.

9. HE WAS A TRAVELING FOOL.

During Franklin’s life, the average person never traveled more than 20 miles from their home. Franklin, on the other hand, crossed the Atlantic Ocean eight times (the first time at age 18 and the last time at age 79) and spent 27 years of his life overseas.

10. HE THOUGHT GETTING TOGETHER WITH HIS BUDDIES TO DRINK BEER AND CHAT WAS A FANTASTIC WAY TO IGNITE SOCIAL ACTION (AS IT TURNS OUT, HE WAS RIGHT).

Franklin formed a group that he called the Junto. The group’s purpose was to gather and debate philosophical questions on topics from ethics to business. Initially composed of 12 members, the group brought together people from different backgrounds (among the originals were printers, surveyors, a cabinetmaker, a clerk, a glazier, a cobbler, and a bartender) and gathered in a tavern on Friday nights. In his autobiography, Franklin described the group as a “…club for mutual improvement.” But the group discussions resulted in not only self-improvement, but societal improvement: The Junto has been credited as the breeding ground for some of Franklin’s greatest achievements, including the establishment of the first library, the first volunteer fire departments, the first public hospital, and even the University of Pennsylvania. Makes your Friday night pub trivia team seem like a bunch of underachievers, doesn’t it?

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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15 Things You Didn't Know About Betty White
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Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

Happy birthday, Betty White! In honor of the ever-sassy star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls's 96th birthday, let's celebrate with a collection of fun facts about her life and legacy. 

1. HER NAME IS BETTY, NOT ELIZABETH

On January 17th, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, the future television icon was born Betty Marion White, the only child of homemaker Christine Tess (née Cachikis) and lighting company executive Horace Logan White. In her autobiography If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), White explained her parents named her "Betty" specifically because they didn't like many of the nicknames derived from "Elizabeth." Forget your Beths, your Lizas, your Ellies. She's Betty.

2. SHE'S A GUINNESS WORLD RECORD HOLDER.

In the 2014 edition of the record-keeping tome, White was awarded the title of Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Female) for her more than 70 years (and counting) in show business. The year before, Guinness gave out Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Male) to long-time British TV host Bruce Forsyth. As both began their careers in 1939, they'd be neck-and-neck for the title, were they not separated by gender.

3. HER FIRST TELEVISION APPEARANCE IS LOST TO HISTORY.

A photo of Betty White
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Even White can't remember the name of the show she made her screen debut on in 1939. But in an interview with Guinness Book of World Records, she recounted the life-changing event, saying, "I danced on an experimental TV show, the first on the west coast, in downtown Los Angeles. I wore my high school graduation dress and our Beverly Hills High student body president, Harry Bennett, and I danced the 'Merry Widow Waltz.'" 

4. WHITE'S RISE TO STARDOM WAS DERAILED BY WORLD WAR II.

Before she took off on television, White was working in theater, on radio, and as a model. But with WWII, she shelved her ambitions and joined the American Women's Voluntary Services. Her days were devoted to delivering supplies via PX truck throughout the Hollywood Hills, but her nights were spent at rousing dances thrown to give grand send-offs to soldiers set to ship out. Of that era, she told Cleveland Magazine, "It was a strange time and out of balance with everything." 

5. HER FIRST SITCOM HIT WAS IN THE EARLY 1950S.

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Co-hosting the Al Jarvis show Hollywood on Television led to White producing her own vehicle, Life With Elizabeth. As a rare female producer, she developed the show alongside emerging writer-producer George Tibbles, who'd go on to work on such beloved shows as Dennis The Menace, Leave It To Beaver, and The Munsters. Though the show is not remembered much today, in 1951 it did earn White her first Emmy nomination of 21 (so far). Of these, she's won five times.

6. WHITE LOVES A PARADE.

From 1962 to 1971, White hosted NBC's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade alongside Bonanza's Lorne Greene. But that's not all. For 20 years (1956-1976), she was also a color commentator for NBC’s annual Tournament of Roses Parade. However, as her fame grew on CBS's The Mary Tyler Moore Show, NBC decided they should pull White (and all the rival promotion that came with her) from their parade. It was a decision that was heartbreaking for White, who told People, "On New Year's Day I just sat home feeling wretched, watching someone else do my parade."

7. SHE HAS BEEN MARRIED THREE TIMES.


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White and her first husband, Dick Barker, were married and divorced in the same year, 1945. After four months on Barker's rural Ohio chicken farm, White fled back to Los Angeles and her career as an entertainer. Soon after, she met agent Lane Allen, who became her husband in 1947, and her ex-husband in 1949 after he pushed her to quit show biz. She wouldn’t marry again until 1963, after she fell for widower/father of three/game show host Allen Ludden.

8. HER MEET-CUTE WITH HUSBAND #3 HAPPENED ON PASSWORD.

Bubbly Betty was a regular on the game show circuit, but she met her match in 1961 when she was a celebrity guest on Password, hosted by Allen Ludden. Though White initially rebuffed Ludden's engagement ring (he wore it around his neck until she changed her mind), the pair stayed together until his death in 1981. Today, their stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame sit side-by-side.

9. WHITE ORIGINALLY AUDITIONED FOR THE ROLE OF BLANCHE ON THE GOLDEN GIRLS.

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Producers of the series thought of White for the role of the ensemble's promiscuous party girl because she'd long played the lusty Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Meanwhile, they eyed Rue McClanahan for the part of naive country bumpkin Rose Nylund because of her work as the sweet but dopey Vivian Harmon on Maude. Director Jay Sandrich was worried about typecasting, so he asked the two to switch roles in the audition. And just like that, The Golden Girls history was made.

10. IF SHE HADN'T BEEN AN ACTOR, SHE'D HAVE BEEN A ZOOKEEPER.

"Hands down," she confessed in a 2014 interview. This should come as little surprise to those aware of White's reputation as an avid animal lover and activist. Not only does she try to visit the local zoo of wherever she may travel, but also she's a supporter of the Farm Animal Reform Movement and Friends of Animals group, as well as a Los Angeles Zoo board member, who has donated "tens of thousands of dollars" over the past 40 years. In 2010, White founded a T-shirt line whose profits go to the Morris Animal Foundation.

11. SHE DIDN'T DO AS GOOD AS IT GETS BECAUSE OF AN ANIMAL CRUELTY SCENE.

A photo of actress Betty White
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White was offered the part of Beverly Connelly, onscreen mother to Helen Hunt, in the Oscar-winning movie As Good as It Gets. But the devoted animal lover was horrified by the scene where Jack Nicholson's curmudgeonly anti-hero pitches a small dog down the trash chute of his apartment building. On The Joy Behar Show White explained, "All I could think of was all the people out there watching that movie … and if there's a dog in the building that's barking or they don't like—boom! They do it." She complained to director James L. Brooks in hopes of having the scene cut. Instead, he kept it and cast Shirley Knight in the role.

12. A FACEBOOK CAMPAIGN MADE WHITE THE OLDEST SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE HOST EVER.

In 2010, a Facebook group called Betty White To Host SNL … Please? gathered so many fans (nearly a million) and so much media attention that SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels was happy to make it happen. At 88 years old, White set a new record. Her episode, for which many of the show's female alums returned, also won rave reviews, and gave the show's highest ratings in 18 months. White won her fifth Emmy for this performance.

13. SHE IS THE OLDEST PERSON TO EARN AN EMMY NOMINATION.


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In 2014, White earned her 21st Emmy nod—and her third in a row for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program—for the senior citizen-centric prank show Betty White's Off Their Rockers. She was 92. She also holds the record for the longest span between Emmy nominations, between her first (1951) and last (so far).  

14. SHE LOVES JUNK FOOD.

The key to aging gracefully has nothing to do with health food as far as White is concerned. In 2011, her Hot in Cleveland co-star Jane Leeves dished on White's snacking habits, "She eats Red Vines, hot dogs, French fries, and Diet Coke. If that's key, maybe she's preserved because of all the preservatives." Fellow co-star Wendie Malick concurred, "She eats red licorice, like, ridiculously a lot. She seems to exist on hot dogs and French fries." 

15. SHE WANTS ROBERT REDFORD.

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White once gave this cheeky confession: “My answer to anything under the sun, like ‘What have you not done in the business that you’ve always wanted to do?’ is ‘Robert Redford.'” Though she has more than 110 film and television credits on her filmography, White has never worked with the Out of Africa star, who is 14 years her junior.

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