Elizabeth "Betty" Wright Penski
By El Penski, September 2011, Updated in October 2013 and September 2015
Betty
Betty Penski, Photographed in about 1962

In 1986 soon after the death of Betty, the Betty Penski Scholarship Fund was set up at Essex Community College (now The Community College of Baltimore County, Essex); and after a number of recipients accepted the award, one, who wondered who Betty was, wrote me a letter and suggested I add her biography to the internet.


Betty was born August 12, 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland. She grew up in Dundalk, Maryland where her father, Philemon Kennard Wright II, an engineer, worked in the steel mill at Sparrows Point, the largest steel mill in the world at that time. Betty's grandfather, Louis Coffin, had been the chief engineer at the Mill. She had a younger sister, Mary Hardcastle Wright Newling, and two younger brothers, Philemon Kennard "Kenny" Wright III and Louis Coffin Wright. When she was a teenager, her family moved to a rural waterfront house near Easton, Maryland where she graduated from Easton High School in 1958 as class valedictorian. In 1961, she was recognized for saving a drowning man while working as a lifeguard at camp Lochbrae. She attended Swarthmore College where she played varsity field hockey and lacrosse. Betty graduated with a B.A. Degree in Fine Arts in 1962 with a major in art history.

Betty
Betty's water color painting, photographed by Betty's brother Kenny in February 2015.

Betty worked at Temple University on the collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art after graduation from Swathmore but decided to return to college after realizing she was doing the same work as librarians but getting lower pay. Thus, Betty obtained a Master of Science Degree in Library Science from Drexel University in 1965 and wrote Manual Systems for Information Retrieval for Special Collections in College Libraries. She continued her education part time until 1980 with graduate studies at Towson State University and the University of Maryland, College Park. Both her mother, Elizabeth Coffin Wright, and grandmother, Laura Glen Coffin, had been librarians as well as her sister.

Betty later moved to Baltimore City and first worked at Johns Hopkins University, later at University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), University of Maryland at College Park, and Essex Community College. At UMBC, she was one of three founding librarians, she set up the Cataloging Department, and she headed the Department. Betty was responsible for setting up the Audio-Visual Library at Essex Community College. She was a pioneer in online audiovisual cataloging.

In 1968, I was leading or co-leading about four hikes or canoe trips a year for the Mountain Club of Maryland all over the Middle Atlantic region, and I lived in Catonsville Manor. Betty was leading hiking, canoe, and bicycling trips about twice a month, year round, for the American Youth Hostels, and she lived in Catonsville. We met late in 1968 on a trail conservation hike, but we did not start dating until the spring of 1969. I bought a bicycle in 1969, and we got married in March of 1971 when we bought a home in Arbutus, close to UMBC.

Thereafter, we hiked with the Mountain Club, worked on many conservation projects together such as Betty's and El's Conservation Efforts, 1973 Conservation Handbook, The Cunningham Falls State Park Wildland Documents and Photographs, 1968-1980, and the maintainance of a three mile section of the Appalachian Trail. Also, Betty was an active member of various library associations and Episcopal Churches. Most weekends we spent hiking in the mountains, gardening, and exploring local rivers, wetlands, and harbors.

Creek in Swamps Betty and El are canoeing in Otter Point Creek which is a shallow tributary positioned at the headwaters of the Bush River
near Edgewood, Harford County, Maryland. On the horizon is Leight Park.
Betty This photograph was taken in 1975 in what is now the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve,
Melvin G. Bosely Conservancy. We are relaxing in the swamps.
Betty Betty and boys

Betty encountered all the frustrations of not being able to give birth to a baby. Thus, Betty and I adopted a 2.5 year old son in 1976 from Korea, Carl. Since she was working at Essex Community College; and I was working at the Edgewood area of APG, both east of Baltimore; in 1977, we moved to a home on 3+ acres in Harford County, where she had sufficient room for gardening. In 1978, we adopted another 2.5 year old son from Korea, Jimmy. As a result, Betty got active in the organization, Families Adopting Children Everywhere, teaching the course "Family Building Through Adoption" at Harford and Essex Community Colleges.

Betty was basically a quiet, beautiful, and loving woman who enjoyed working. A few times she complained jokingly that I kept her too busy, but in reality I was amazed about how busy she was when I first met her. I tried to slow her down, but rarely succeeded. Many women saw her as a feminine activist, but she denied it. On the other hand, when she saw someone being wronged, she never avoided jumping into the fight. Betty as child At times, I felt our home was the "war room" for her battles. Before I married Betty, I thought librarians had very quiet uneventful lives, but I learned that is anything but true.

When Betty was ten years old, in 1950, she was used as a subject for experimental medicine. Her tonsils were burned out with radiation at a time when it was well known for decades that radiation often led to cancer.

"The Era of the Protection Pioneers (1895-1915),” was “marked by the initial recognition of hazards and the development of the earliest protective measures" for x-rays or radiation "by a small cadre of prescient pioneers." [[Ronald L. Kathren, and Allen Brodsky, Radiation Protection, Chapter 6, http://www.arrs.org/publications/HRS/physics/RCI_P_c06.pdf]]

Perhaps the first and most important person in the role of radiation protection pioneer was a Boston dentist, William Rollins. Rollins, who was a Harvard graduate in dentistry and medicine, was the first to suggest a ‘tolerance’ dose or exposure for X-rays . . . he made many suggestions on how to reduce the exposure of both radiologist and patient. [[Rollins, W. H., 1904. ‘On the tyranny of old ideas as illustrated by the X-light used in therapeutics’, Elect. Rev. Vol. 43, p. 120.]]

Senator John D. Works, of California, warned the United States Senate about radiation causing cancer in 1915.

During the 1920s there were a number of reports aimed at restricting exposure to radiation. One these was published by an American physicist, Arthur Mutscheller. [[Mutscheller, A., 1925. 'Physical standards of protection against roentgen ray dangers,' Amer. J. Roentgen, Vol. 13, p. 65.]] F. M. Sievert arrived at about the same limits using a similar approach. [[Radiation and Risk–A Hard Look at the Data, 116 Los Alamos Science, Number 23 1995, A Brief History of Radiation, https://fas.org/sgp/othergov/doe/lanl/pubs/00326631.pdf]]

By 1934, quacks had people ingesting and bathing in radioactive substances deliberately and accidentally. So that year, MIT started whole human body radioactivity counting of the many people that were radioactive. I worked in a lab next to the whole body counting laboratory in 1958-1959. The people that they brought in were usually in a wheel chairs.

As a probable result of radiation, Betty had a thyroid problem most her life. In about 1978, a dermatologist removed a large growth from her neck that he said appeared cancerous, but I do not recall any biopsy.

She developed a malignant cancer in 1980, and I was told she had 6 months to live. The cancer was leiomyosarcoma which is still not responsive to treatment. Leiomyosarcoma is constantly called a rare form of cancer, but I found about 45,100 references to it in Google Scholar. Betty fought it bravely for six years. For five of the years, she continued to work part time at Essex Community College, and run the household with hired help and kind volunteers. She continued to manage the household by telephone even when she was in the hospital.

When I first met Betty, she was a skilled potter, but in her final years, she became an excellent potter selling nearly all of her art wares at the Potter's Guild of Baltimore and Creative Place in Bel Air. She coauthored an article titled, " The Weekly Potter" with five photographs of some of the pottery she made.

For most of 1985, she participated in chemotherapy research at the University of Maryland Cancer Center. Betty died on May 28, 1986 at Fallston Memorial Hospital. She is buried at Mountain Christian Church on Route 152 in Harford County and near her last home on Jerusalem Road.

Betty's tomestone

COMMENTS OF HER HUSBAND: Over the many years in my life, I have slowly realized that there is an enormous information loss when people die. I should have asked Betty to write an autobiography during her last several months in the hospital, but I was too occupied with many problems of the moment. There are many questions that I should have asked all my departed family members that I never asked. If any reader knows more information about Betty that should be added here, please contact me. If you wish to donate to the Betty Penski Scholarship Fund, send your check to:

Betty Penski Scholarship Fund
CCBC Foundation Office
7200 Sollers Point Road, Suite L-212
Baltimore, MD 21222

Thanks go to Mary Hardcastle Wright Newling and Louis Coffin Wright for helpful advice, and to Louis for the photograph of Betty as a child.


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