Beverly Paigen, a longtime scientist at The Jackson Laboratory whose research into a toxic waste site in New York has been credited with spurring the creation of the federal Superfund program, died last week at the age of 81.
She died a few months after her husband Ken Paigen, also a longtime Jackson Lab researcher and head of the lab throughout the 1990s, who passed away in February at the age of 92.
A Chicago native, Beverly Paigen’s biomedical research career started in Buffalo in the late 1960s, where she held research positions at Roswell Park Memorial Institute — where her future husband also worked — and at Rachel Carson College at SUNY Buffalo, according to her obituary.
In the late 1970s, while in Buffalo, Paigen studied the impact of the Love Canal toxic waste site on the surrounding community of Niagara Falls, New York, and became a vocal advocate for cleaning the site up.
“With great courage and at personal and professional sacrifice, Bev spoke out about the human suffering at Love Canal [and] as a result of her scientific work and moral convictions, the entire affected community received relocation benefits,” her family wrote in her obituary. “Her work served as a catalyst for the [Environmental Protection Agency’s] Superfund program, which cleans up the nation’s worst hazardous waste sites.”
Paigen was harshly critical of New York state officials’ response to the environmental disaster at Love Canal, claiming that the state tried to suppress panic when she began reporting ailments she had found among residents there. She said her professional travel was restricted and that she was barred from applying for grants, according to a 1989 article in The Atlantic on Love Canal.
The Paigens, having married 1970, moved in 1982 to California, where Beverly continued to monitor the Love Canal response while working as a research chemist at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, and where Ken chaired the Genetics Department at the University of California at Berkeley.
Seven years later the Paigens moved to Bar Harbor to work at Jackson Lab — Ken as the lab’s director (before the position’s title was changed to president and CEO) and Beverly as a research professor — in the wake of a devastating fire at the lab that killed half a million research mice and destroyed much of its mouse-breeding facility.
Ken Paigen stepped into his role months earlier than expected because of the fire. He had flown to Maine to visit the lab in May of 1989, not expecting to start as director until that fall, when the fire broke out as he was driving to Bangor so he could fly back to California.
Paigen was returning his rental car at Bangor International Airport when a clerk at the rental desk handed him a note that said “the lab is on fire,” he recounted in a 2013 article published by the laboratory. He immediately hopped back in the rental car and returned to Bar Harbor.
“There’s a place on Route 3 in Trenton, Maine, as you approach Mount Desert Island, where you make a turn and see the island’s mountains for the first time,” Paigen was quoted as saying. “I could see an enormous plume of smoke. It looked like a volcano. And when I got to the lab there was chaos.
“As of that day I stepped into the director’s job,” Paigen told the interviewer. “I don’t remember what I did with that airline ticket.”
Beverly Paigen outpaced her spouse’s research productivity, publishing 241 scientific papers to his 148, according to their obituaries. She also was credited with “revolutionizing” the study of heart disease and using mice for cardiovascular research, and with “mentoring generations of young scientists, particularly women,” her obituary noted.
The Paigens each retired from the lab in the past decade. Ken Paigen, who remained as a professor emeritus at the lab until last year, oversaw a significant expansion of the lab during his directorship from 1989 to 2002 that doubled the number of its employees to more than 1,200, quadrupled its laboratory budget (to $114 million) and grant funding (to $50 million), and saw the creation of a second mouse-breeding facility in Sacramento, California, in 2001.
Aside from their research and scientific advocacy work, the Paigens enjoyed spending time outside, especially sailing along the Maine coast, according to their obituaries. Beverly Paigen also was known for her loud, boisterous laughter, which often could be heard some distance away.
“Many a family member, conference attendee, or anonymous restaurant patron will forever remember her infectious and uproarious laughter, a sound big and wonderful enough to fill the Kennedy Center,” her family wrote in her obituary.