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Dr. Richard W. Moriarty, who helped create 'Mr. Yuk' poison warning for kids, dies at 83

Chris Squier
90.5 WESA

Dr. Richard W. Moriarty, the driving force behind the creation of the Pittsburgh Poison Center and the scowling green Mr. Yuk sticker that warns kids about poisonous substances, has died.

The retired pediatrician died on Thursday at age 83, according to the John A. Freyvogel Sons Inc. funeral home in Shadyside, which is handling arrangements in Pittsburgh.

Moriarty's involvement was critical to establishing and developing the Pittsburgh Poison Center, where he served as director. Its existence — and that of its most recognizable employee, Mr. Yuk — came about in the late 1960s and early '70s, while Moriarty trained in pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

“When the phone rang whoever was the house officer in the emergency department and answered the phone was suddenly the poison person," he said in a 2015 interview with WESA. "And often we didn’t really know what the heck we were doing.”

Bothered by the idea of offering a service the hospital couldn’t confidently deliver, Moriarty set about organizing Children’s resources and finding holes in its knowledge. As he did so, he discovered another problem.

“The traditional warning symbol for poison was the skull and crossbones. Well, we live in a town that happens to have the Pirates,” he told WESA. “The traditional warning color for poisons was red. Well, kids sorta like red things.”

To develop a new symbol that would warn kids away from toxic substances instead of enticing them, Moriarty said he and his team enlisted the help of a focus group.

“We sat down with preschoolers and said, ‘If you got into a poison, what would happen?’ And the recurring thoughts were, 'Well, you’d die. You get sick. Or your mother would yell at you.'”

A graphic artist mocked up a series of potential symbols in a range of colors. The one that lost the popularity contest was the fluorescent green and scowling face still in use, though he’s been updated through the years.

Increasing public awareness about poison exposures has decreased child fatalities from medicines and household cleaners since 1972, following Mr. Yuk's public debut a year earlier.

Now the center receives approximately 150,000 requests for information and help after poison exposures from the public and medical professionals each year, according to UPMC, which operates the center.

Moriarty grew up in Lawrenceville and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, where he was a longtime faculty member. He also ran a private pediatric practice.

Moriarty served on the boards of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Survivors include his husband, David Hairhoger. Visitation is scheduled for Sunday and Monday, with a private funeral set for Tuesday.

Editors' note: Moriarty was a supporter of WESA.

Cindi Lash of WESA and The Associated Press contributed to this story.