The full story of the Donora smog disaster could not be told without two names popping into the forefront, those of Philip Drinker and Mary O. Amdur.
Drinker had famously invented the “iron lung” for victims of polio, principally children. Polio, more accurately called poliomyelitis, is an infectious disease caused by the poliovirus. Victims who contract the virus suffer from fever, paralysis of the limbs and breathing muscles, shrinking of skeletal muscles, and limb deformities.
Polio was the scourge of the 1900s until Jonas Salk and later, Albert Sabin, developed vaccines to prevent it. In the meantime thousands of children were dying from polio, their chest muscles becoming weaker and weaker until they could no longer breathe at all. Drinker’s respirator, which used air pressure to keep chest muscles moving and the patient breathing, saved countless lives. Drinker became famous almost overnight.
Drinker’s Lab Attracts Smelters
When the Donora disaster occurred in 1948, Drinker’s lab was well known for its research into toxins in the air. Shortly after the disaster the smelting industry took a hard look at their processes and pollutants, and at least one company took action. American Smelting and Refining Company, which owned mines and smelters in the West, wanted Drinker’s lab to demonstrate that chemicals produced by the company’s smelters were essentially harmless to human health, and so had little to do with what had happened in Donora.
In other words, they wanted Drinker’s lustous imprimatur on their marketing materials.
Drinker, an industry apologist for years, agreed to do a study on Donora and put a toxicologist named Mary Ochsenhirt Amdur in charge.
They Chose … Poorly
Mary Amdur was a quiet, reserved, dedicated researcher and an apologist for no one. Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Mount Lebanon, about eight miles southwest of Steel City, Amdur was no stranger to air pollution and the mills that caused it. Working with her biochemist husband, Ben, she quickly discovered that the gases sulfur dioxide and sulfur trioxide emitted from Donora’s Zinc Works — and also the factories of American Smelting — were the primary culprits in the smog deaths.
Amdur prepared a paper detailing her results and presented it at a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, in December 1953. No one criticized it or objected to the findings.
Amdur was scheduled to present the paper again the following April in Chicago, at the annual conference of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. This time, apparently at the behest of officials for American Smelting, two leather-jacketed goons slipped into an elevator with Amdur. Stepping close to her, one thug said, “Hey, Mary, where you going? You’re not going to deliver that paper, are you?”
Those kinds of heavy-handed intimidation tactics had been used for years by the steel and metal-making industries to suppress research that might tarnish their image.
Mary did indeed deliver that paper, knowing full well that doing so might displease her boss, the Great and Powerful Dr. Drinker. When Mary returned to Boston, just as she had suspected, Drinker fired her. So she went one floor up and was hired immediately by Harvard’s chair of the physiology department, James Whittenberger. Just so did Amdur leave Drinker and, allegedly, American Smelter’s thugs far behind.
Amdur went on to a stellar career as an anti-pollution researcher, and is today known as the Mother of Smog Research.