Meet the Heroic Docs of the Donora Smog Disaster of 1948

Meet the Heroic Docs of the Donora Smog Disaster of 1948

If you’ve read anything about the Donora smog of 1948, you’ve probably read about how the town’s doctor’s traveled on foot or by car around Donora and Webster during the smog, doing whatever they could to prevent residents from suffocating. Let’s get to know five of those heroic physicians: DeWees Brown, Herbert Levin, Ralph Koehler, Ed Roth, and William Rongaus.

DeWes Brown

DeWees E. Brown

DeWees Englert Brown was a general surgeon in town. Born in McKeesport on June 3, 1898, Brown set up his practice at 501 McKean Avenue. He and his wife, Helen, had one child, as near as can be determined: DeWees Harold Brown, who also became a physician and practiced as an internist in Burlington, VT. DeWees Brown died in Burlington on Oct. 19, 1959. He was 61.

Herbert J. Levin

Herbert Levin

Herbert Julian Levin was born on May 23, 1908, in Paterson, NJ, and did his internship and residency at St. Francis Hospital in Trenton. He and his wife, Margaret, had five sons and two daughters. He set up a general medical practice in Donora, where he served the community for nearly 40 years. He was on staff at three area hospitals — Connellsville, Charleroi-Monessen, and Monongahela — and was active in numerous associations in the area. He belonged to the Ohav Shalom Synagogue in Donora and the Temple Beth Am in Monessen. Levin also served as an associate editor of the Medical Bulletin of Washington County.

Levin died Jan. 27, 1976, at Presbyterian University Hospital in Pittsburgh, now UPMC Presbyterian Hospital. He was 67.

Ralph W. Koehler

Born Aug. 19, 1900, in tiny Reynoldsville, PA, seventy miles northeast of Pittsburgh, Ralph Waldemar Koehler was one of Donora’s eight physicians. His father, Roman Koehler, served as managing editor of the Donora American newspaper and was Donora’s first justice of the peace.

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Ralph set up practice in Donora at 501 McKean Avenue, across the hall from the office of DeWees Brown. He practiced there for a number of years, and in 1958 was joined by his son, Donald, who had also become a physician. Koehler survived diabetes, two heart attacks, and a stroke before succumbing to heart failure on April 30, 1967. He was 67. 

Edward Roth

Edward Roth (no middle name) was born in Homestead, PA, on April 20, 1907, about a year after his Austrian parents, David and Julia Roth, had arrived in America. After graduating from college, he sought entry to medical school.

Edward Roth in his Army uniform

Roth applied to many of them, including those in Pittsburgh, only to be rejected because of his faith. Growing up Roth encountered his share of antisemitism. He was called a “dirty Jew” more times than he could count. “In the family,” recalled Roth’s nephew, Jerry Harris, “we always talked about how he couldn’t get into Saint Louis University because of the rampant antisemitism.” SLU was Roth’s first choice.

Roth was finally accepted at and graduated from Washington University, practicing first in New York City and later setting up practice in Donora. He and Ralph Koehler ended up creating a joint practice downtown.

Roth was, by all accounts, the essence of an old-time family doctor. With soft features, kind eyes, and an enviable bedside manner, Roth was able to gain the trust of pretty much every patient who came through the door.

Roth was diagnosed with high blood pressure in the Army and suffered with it the rest of his life. He smoked cigars incessantly, and eventually the hypertension, cigar smoke, and Donora’s many “fogs” took their toll. Roth suffered his first heart attack in 1965, while working at Charleroi-Monessen Hospital, after which he vowed to leave Donora for warmer and cleaner climes. He and his wife, Sally, settled in Phoenix, where Roth cared for students at Arizona State University.

While driving home on the afternoon of Jan. 23, 1978, Roth suddenly slumped over the wheel and crashed his car. He was 70 years old. He most likely died at the scene from a massive heart attack, though his obituary lists him as having died at nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital. Roth’s adoring wife lived twenty-seven more years before dying at age 91 on Aug. 27, 2005

William Rongaus

William Rongaus in medical school

William Joseph Rongaus was born to Simplicio and Maria Roncace on April 29, 1914. His parents lived in Amatrice, Italy, a village known for a pasta dish of pork, pecorino, and tomatoes called, appropriately enough, spaghetti all’amatriciana. When Simplicio and Maria arrived at Ellis Island in 1909, officials anglicized their name from Roncace (ron-CAH-chay) to Rongaus (RON-gus). The Rongauses eventually settled in Pittsburgh and sired a total of nine children, one of whom died at age 4 from scarlet fever.

William worked at the mills in Donora to help send his brother Walter to medical school. With Walter on the way William enrolled at nearby Washington & Jefferson College (W&J). He was attending Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia when WWII called. He finished medical school in three years, common at the time because of the war, but he never saw combat. Repeated ear infections during childhood had left him with a substantial hearing loss. A later surgery for the condition led to a disfigurement of his left jaw.

Rongaus — or “Doc Bill,” as he was known everywhere in town — met his future wife during his internship at Pittsburgh’s West Penn Hospital, where she served as an operating room nurse. After the war the pair moved into an impressive home at Sixth and Thompson, directly across the street from St. Dominic’s Catholic Church in Donora. The house was large enough to provide office space on the first floor and living quarters above.

Rongaus’s brother Walter joined Bill in practice after the war, and together with another brother, Leon, would make the Rongaus name a staple in town for many, many years. (Leon operated the nationally-renowned The Redwood, a five-star restaurant on Castner Avenue. The Redwood was a favorite dining spot among Pittsburgh Steelers players.)

Rongaus was a bit of a character. He was a skilled boxer, good enough to box for W&J during college. He was even asked to train for the 1944 Olympics, later cancelled due to the war. He smoked cigars, and always wore three watches. Two on one wrist and one on the other.

Doc Bill Rongaus (right) dines with some pretty famous fellows, including Red Schoendienst (left), famed second baseman-turned manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, and Stan “The Man” Musial, a Donora native and one of the greatest baseball players of all time.

He was the kind of person who would do anything for his children and his patients. His daughter Nancy recalled that when she was 10, she went fishing with her dad in State College, PA. “I caught a huge trout, but the line snapped. My father clamored over the rocks, dove into the stream, and grabbed that fish. Who does that? My dad!”

Rongaus lived out his days in Donora. He developed leukemia late in life and died at 86, at Mon Valley Hospital on March 1, 2001.

One response to “Meet the Heroic Docs of the Donora Smog Disaster of 1948”

  1. […] heroic physicians during the smog of 1948 learned their trade long after medical education had recovered from the […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: