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In Memoriam: Labor Health Crusader Dr. Donald L. Rasmussen

— August 3, 2015

The New York Times paid tribute yesterday to a man whose death nearly went unnoticed in a national sense, but whose life needs to be celebrated. Dr. Donald L. Rasmussen died on July 23rd in Beckley, West Virginia at the age of 87. According to his stepdaughter, Julia Holliday, Dr. Rasmussen died from complications following a fall he had in May. Moving to West Virginia as a young physician, Dr. Rasmussen led the fight to identify and prevent more cases of black lung disease than anybody in history. As a researcher and key member of the Physicians for the Miners’ Health and Safety in the 1960s, Rasmussen created new methods, like a treadmill breathlessness test, to detect signs of black lung that X-ray technology could not locate. A tireless advocate, Rasmussen, along with his colleagues presented his message in front of Congress and at as many college campuses as time allowed. It is estimated that Rasmussen examined over 50,000 miners during his extensive field research, finding evidence of black lung in 40 percent of them. Until his death, Rasmussen was living in nearby Sophia and is survived by his wife, Carmen.

Although making a lifetime of contributions, Rasmussen’s efforts reached a peak in 1969. A November, 1968 methane and coal dust explosion killed 78 people in a Consolidation Coal mine in West Virginia. Fueled by Rasmussen’s empirical evidence, 40,000 of West Virginia’s 43,000 miners walked off the job on February 19th, 1969 in support of black lung legislation. The governor of West Virginia, Arch Moore, signed a black lung benefit bill on March 11th, with the miners returning to work.  Later that year, the federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act became law, offering additional benefits to hundreds of thousands of mine-workers. This came at a time when mine operators were blaming the health issues on things like lazy behavior and smoking. United Mine Workers president Cecil E. Roberts said about Rasmussen, “When other doctors were taking the company line and denying that black lung existed, Dr. Rasmussen was testifying before state legislatures and Congress, fighting to win recognition that breathing coal dust was killing miners.” Dr. Rasmussen won the American Public Health Association’s presidential award in 1969 as well.

Dr Rasmussen continued to treat patients in Beckley, West Virginia until he was injured in a fall in May. Photo courtesy of Craig Cunningham/Charleston Gazette-Mail
Dr Rasmussen continued to treat patients in Beckley, West Virginia until he was injured in a fall in May.
Photo courtesy of Craig Cunningham/Charleston Gazette-Mail

Dr. Rasmussen continued his efforts beyond the 1960s and was actively treating patients in a pulmonary laboratory in Beckley until his injury in May. His research was a notable contribution in consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s continued quest against the mines and the disease throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Evan Smith, an attorney who worked with Rasmussen over the past two years, said about him, “He had no equal as an examiner, researcher, teacher and advocate. He was always my first recommendation for miners who had concerns for their health. I feel lucky to have gotten to hear his stories, be schooled by him in pulmonary medicine in his clinic (and during depositions), and be able to tell miners that they’ll get benefits due to the thorough work of Dr. Rasmussen.” Rasmussen graduated from the University of Utah School Of Medicine in 1952. After a stint in the army specializing in chest diseases, Rasmussen spotted an advertisement in the Journal of the American Medical Association seeking doctors for the Beckley Miners Memorial Hospital. In his 2012 oral history, Rasmussen said “I came in October 1962 just to look around and I never left.”

Lexington Herald Leader – Stephen Sanders

New York Times – Sam Roberts

West Virginia Public Broadcasting – Beth Vorhees




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