Donald Rasmussen: Coal miners’ physician, humble man

During the holiday season, Kim, Liz and I are taking a short break from blogging.  We are posting some of our favorite posts from the past year. Here’s one of them, originally posted on July 27, 2015:

by Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH

The occupational health community, coal miners, their families and labor advocates are mourning the loss of physician Donald Rasmussen, 87.

For more than 50 years, he diagnosed and treated coal miners with work-related lung disease, first at the then Miners Memorial Hospital in Beckley, WV and later at his own black lung clinic. A lengthy story by John Blankenship in Beckley’s Register-Herald written two years ago profiledDr. Rasmussen’s career.

“ In 1962, a young doctor from Manassa, Colorado, saw a help wanted advertisement in a medical journal needing doctors in Beckley at the then Miners Memorial Hospital. ‘I was looking for a place to set up practice after getting out of the Army,’ Rasmussen recalled. ‘I had never been to West Virginia and was a little skeptical about the move.’ But when the doctor arrived in Beckley he was impressed with what he saw. ‘The scenic beauty of the area, the wonderful people who lived here and the staff and the work going on at the Miners hospital were simply amazing.’”

“Rasmussen began working with coal miners, which would become his life’s mission. ‘Before I came here, I really had no exposure or knowledge about coal miner’s lung disease, known today as black lung,’ he said. Rasmussen says he began to see many miners who experienced shortness of breath and other trouble with their lungs and breathing. ‘I was asked to evaluate some of the miners.’”

“…For coal miners and their families, Rasmussen became known as the ‘doctor with a heart.’ But Rasmussen said he was just doing his job. “I wasn’t trying to take one side over another,” he explained. ‘But I saw a lot of injustice being done to coal miners and their families.’”

Evan Smith with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center writes:

“There is no single source that can catch the breadth of his work, but any account of the black lung movement and the current state of the disease must include his name. In the early days of the black lung movement, Dr. Rasmussen was one of the key players in the group called Physicians for the Miners’ Health and Safety that provided medical support for miners’ experiences with black lung—a disease that most of the medical community refused to acknowledge at the time.

Dr. Rasmussen’s evidence-based approach and detailed research helped to prove that coal-mine dust causes breathing problems that may not show up on x-ray and may not show up without quality exercise testing. Dr. Rasmussen’s advocacy contributed to the passage of the landmark 1969 Coal Act which set the first federal limits on miners’ exposure to coal-mine dust and created the federal black lung benefits system for miners disabled by the disease.

The Charleston (WV) Gazette’s Paul J. Nyden explains Rasmussen’s role in the larger fight for worker health and safety:

“Rasmussen, Dr. Isadore E. Buff and Dr. Hawey Wells helped spark growing concerns about black lung disease throughout the coalfields, when they spoke in union halls, schools and churches. The black lung issue came to statewide and national attention after a Nov. 20, 1968, methane and coal dust explosion killed 78 miners in Consolidation Coal’s No. 9 Mine between Mannington and Fairmont in Marion County. “

“In the wake of that tragedy, miners at the East Gulf Mine near Rhodell walked out on strike on Feb. 18, 1969, protesting the failure of the state Legislature to pass black lung legislation. By March 5, when the state Senate began debating the bill, more than 40,000 of the state’s 43,000 miners were on strike. Rasmussen, Buff and Wells played a central role in backing the strike and pressuring the state Legislature to pass its first black lung law. They helped counter many medical professionals who continued to deny that black lung was a serious health threat. After then-Gov. Arch Moore signed the bill on March 11, miners returned to work the next morning. “

Rasmussen’s early papers include “Pulmonary impairment in southern West Virginia coal miners” (Am Rev Respir Dis (1968)), “Respiratory function in southern Appalachian coal miners (Am Rev Respir Dis (1971)), “Patterns of physiological impairment in coal workers’ pneumoconiosis” (Ann N Y Acad Sci (1972)), and “Impairment of oxygen transfer in dyspneic, nonsmoking soft coal miners (J Occup Med (1971)).

Physicians who worked with Dr. Rasmussen are offering their own tributes. Karen Mulloy, an occupational medicine physician at Case Western Reserve University told me:

“He was an exceptional human being. I had the privilege of working for him for 5 years from 1970 to
1975. It was my first job in the medical field, as a cardio-pulmonary technician, testing the miners in his lab for Black Lung. His compassion for the miners and his righteous anger over the inequities that faced them and the coal companies refusal to make the coal mines safe was more than inspiring. His example of how a doctor of the people could be was the reason I went to medical school and has been the guiding principle of my life.”

Robert Cohen, MD, an expert in pulmonary medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told me:

“I first met Don in 1994 at a Black Lung clinics conference and have been in touch with him, advised by him, and mentored by him ever since. He was a gentle, soft spoken man with a huge heart, who worked tirelessly to merge science and clinical medicine with his passion for social justice, and in this case, to give coal miners a fair shake in the battle to be compensated for their occupational illness.”

“His early work on the exercise physiology of black lung disease lead to the inclusion of exercise testing with arterial blood gases in the black lung disability evaluation regulations. “

J. Davitt McAteer, one of the nation’s leading experts on miners’ health and safety, added this:

“When the definitive history of the black lung issue is written, Dr. Donald Rasmussen will be recognized as the central figure. By bringing scientific evidence to the debate, he created the momentum which resulted in the passage of state and federal laws to protect miners’ health.”

McAteer attended Dr. Rasmussen’s memorial service and sent along a copy of a eulogy. It was offered by Craig Robinson who was a VISTA volunteer in the 1960’s when he first met Dr. Rasmussen. Robinson remarks on a recent meeting of Rasmussen and former ABC anchor Ted Koppel.

Joe Main, the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, and former H&S director for the United Mine Workers issued a statement saying:

“The coal mining community has lost one of its most passionate advocates. …Dr. Rasmussen was a humble man, and he would say he was merely a physician performing his duty to his patients. But for so many of us who shared his vision, he was a hero. He will be greatly missed by miners and their families across the country whose lives he touched.”

Dr. Rasmussen passed away on July 23. He continued to see patients in his clinic until May 2015 when he suffered a fall. His family says “he’s now moved his offices upstairs.”

[Update (8/3/15): The New York Times’ published on 8/2/15 an obituary about Dr. Rasmussenentitled “Crusader for Coal Miners’ Health.”]


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