Donald L. Rasmussen, a physician and dedicated advocate for coal miners’ health reform, died on July 23 due to the complications of a fall in May. His impact on the lives of coal miners was unforgettable and we hope to pay tribute to his life by sharing his accomplishments.
Shortly before Rasmussen was employed at the Miners Memorial Hospital in Beckley, West Virginia in 1962, black lung disease was only known to be detected by x-rays. Rasmussen quickly learned that through exercise, he could determine if his patient was suffering from a respiratory issue. He discovered that even when the disease couldn’t be viewed by x-rays, it could be detected by blood and treadmill endurance tests.
Rasmussen said that once he convinced the hospital to invest in a blood gas analyzer, the first patient he tested showed signs of severe lung disease. He found that in the 50,000 miners he had examined during his career, signs of black lung disease could be found in 40 percent. By bringing attention to this new method of diagnosis, he opened the door to healthcare benefits for a far wider group of miners.
At the time, doctors sided with mining companies and the companies attributed the disease to smoking or the reckless work of their employees. Cecil E. Roberts of the United Mine Workers of America said of Rasmussen: “When other doctors were taking the company line and denying that black lung disease existed, Dr. Rasmussen was testifying before state legislatures and Congress, fighting to win recognition that breathing coal dust was killing miners.” Rasmussen implored the government to recognize the greed and negligence of mining companies and save countless lives.
Rasmussen fought with the help of a team of physicians, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and West Virginia democrat representative Ken Hechler to pass legislation that would ensure the compensation of miners affected and the protection of miners for generations to come. The passage of the laws to reduce the dust miners were legally allowed to be exposed to fueled the fire that led to the ousting of UMWA president W.A. Boyle from office. In 1968, Rasmussen testified before state legislatures and Congress to win recognition of the fact that breathing coal dust was killing workers and also presented his findings to groups of miners in union halls.
November 1968 marked a turning point for his cause when 78 miners were killed in a coal dust and methane explosion. This prompted miners to strike and ultimately led to the passage of the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. Passed to provide compensation to disabled workers and limit the amount of dust allowed in coal mines, this law had a monumental impact on the conditions for workers in the mining industry.
Dr. Rasmussen was recognized for his work in 1968 when he received the American Public Health Association’s presidential award. He did not regard himself as a hero, but rather he said “I never felt like I was leading a charge, I don’t see myself as an advocate. I saw the miners who needed help… I was just a physician performing my duty.” Rasmussen’s fight to improve the safety of workers in the mining industry is inspiring. Today we stand with the UMWA in their continuing struggle to secure safer working conditions, pensions, and healthcare, and Dr. Rasmussen’s legacy will live on through the improved quality of life for all mine workers.
NCL intern Taylor Zeitlin contributed to this article.
Photo credit: By Corn, Jack, 1929-, Photographer (NARA record: 8464440) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons