1948 Smog

"Before there was an Environmental Protection Agency, before there was an Earth Day, before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, there was Donora." 
-- W. Michael McCabe (1998)
NEWS FLASH 1948...

Poison Fog 1948

As the week of October 24, 1948 began, the nearly 14,000 people of Donora paid little attention to the dense heavy fog covering the town.  The cool to cold autumn nights combined with warm water from the Monongahela river and smoke from the local steel mill, namely the zinc works, blast furnace and open hearth, as well as thousands of coal furnaces in local homes, would typically limit visibility until afternoon (see photo above).  As the week wore on, residents began to realize this fog was anything but typical.  By Thursday, October 28, streetlights were on during mid-day (see photo below as an example, but not from 1948) and people walking the streets were struggling to find their way.  Soon, many elderly people began to complain of breathing difficulty, thousands were ill, and houseplants began to shrivel.  Then, people began to die. 
Donora at noon
Donora physicians worked around the clock, treating victims as best they could against a mysterious pathogen.  The Donora Board of Health set up an emergency aid station and temporary morgue in the basement of the Community Center.  Volunteer firemen felt their way door to door, administering oxygen and attempting to get people help.  Management at the mill refused to believe or admit that the waste they were emitting caused the problem; after all, it was the same thing they had been doing for over thirty years.
In less than three days, hundreds of people fell sick, twenty-one people were dead, along with dozens of animals.  Who knows how many more followed in the weeks, months and years to come.  On October 31, rains finally dispersed the killer fog, but leaving the nation in shock.  The dead and sick were not only from Donora but also from the neighboring communities of Webster and Sunnyside that were down wind and across the river.
The Federal, State and Local governments, along with numerous universities and scientists, conducted an investigation.  Sulfur dioxide emissions from U.S. Steel's Donora Zinc Works and its American Steel & Wire plant were frequent occurrences in Donora. What made the 1948 event more severe was a temperature inversion, in which a mass of warm, stagnant air was trapped in the valley.  The pollutants in the air mixed with fog to form a thick, yellowish, acrid smog that inhibited the normal process where the sun would burn off the fog.  This smog hung over Donora for five days. The sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine and other poisonous gases that usually dispersed into the atmosphere were caught in the inversion and continued to accumulate until rain ended the weather pattern.
The killer fog introduced America to a new term: "smog" - a combination of naturally occurring fog and industrial pollution.  The 1948 Donora Smog made the world aware of the dangers of unchecked pollution.  The tragic and heroic events of that October weekend helped shape the environmental movement that was to follow.
The 1948 Smog event is the foundation of the Donora Historical Society's Smog Museum.  On occasion, we get inquiries from around the world as other countries in Asia and Europe face the same situations we did over 65 years ago.
Countless newspaper and magazine articles, as well as books and television programs have documented what unfolded in Donora in 1948.  Because of all the industrialization that was taking place in America at that time, an event was eventually going to occur somewhere that would be the impetus for realizing the necessity for a cleaner environment.  That event occurred in Donora.  As tragic as it was, it did lay the groundwork for cleaner air for everyone.  Our slogan "Clean Air Started Here" is one that Donora is very proud of and a testament to the people who gave their lives for this cause.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1921, Mary Ochsenhirt Amdur (pictured in the photo to the left) was an American toxicologist and public health researcher who became interested in the environmental health impacts of air pollution following the infamous Smog of 1948.  After graduating in chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh in 1943, and then receiving her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Cornell University in 1946, Dr. Amdur relocated to the Boston area.  She was a researcher at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and then at the Harvard School of Public Health.  She worked with Phillip Drinker (inventor of the iron lung) to work in the male-dominated field of environmental and occupational health.  In 1953, Dr. Amdur was assigned to study the effects of the 1948 Smog, where she specifically looked into the respiratory effects related to sulfuric acid by experimenting with the novel exposure chamber using guinea pigs that she invented with her husband, Benjamin Amdur.  When she reported her findings in 1954, it led to her being threatened, to her funding being pulled, and to her losing her job at Harvard.  Undeterred, she carried on her research in a different role at the Harvard School of Public Health, and subsequently at MIT and the New York University Center for Environmental Medicine.  Despite her early controversy and overcoming gender, political, and scientific barriers, her work was used in the creation of standards in air pollution and she is widely considered the "Mother of Air Pollution Toxicology."  Without her bravery and ingenious work, we would not have mostly clear skies or the Clean Air Act.  In 1997, Dr. Amdur became the first woman to receive the Merit Award from the Society of Toxicology.  She died the following year in 1998.

In 1950, a 21-year-old German man named Guenter Kunert (pictured in the photo to the right) took pen to paper and wrote a poem about the 1948 Smog titled, "The Song of a Small Town."  For him, what took place in Donora in 1948 paralleled his struggles of surviving WWII as a young German-Jew whose relatives were exterminated in concentration camps, and what was taking shape politically in Berlin at that time.  Later, Guenter Kunert would go on to become one of Germany's greatest contemporary writers, and this poem would be translated by Penn State University languages professor Dr. Manfred Keune and presented to the Donora Historical Society.  In 2013, as part of a Cal U of PA Honors English class titled "Digital Storytelling" that was also sponsored by the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, two freshman students (Corrine Dowlin and Rachael Fawley) used Kunert's poem and combined it with some of their own poetic flair for their video project.  Click on their YouTube video titled "A Town Called Donora:  A Digital Story" to view.  This is as good of an example of what took place on that October weekend in 1948. 

A Town Called Donora: A Digital Story

In 2002, Donora native and world-renowned epidemiologist Dr. Devra Davis (pictured in the photo to the left) published a book titled, "When Smoke Ran Like Water," that discusses the 1948 Smog as well as confronts the public triumphs and private failures of her lifelong battle against environmental pollution.  She documents the shocking toll of a public-health disaster—300,000 deaths a year in the U.S. and Europe from the effects of pollution—and asks why we remain silent. She shows how environmental toxins contribute to a broad spectrum of human diseases, including breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and emphysema—all major killers—and in addition how these toxins affect the health and development of the heart and lungs, and even alter human reproductive capacity.  Click on our site's Merchandise tab to learn more on both the hardback and softback versions.

Dr. Robert K. Musil's book (pictured in the photo to the right) titled, "Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America's Environment," gives a unique perspective by placing Pittsburgh native Rachel Carson's achievements in a wider context, weaving connections from the past through the present by connecting Carson and her contemporaries or "foremothers" of toxicology who have historically received less attention, such as Alice Hamilton, Harriet Hardy, Anna Baetjer, Pittsburgh native Mary O. Amdur and Donora native Devra Davis, to name a few.

On Saturday, September 13th, 2014, as part of the Heinz History Center Affiliate Ambassador's series, Smog Museum archivist and curator Brian Charlton presented "Donora and the 1948 Air Quality Crisis" at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.   The presentation was filmed by C-SPAN and was featured on October 12th, 2014 on C-SPAN3.  Click on Donora and the 1948 Air Quality Crisis to view the show in its entirety (1 hour 15 minutes.)
Additional information on Cal U and their "Digital Storytelling" class can be found on their website link Cal U of PA.  Also, numerous articles have also been written in local newspapers on our video, two of which are Observer-Reporter Digital Storytelling and Tribune-Review Digital Storytelling.
A Pennsylvania Historical Markers was erected in 1995 (see photo to the left). 
Learn more about the 1948 Smog first hand by visiting the Smog Museum.
Click on our site's Merchandise tab to see some of the environmental books (including When Smoke Ran Like Water) and DVD's being sold by the Society.