This Scientist Got Fired from Harvard for Research that Changed History

When 70 people died in her hometown, Dr. Mary Amdur decided to find out why. Her funder? The firm accused of causing it.

J. Nathan Matias
Jan 8 · 2 min read
The Donora Zinc Works. Source: Donora Historical Society

In October 1948, a thick, yellow fog descended on Donora Pennsylvania, a small factory town near Pittsburgh. When the haze slid out of homes and hospitals four days later, twenty people were dead and a third of the town was sick. The death toll soon rose to 70. What had caused this plague? The weather? Pollution? Experts blamed a freak weather incident.

One year later, when biochemist Dr. Mary Amdur graduated from Cornell and joined the Harvard School of Public Health, she decided to investigate. The American Smelting and Refining Company funded the lab that hired her. They knew she grew up in Donora. Their zinc works were being blamed for the tragedy and they hoped she could clear their reputation.

AS&R was using the “tactical model” of research–funding science to deflect criticism, delay regulation, and recover the company’s reputation

AS&R was using what the sociologist Carol Weiss would later call the “tactical model” of research–funding science to deflect criticism, delay regulation, and recover the company’s reputation. And it might have worked if Dr. Amdur wasn’t such a good scientist.

Dr. Mary Amdur. Source: Wikimedia Commons

When Dr. Amdur showed in 1953 that pollution from the zinc works could cause severe injury, the company sent employees to intimidate her and threatened to withdraw funding from Harvard. Under this pressure, her PI withdrew her publication and dissolved her position. This path-breaking work on respiratory toxicology informed the Clean Air Act a decade later.

Harvard accepted funding from AS&R to study pollution at a time when the public was just starting to question the role of chemistry in society. The slogan “Better Living Through Chemistry” was a recent invention. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was still ten years away. While Amdur quickly found another position, she (and Harvard) learned the hard way that corporate funding is a complicated gift.

Dr. Mary Amdur is now remembered as a founding figure in the history of air pollution science. Although she never received tenure, Amdur led major projects at Harvard, MIT, and NYU over a long career. She passed away in 1998, less than a year after becoming the first woman to receive the merit award from the Society of Toxicology. The society now offers an endowed award in her name.

J. Nathan Matias

Written by

Public-interest research for a safer, understanding Internet. Asst Prof Cornell. CivilServant.io. Prev:@BKCharvard @CivicMIT @PrincetonCITP. Guatemalan-American

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