Dr. Donald Rasmussen (1928-2015)

Photo of Dr. Rasmussen in his Office

Photo by David Deal of NPR

Over on Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center’s main site, we have a eulogy up for the late Dr. Rasmussen.

“Mourning the passing of Dr. Donald Rasmussen, hero to coal miners, black lung movement, and Appalachia”

Yesterday we lost a giant in the field of black lung disease and advocacy.  Dr. Donald Rasmussen passed away after 87 years.  He spent most of those years evaluating coal miners for black lung disease, reporting his research, and working tirelessly to create and improve the black lung benefits system.  Until he was recently hospitalized, he was still actively examining miners at his clinic in Beckley, WV.

The work of Dr. Rasmussen cannot be fit into the space of an obituary or eulogy, but the Charleston Gazette-Mail has a piece that gives a glimpse into Dr. Rasmussen’s role in the field of black lung medicine and advocacy.

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 Mine Health and Safety 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.  In the decades since, Dr. Rasmussen continued to refine the science of black lung disease as he evaluated over 40,000 coal miners and made regular presentations to educate groups about the history and current issues related to black lung. His records from his detailed research into gas exchange impairment will no doubt be used by other medical professionals to gain a better understanding of the impact of dust exposure on the human body.

The attorneys who represented claimants and were fortunate enough to have worked with Dr. Rasmussen knew what a unique and special physician he was. His thorough testing and reasoned examination reports were invaluable as evidence in individual claims for benefits. He regularly met with lawyers and law students and explained the medical process of a pulmonary evaluation. As Evan Smith stated: “I was lucky enough to overlap with Dr. Rasmussen regularly over the past two years through my work as a black lung lawyer.  I can say first hand that 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.”

In addition to his outstanding work as a physician, Dr. Rasmussen was a person people loved. He was generous with his time and considerate in his interactions with others.

The 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which created the federal black lung benefits program, begins with the statement: “Congress declares that– (a) the first priority and concern of all in the coal or other mining industry must be the health and safety of its most precious resource–the miner” Dr. Rasmussen lived that statement. In reality, we should continue to tell miners that their black lung benefits are the result of Dr. Rasmussen’s work.  He was a champion for justice. Dr. Rasmussen may no longer be with us, but the legacy of his work made the world a better place not only for miners and their families, but for all us.

6 Responses to “Dr. Donald Rasmussen (1928-2015)”

  1. Betty Dotson-Lewis

    Dr. Donald Rasmussen was one of the greatest, kindest and most caring people I have ever known. He was one of my heroes. As a life-long resident of the WV Coalfields I have first hand knowledge of the pain and total disregard miners must endure. Dr. Rasmussen did every thing in his power to address the many hurts put on coal miners by dishonest coal operators and dishonest lawyers.

    I had the privilege to interview him for one of my books, Appalachia, Spirit Triumphant and to get to know him. He will forever live in my memory. B. L. Dotson-Lewis

  2. Paulette Livers

    Thank you for your important work. I’m looking for some early history on black lung, diagnoses in the 1940s, 50s, 60s—the years before the 1969 congressional act, and when the occupational connection was made, not just by medical professionals, but by the miners themselves.
    I’m a Kentucky novelist (Nelson Countian living in Chicago). In the novel I’m currently working on, the parents of a major character were part of the exodus from Appalachia to Midwestern cities in that time period.
    Can you direct me to such historical information? I really appreciate your work and insights.
    Paulette Livers

    • Evan B. Smith

      The first source that comes to mind is Alan Derickson’s book “Black Lung: Anatomy of a Public Health Disaster.” The book provides a nice overview of the time when coal miners recognized that their breathing was affected by their work in the mines even if the medical establishment refused to recognize a connection. There is a particularly memorable story about a late 19th Century physician who presented a paper written in the black liquid (“melanoptysis”) that miners would cough out of their lungs. It also gives a thorough overview of the financial incentives that kept many coalfield doctors from acknowledging the disease and the political reasons that early research was stifled in America. There are other good sources such as Barbara Ellen Smith’s work, but Derickson’s book is a good starting point.

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