Gerrit W. H. Schepers, MD — RIP

Earlier this week, Barry Castleman, ScD, consultant to the asbestos plaintiffs’ bar, wrote to the Occupational and Environmental Medicine List to alert subscribers that Dr. Gerrit Schepers had died, on September 6, at the age of 97.  Dr. Castleman took the opportunity to portray Dr. Schepers as someone who had identified asbestos hazards early and his career and worked hard to call attention to those hazards.

Schepers was born and educated in South Africa, where he practiced medicine with South Africa’s Pneumoconiosis Bureau.  Most of his experience in South Africa was with amphibole asbestos – amosite and crocidolite.  According to Castleman’s narrative, Schepers complained to the Prime Minister about the horrors working conditions of black children who worked at Cape Asbestos’ amosite mill at Penge, in the Transvaal.  Schepers was curiously silent, however, in the printed medical literature, about these horrors, until after others, including Dr. Irving Selikoff began to publish about them in the 1960s.

Schepers came to the United States in 1949, and worked in various positions, including the Trudeau Laboratories, at Saranac Lake, New York.  According to Castleman, when Schepers planned to return to South Africa, he found himself bullied by Vandiver Brown, a lawyer for Johns Manville Corporation, over turning in a report of his American research and observations to the South African government.  According to Castlemen, the report was “suppressed,” but no details are provided.

Schepers ultimately stayed in the United States, and moved through jobs with DuPont, and later with the Veteran’s Administration.  At the famous 1964 New York Academy of Science meeting on asbestos, Schepers was a voluble presenter and discussant of papers.

Schepers’ Career as Testifying Expert Witness in Asbestos Litigation

Castleman reports that in the late 1970s, Schepers agreed to testify in asbestos personal injury cases against some of the companies that had employed him.  Castleman generously offers that “[s]ome of his recollections were later supported by corporate documents revealed in the litigation.”

And many of Schepers’ recollections proved to be illusory and fantastical.  I have previously discussed some of Dr. Schepers’ writings in a post on “Manufactured Certainty” (May 27, 2011).

Schepers was not drafted reluctantly to the role of testifying witness.  Here is a quote from a letter, dated March 10, 1978, Dr Schepers wrote to Captain Hoeffler, of the Dept of Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, in Washington DC:

“Here is a CV and some reprints which will possibly be helpful.  Since I have been involved with so many things, my expertise with respect to asbestosis is somewhat hidden among the rest.  For emphasis therefore let me summarize that my clinical and research involvement with asbestosis and thus also lung cancer spans some thirty years.  I commenced this work in South Africa, where as a …. Medical director for the pneumoconiosis Bureau we researched the working conditions and health of all employees of that countries [sic] extensive crocidolite and amosite mines and industries.  The fact that mesothelioma can be associated with asbestos dust was first discovered by me during 1949 at the Penge Egnep mines in the Eastern Transvaal.  It is also important to know that only one out of three persons who develop mesothelioma ever was exposed to asbestos dust.  The Institute for Pneumoconiosis Research which I started there has abundant evidence about this.

In the USA I next studied the asbestos problem for the Quebec Government and the Johns Mansville Company and also for various asbestos producing companies.  This embraced research on human subjects, lung tissue and experimental animals.  The net result of my fifteen years of work in this field has been to convince me that chrysotile, which is the North American type of asbestos, is relatively innocuous as compared to the African and Russian varieties.  I have never seen a case of lung cancer develop on any person exposed to chrysotile only.  However I have seen plenty of lung cancers in asbestos workers.

This is because most asbestos workers are exposed to carcinogenic materials other than asbestos and all the cases with lung cancer also were chronic lung self-mutilators through cigarette smoking.  In a rathe major set of experiments of mine I exposed animals to the most potent known carcinogenic (beryllium sulphate) and then exposed them to asbestos (chrysotile) dust.  These animals had fewer cancers than those exposed to the beryllium sulphate.  So chrysotile is not even a significant co-carcinogen.  I reversed the order of the exposure – namely asbestos (chrysotile) first and the the BeSO4.  The result was the same.  The animals exposed only to chrysotile never developed any lung cancers.

I probably have the largest collection of asbestosis case materials, having been a consultant to hundreds of physicians.  I have a very detailed knowledge of what various types of asbestos can and cannot do to the lungs.  If my command of this subject can be of use to the Navy in the current law suit, please feel to use my services as consultant as you deem fit.”

Unfortunately, there is no similar letter to Ron Motley or Gene Locks readily available to detail how Dr. Schepers ended up on virtually ever plaintiffs’ witness list.

Chrysotile

As we can see from his 1978 correspondence, Dr. Schepers was not shy about touting his expertise, or his opinions about the innocuousness of chrysotile asbestos.  Castleman’s revisionist history has some support from Scheper’s own attempts to reinvent his past.  See, e.g., Gerrit W.H. Schepers, “Chronology of Asbestos Cancer Discoveries: Experimental Studies of the Saranac Laboratory,” 27 Am. J. Indus. Med. 593-606 (1995). The contemporaneous history seems at odds with words written after decades of consulting with and testifying for plaintiffs’ counsel in asbestos litigation.

These revisions to the historical record are, however, quite incredible.  Indeed, Dr. Schepers weighed in on the fiber-type controversies that were being fought out before the then young Occupational Safety and Health Adminsitration.  In a letter dated July 19, 1976, Schepers wrote Grover Wrenn, Chief, Division of Health Standards Development, OSHA:

“This is a follow-up on our recent meeting with the Assistant Secretary of Labor at which we discussed the question of asbestosis and berylliosis and the relationship of exposure of various industrial substances to lung cancer.

I promised to help you place items in the record which you appeared not have available.”

***

“As you can see my researches cast considerable doubt on the proposition that American fibrous minerals are carcinogenic.  I am not one of those that deny the carcinogenicity of everything.  To the contrary, I believe that I have helped prove that some environmental pollutants are carcinogenic.  For this reason you may perhaps accept the credibility of my findings when I state that I could detect no evidence of carcinogenicity for either chrysotile, talc or fiberglass.”

Unlike, Selikoff, Schepers was never a crocidolite denier, although after he started testifying regularly for plaintiffs’ counsel, his views appeared to change.

Wilhem Heuper:  Genius or Criminal

According to Castleman, others (unidentified) directed Schepers to “snub Dr. Hueper at scientific gatherings and ‘knock him’ in conversations with others.”  In my courtroom encounters with Dr. Schepers, I never found him shy about his opinions of other people and their abilities.  Here is what Schepers, under oath, told me about Wilhelm Heuper:

“Q . Surely. Back in the 1950s Doctor Hueper was fairly well regarded as an expert in industrial medicine?

A. No. No. No. No. He was a — he was a pathologist, epidemiologist, whose main focus was cancer, not all of the industrial medicine or hygiene, and his focus was almost singularly on the issue of relationship between industrial processes and cancer. That’s about the only way I can answer that question.

Q. All right. Was he regarded — was his opinions regarded — well regarded in the 1950s?

A. Oh, my goodness, some — some people thought that he was criminally irresponsible, and others thought he was a genius. I can’t answer that question.

Q. Did some think he was irresponsible because he rejected the association between smoking and lung cancer?

A. No. No. No. No. It is because he blamed everything, he blamed he just blamed everything as a cause. By then he got to the stage where you could get cancer from riding down the highway. You could get cancer from working with silica bricks, all things that are — you know, had been disproven, SO forth. So I would not classify him, you know, although I knew Doctor Hueper and respected him, I would not classify him as a final authority on that subject.”

Testimony on Cross-examination, at 234: 18 – 235:23, in De bene esse videotaped deposition of Gerrit W. H. Schepers, M.D. (June 14, 1991) (presented by plaintiffs’ counsel Jim Pettit, of Greitzer & Locks), in Radcliff v. Eagle-Picher Indus., Inc., Superior Court of New Jersey, Gloucester County, Law Div., Docket No. W-023456-88.

I had any number of courtroom encounters with Dr. Schepers over the years.  I owe him a debt for having carefully recording his thoughts on chrysotile before they became opprobrious to plaintiffs’ counsel.  He helped me win some interesting cases.

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