Harriet Hardy’s Views on Asbestos Issues

The Marxist-Leninist would-be historians of occupational health are particularly adept in demonizing those scientists and fellow-historians whose views evidence any lack of support for labor’s positions.  What passes for history of asbestos disease in American courtrooms, marshaled to show notice of hazards to manufacturers, is particularly corrupted by political and ideological animus.

One of the heroes of the left is the late Dr. Harriet Louise Hardy (1906 – 1993), who helped put occupational medicine on the map of American medical research and scholarship.  There is much to admire in the life of Dr. Hardy (who remarkably does not have a Wikipedia entry.) Dr. Hardy’s collaboration with Alice Hamilton, M.D, on the revision of the textbook, Industrial Toxicology, is well known.  Hardy’s colleagues at Harvard wrote a glowing tribute to her, after her death.  John D. Stoeckle, Homayoun Kazemi, Rose Goldman, and Chris Oliver, “Faculty of Medicine: Memorial Minute for Harriet L. Hardy (1905-1993)” (May 1, 1997):

“As she often admitted, her professional life was not a planned academic or specialty career but an accidental product of several influences — her interest in clinical medicine, her school and college health jobs of working with the young and healthy, her identification with and study of the industrial disablements of blue-collar workers, and the support of senior colleagues who encouraged her interests in the illnesses of the workplace, in what she called “clinical preventive medicine”. In such work, unlike the ‘company doc’, whose attachments were to the corporation, hers were to the worker, for whom she advocated in her writings, clinical care, and testimonies before the Workmens’ Compensation Board.”

Her colleagues noted that she suffered from a meningioma, requiring surgery in 1972, and during the last years of her life, from lymphoma.  In 1991, when Hardy was suffering from cancer and the sequelae of serious central nervous system disease, Dr. David Egilman sought her out to write a letter to the editor of the “red journal,” to complain about the use of the medical literature in interpreting the historical evolution of knowledge of asbestos hazards.  See Harriet Hardy & David Egilman, “Corruption of Occupational Medical Literature:  The Asbestos Example,” 20 Am. J. Indus. Med. 127 (1991).

Given Hardy’s credentials and her collaboration with an asbestos plaintiffs’ expert witness, it seems worthwhile to examine her views about asbestos given in her autobiography.  Harriet Hardy, M.D., Challenging Man-Made Disease:  The Memoirs of Harriet L. Hardy, M.D. (1983).  Hardy was plain spoken and practical.  Although she had no bias in favor of industry, she was not beset with the ideological animus of so many contemporary testifying witnesses.  Hardy addresses asbestos in several pages of her autobiography, which should be required reading for judges and lawyers coping with asbestos litigation:

“The media in industrialized Western countries have publicized the ill effects of asbestos quite out of proportion to the risk, especially that in city streets, schools, hospitals, and drinking water.”

Id. at 94.

Hardy describes two of her own cases of lung cancer in asbestos workers, in the 1950s.  She notes that she published the first case with Hanna Klaus in the 1950s. Kurt J. Isselbacher, Hanna Klaus, and Harriet L. Hardy, “Asbestosis and bronchogenic carcinoma: Report of one autopsied case and review of the available literature,” 15 Am. J. Med. 721 (1953).  Hardy reports that her contemporaneous reaction:  “A note on the second case included the query, Since men were heavy smokers, might not the cancer be due to a combination of cigarette smoking and inhalation of asbestos fibers?”  Id. at 95. A question, not an answer, to be sure.

Hardy addresses the more obvious case of asbestos and mesothelioma, with an answer that would dismay the Lobby:

“A fatal malignancy [mesothelioma] associated with inhalation of a single form (crocidolite) of asbestos invaded the chest wall (pleura) and/or the abdominal wall.”

Id. at 95 (emphasis added).

“I feel that the facts to date do not support the many claims of asbestos effect on those with slight exposure.”


“This story of asbestos damage is now internationally known, and unanswered questions of differences in fibers from various areas and their harmful effect and the problem of safe working and neighborhood levels are engaging the skills of research groups.”

Id.  Hardy ends her discussion with a plea for skepticism and epistemological modesty in interpreting lay media reports, which have been dominated by scaremongers:

“I would plead that every reader look at all reports in the lay press and on television with great skepticism.  My reasons are shown by the following examples. A state health commissioner is using funds that he has to underwrite an antismoking campaign.  Deception is a mistake no matter how noble the cause.  Because a plant situated on a U.S. Great Lake dumped waste asbestos into the lake, which serves as a public water supply to a nearby city, fishing was forbidden and the livelihood of an important number of people denied.  The evidence that water containing asbestos fibers is harmful and may cause cancer has yet to be assembled.”

Id. at 98.

Those familiar with the Reserve Mining fiasco know that the evidence was never forthcoming.  Throughout her autobiography, Hardy’s compassion and disinterestedness are manifest.  It is unfortunate that Hardy did not serve directly as a more influential voice on asbestos issues.

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