Unguarded Historian’s Inquiry into Nazi Science of Silica and Lung Cancer

Robert N. Proctor is Professor of the History of Science, in Stanford University. In the litigation world, he is known mostly for his advocacy on behalf of tobacco plaintiffs. He has testified in dozens of cases over the years, always on behalf of claimants. See Ramses Delafontaine, “Making History in Court: A Survey of Historians as Expert Witnesses in Tobacco Litigation in the US – Robert N. Proctor,” The Judge and the Historian (last visited July 6, 2015).

Proctor’s book, The Nazi War on Cancer (Princeton 1999), which won the American Public Health Association’s 1999 Viseltear Award, is an extended exploration of the Nazi ideology of health. The value of the book is not merely in its discussion of the scientific record on various issues, such as

tobacco and asbestos, in the Nazi empire; rather Proctor’s historical narrative provides a valuable insight into how science can become the plaything of political ideologies. The Nazi War illustrates that the political pressures do not always come from corporations. Some of the most intense and unremitting pressures come from popular movements such as those made up of consumerists and environmentalists.

Although Proctor’s focus is on tobacco, and to a lesser extent, asbestos, he does have some intriguing things to say about silica, silicosis, and lung cancer. According to Proctor:

“Cancer was an occasional concern of the German industrial hygienists who worried about silicosis. A 1934 dissertation explored the coincidence of silicosis and lung cancer, the primary question being whether the quartz dust inhaled by Ruhr Valley coal miners could cause malignancies. Though the results of this particular study were negative (silicosis did not seem to predispose to lung cancer), the prescience of the interest is notable.132

Nazi War at 107 & n. 132 (citing Kurt Kollmeier, Silikose und Lungenkrebs (Bonn: Medical Dissertation, 1934), and noting that Ludwig Teleky, “Der berufliche Lugenkrebs,” 3 Actio Unio Internationalis Contra Cancrum 253 (1938) “failed to find a link.”). Lack of resolution was not a common occurrence in Nazi politics or science, but Proctor notes that:

“The question of whether silica exposure could cause cancer was never resolved in the Nazi era — and remains confused even today, more than a half century later.”

Nazi Science at 107. And despite the political ideology of OSHA’s administrator and white-hat public health zealots, the question whether silica can cause lung cancer is still not resolved.

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