Dr. Donald L. Rasmussen, who was lured to Appalachia as a fledgling physician by a help-wanted ad and set off a grass-roots movement that won benefits for coal miners afflicted with black lung disease, died on July 23 in Beckley, W.Va. He was 87.
The cause was complications of a fall in May, his stepdaughter Julia Holliday said.
James Green, professor emeritus of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and author of “The Devil Is Here in These Hills, said, “In the annals of American labor history, there is no one, no union official or a physician, who exceeds the accomplishments of Dr. Rasmussen in substantially reducing the causes of such a widespread and deadly disease as black lung or in enhancing the treatment of a group of afflicted workers.”
The advent of X-rays established that black lung disease, or pneumoconiosis, was caused by breathing coal dust particles from drilling and blasting. But Dr. Rasmussen proved that even when X-rays did not find evidence of black lung, the disease could also be detected by breathlessness measured while on a treadmill and by blood tests — vastly expanding the pool of miners eligible for benefits.
Conducting field research with public health services and evaluating insurance claims, he eventually examined as many as 50,000 miners. He said he found signs of black lung disease in 40 percent of them.
The evidence gathered by Dr. Rasmussen and his exhortations, coupled with those of several fellow physicians, the consumer advocate Ralph Nader and Representative Ken Hechler, a West Virginia Democrat, not only prompted the West Virginia Legislature and Congress to pass legislation to protect and compensate coal miners, but fueled insurgent union campaigns that toppled W.A. Boyle, known widely as Tony, in 1972 as president of the United Mine Workers of America.
Without Dr. Rasmussen’s work, “the quality of life for thousands of miners would have been destroyed, and their families would have gone uncompensated,” Richard Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and a former president of the United Mine Workers, said Friday.
Mine operators had typically blamed black lung on smoking or sloppy work habits. Even union leaders overlooked the risk in favor of bonus pay for workers when they surpassed production quotas.
But galvanized by Dr. Rasmussen’s findings, the dissident miners’ Black Lung Association staged wildcat walkouts in 1968.
“When other doctors were taking the company line and denying that black lung existed, Dr. Rasmussen was testifying before state legislatures and Congress, fighting to win recognition that breathing coal dust was killing miners,” Cecil E. Roberts, the union’s president, said last week.
Donald Lloyd Rasmussen was born in Manassa, Colo., just north of the New Mexico state line, on Feb. 24, 1928. His father, Jordan, was a veterinarian. His mother was the former Mary Sowards.
After graduating from Utah State University and the University of Utah School of Medicine in 1952, he completed his residency in the Army, specializing in chest diseases. He was seeking a place to practice when he spotted an advertisement in the Journal of the American Medical Association that read “Doctors needed in Beckley, West Virginia, at the Miners Memorial Hospital.”
“I came in October 1962 just to look around and I never left,” he recalled in a 2012 oral history.
In 1968, he testified before a congressional subcommittee considering mine safety legislation and delivered his evidence again directly to groups of miners in union halls and West Virginia hollows, accompanied by Drs. Isadore E. Buff and Hawey A Wells Jr. They constituted Physicians for Miners’ Health and Safety.
“We knew, based on studies from Britain, we could cut down on lung disease by cutting down on the dust the miners were exposed to in the mines,” Dr. Rasmussen said.
A coal dust and methane explosion that killed 78 miners on Nov. 20, 1968, in Marion County, W.Va., drew national attention to the issue and inspired a strike that prompted both state legislation and the 1969 federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which provided compensation for workers permanently disabled by black lung disease and imposed dust limits in coal mines.
The American Public Health Association presented Dr. Rasmussen with its presidential award that year.
Dr. Rasmussen lived in Sophia, W.Va., a coal mining town, with his wife, the former Carmen Stone.
Besides his wife and his stepdaughter Julia, survivors include his children and stepchildren from previous marriages, Dr. Richard Rasmussen Anderson, John Rasmussen Anderson, Mark Rasmussen, Sharon Rasmussen, Jay McGranahan, Gavin McGranahan, Georgia Williams and Brandon Flower; 11 grandchildren; nine great-grandchildren; two sisters, Mary Renner and Gloris Peterson; and a brother, Dr. Kent Rasmussen.
Until he fell in May, he continued to see patients in a pulmonary laboratory in Beckley, where he was ever the reluctant hero.
“I never considered myself an advocate,” he said in the oral history interview. “I only did the work I knew was correct. I saw the miners who needed help.”