ABSTRACT

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, dust inhaled at work was a major killer

in Britain, and responsible for substantial levels of disability. ‘Uncontrolled dust in

industry’, the Socialist Medical Association observed in 1954, ‘is killing and maiming

large numbers of people employed.’1 A few years later, the eminent radiologist and

Labour MP Dr Barnett Stross estimated that about two million workers in British

industry were suffering from respiratory disability as a result of inhaling dust from

their employment.2 Stross and the Socialist Medical Association were amongst

those medical professionals campaigning in the 1950s to raise awareness about the

health hazards of inhaling industrial dust and to attack the prevailing widespread

stoical acceptance by workers of coughing and breathlessness. As another doctor

commented: ‘a cough had come to be regarded as normal’.3 Breathlessness and

persistent coughing were common ailments within working-class communities up to

the middle of the twentieth century, as was the ubiquitous spitting. As a consequence

of industrialisation, Britain had the worst rates of pneumoconiosis and bronchitis in

Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, and a key cause was the inhalation of

dust at work, especially in the heavy industries, including coal mining, iron and steel

1 Letter from Socialist Medical Association (Edinburgh and South East Scotland

Branch) to Secretary of State for Scotland, 18 November 1954; Scottish Home and Health

Department Records; Department of Health for Scotland, NAS/HH104/29.