The Passing of a Great Man
There are many reasons to give thanks for the long life and good work of Dr. Gerrit W. H. Schepers who died on September 6, 2011, at the age of 97. As a South African specialist in occupational disease he had witnessed first-hand the appalling and degrading conditions at the amosite (brown) asbestos mines in the North Eastern Transvaal. The findings of an official medical survey of the Penge Amosite Mill which Dr. Schepers conducted in 1949 confirmed that cases of asbestosis were common amongst the mine workers and had been found in employees as young as twelve years old. This was not surprising as it was the job of children to trample down fluffy raw asbestos fiber in large shipping bags. They would do so by jumping up and down on the fiber inside the bags. In the face of the Schepers report, the authorities did nothing.
Gerrit Schepers was born in 1914 in Philippolis in, what was then, the Orange Free State and is now the Free State Province. Although his mother tongue was Afrikaans, he was fluent in English and German and well-versed in Latin. The Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery degrees he obtained in 1938 at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, were followed by a Doctor of Science degree in 1945 and a Doctor of Medicine degree in 1948. Dr. Schepers' interests were wide ranging and varied. His interest in human paleontology brought him into contact with Robert Broom, an eminent South African expert, who he worked with on excavations of australopithecine remains at Sterkfontein and elsewhere. A leaky heart valve disqualified him from military service during the Second World War. In 1944, he was sent to work on the Miners Phthisis Medical Board in Johannesburg where he stayed until 1954.
A fellowship from the Harkness Foundation allowed Dr. Schepers to pursue his studies in the U.S.1 In 1949 he visited asbestos production, processing and research facilities in North America. His research was facilitated by Dr. Anthony Lanza, the leading U.S. authority on silicosis and asbestos disease and a consultant to major asbestos firms, who enabled Schepers to visit Quebec asbestos mines and factories as well as the Saranac laboratory in New York where experimental work was being done for asbestos companies. A copy of the report Schepers wrote of his observations was requested by Lanza who passed it to Vandiver Brown, the chief lawyer for the Johns-Manville Corporation, one of the world's biggest asbestos conglomerates. The lawyer demanded the report be suppressed. Schepers refused and duly submitted his findings to the authorities upon his return to South Africa in September, 1950. Brown travelled to South Africa; the report was buried.
In the 1970s Schepers, who had moved to the U.S. in 1954, began testifying in U.S. courts about his experiences with the asbestos industry on behalf of asbestos plaintiffs. Just months before he died, Schepers gave an interview to Canadian journalist Lorraine Mallinder whose article Deadly Secret was published in the Spring.2 An interchange Schepers related to Mallinder stands as a lasting tribute to this great man. Schepers was recalling a conversation in 1949 with Ivan Sabourin, the chief counsel for Quebec's asbestos industry; Sabourin had smuggled lung samples of Quebec asbestos miners across the border to research scientists in upper New York State. The acquisition of these samples as well as the transport of them were considered top secret. Schepers told Mallinder that Sabourin had been remarkably candid about his involvement in this undercover operation. Schepers asked the lawyer:
Why do you do this? Why do you oppose the rights of asbestos workers to claim compensation after their lungs have become all screwed up?...
'Because I'm paid to do so,' said Sabourin.'
'So, you're telling me you're a crook?'
'That's right,' said Sabourin.'
'I've seen it happen,' continued Schepers. 'I've worked in the hospitals. I've seen them die and seen their families go to the dogs from poverty. How could you be so unmerciful? I know you're a Catholic. It's the Christian belief that you help the man who has fallen down. You don't step on him. You give him your hand and help him up.'
'I go to church every Sunday and say my prayers every night,' replied Sabourin. 'I can't reverse what I've done.'
Dr. Schepers was married to Phyllis Marie du Toit who died in 1964; his second wife Andree Campbell died in 2005. Dr. Schepers is survived by two sons, a daughter died some years earlier, and two granddaughters. Throughout his life, he knew a challenge when he saw one and did not shy away from a fight. Whilst employed at the Pneumoconiosis Bureau in South Africa, he caused a scandal when he succeeded in gaining approval for a more liberal standard for awarding compensation to mine workers suffering from occupational diseases. A close friend called Dr. Schepers the Old War Horse, the record holder for longevity in the struggle against corporate crime.
Dr. Gerrit Schepers being interviewed by Josee Dupuis July, 2011.
Dr. Schepers' work will be carried on by all the students and colleagues for whom he was a source of inspiration and knowledge. His spirit will live on in the hearts and minds of those who campaign to make the world a better place. He did not bow down in the face of powerful forces or succumb to commercial pressures; neither will we.
September 13, 2011
1 McCulloch, J. (2009) Hiding a Pandemic: Dr G.W.H. Schepers and the Politics of Silicosis in South Africa. Journal of Southern African Studies, 35: 4, 835-848.
2 Malinder L. Deadly Secret. Canada's History, April-May 2011.