1948 Smog

"Before there was an Environmental Protection Agency, before there was an Earth Day, before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, there was Donora." -- W. Michael McCabe (1998)

NEWS FLASH 1948... 
"It was still early in the evening and the sky was so luminous that the smoke from the zinc works was a pale shadow against it. Freshly charged, the zinc smelting furnaces, crawling with thousands of small flames, yellow, blue, green, filled the valley with smoke. Acrid and poisonous, worse than anything a steel mill belched forth, it penetrated everywhere, making automobile headlights necessary in Webster's streets, setting the river-boat pilots to cursing God, and destroying every living thing on the hills. Webster lay directly in its path, and in its streets children played, in its dreadful little houses men and women ate and slept, made love and died, perpetually enveloped in smoke. Sometimes the wind shifted and blew it back the other way, over to Donora where another Webster was in the making, no less dreadful, no less hideous; and then Webster's stricken earth, like a scabrous body, lay bared to the clean light of day until the smoke returned and shrouded it."
-- Out of This Furnace by Thomas Bell (1941)7 years before 1948
As the week of October 24, 1948, began, the nearly 14,000 people of Donora paid little attention to the dense heavy fog covering the town. The cool to cold autumn nights combined with warm water from the Monongahela River and smoke from the local steel mill, namely the zinc works, blast furnace and open hearth, as well as thousands of coal furnaces in local homes, would typically limit visibility until afternoon (see photo to the right). As the week wore on, residents began to realize this fog was anything but typical. By Thursday, October 28, streetlights were on during mid-day (see photo below as an example, but not from 1948) and people walking the streets were struggling to find their way. Soon, many elderly people began to complain of breathing difficulty, thousands were ill, and houseplants began to shrivel. Then, people began to die.
Donora at noon
Donora physicians worked around the clock, treating victims as best they could against a mysterious pathogen. The Donora Board of Health set up an emergency aid station and temporary morgue in the basement of the Community Center. Volunteer firemen felt their way door to door, administering oxygen and attempting to get people help. Management at the mill refused to believe or admit that the waste they were emitting caused the problem; after all, it was the same thing they had been doing for over thirty years.
In less than three days, thousands of people were impacted, hundreds of people fell sick, twenty-six people were dead, along with dozens of animals. Who knows how many more followed in the weeks, months and years to come that are not counted among the twenty-six? On October 31, rains finally dispersed the killer fog, but leaving the nation in shock. The dead and sick were not only from Donora but also from the neighboring communities of Webster and Sunnyside that were down wind and across the river. 
Walter Gilmore was a coal miner from Donora who helped maintain his family's Gilmore Cemetery even after they stopped burials thirteen years earlier in 1935 when severe erosion took place due to its close proximity to the Zinc Works. Walter liked to log his work and the day's weather conditions in a diary and would detail if he worked or not, the number of tons of coal he produced, and a brief mention of the weather.
On Saturday, October 30, 1948, Walter noted that there was, "no work." For the weather, Walter noted that, "We have had the worst fog in the last 4 days in history of Donora. About 18 persons have died from asma (asthma) from the fog and acid fumes from Zinc Works." 
On Sunday, October 31, 1948, Walter noted that it was, "still foggy" similar to what he noted on Wednesday, October 27, 1948, "foggy" to Friday, October 29, 1948, "real foggy."
His diary entries of the 1948 Smog are the only diary entries that we have.
The Federal, State and Local governments, along with numerous universities and scientists, conducted an investigation. Sulfur dioxide emissions from U.S. Steel's Donora Zinc Works and its American Steel & Wire plant were frequent occurrences in Donora. What made the 1948 event more severe was a temperature inversion, in which a mass of warm, stagnant air was trapped in the valley. The pollutants in the air mixed with fog to form a thick, yellowish, acrid smog that inhibited the normal process where the sun would burn off the fog. This smog hung over Donora for five days. The sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine and other poisonous gases that usually dispersed into the atmosphere were caught in the inversion and continued to accumulate until rain ended the weather pattern.
The killer fog, and others that predated it back to 1905, introduced America to a new term: "smog" - a combination of industrial pollution or smoke and naturally occurring fog. The 1948 Donora Smog made the world aware of the dangers of unchecked pollution.
The tragic and heroic events of that October weekend helped shape the environmental movement that was to follow. The pin in the photo to the right was once owned by a young University of Pittsburgh student named Bonnie Leseck Uhlenbrock who took interest in this new movement and purchased this pin to wear at the university on the first Earth Day in 1970. Keeping the pin for 45 or so years, Uhlenbrock would eventually donate the pin to the Donora Historical Society where it's now on permanent display. 
But did the environmental movement actually start in 1970 with Earth Day? 
The Donora Zinc Works was constructed in 1915 and would become the largest zincing facility in the world. Soon after construction was completed, the impact on the local environment did not go unnoticed by the people in Donora and the small village across the river called Webster. Backyard gardens were being compromised and eventually farm animals were being sickened. Growing weary of watching their surroundings diminish over a twenty-year period, in the 1930s a group of men from Webster and a few from Donora formed the Society For Better Living whose motto was Fresh Air - Green Grass. Protests by the Society against the Zinc Works were led by Donora-native and steel mill worker Stephan "Beanie" Huhra who would ride his donkey-pulled buggy adorned with the Society's banner in parades in Donora. The Society For Better Living is believed to be one of the first grassroots environmental movement organizations in the United States. In the photo to the left, "Beanie" Huhra, his donkey-pulled buggy and the Society's banner are depicted in a rather large mural that hangs in the Smog Museum. The mural to the left was painted by California University of Pennsylvania art professor Todd Pinkham for the opening of the museum in 2008 and the 60th anniversary of the 1948 Smog. 
The 1948 Smog event is the foundation of the Donora Historical Society's Smog Museum. On occasion, we get inquiries from around the world as other countries in Asia and Europe face the same situation, we did in 1948.
Countless newspaper and magazine articles, as well as books and television programs have documented what unfolded in Donora in 1948. Because of all the industrialization that was taking place in America at that time, an event was eventually going to occur somewhere that would be the impetus for realizing the necessity for a cleaner environment. That event occurred in Donora. As tragic as it was, it did lay the groundwork for cleaner air for everyone. Our slogan "Clean Air Started Here" is one that Donora is very proud of and a testament to the people who gave their lives for this cause. In 1955, the U.S. passed the first federal regulation of air pollution, although this mainly provided funding for research. Then came the U.S. Clean Air Act of 1963, the first federal legislation focused on air pollution. In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was created, and Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments which led to the establishment of the nation's air quality standards.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1921, Mary Ochsenhirt Amdur (pictured in the photo to the left) was an American toxicologist and public health researcher who became interested in the environmental health impacts of air pollution following the infamous Smog of 1948. After graduating in chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh in 1943, and then receiving her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Cornell University in 1946, Dr. Amdur relocated to the Boston area. She was a researcher at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and then at the Harvard School of Public Health. She worked with Phillip Drinker (inventor of the iron lung) to work in the male-dominated field of environmental and occupational health. In 1953, Dr. Amdur was assigned to study the effects of the 1948 Smog, where she specifically looked into the respiratory effects related to sulfuric acid by experimenting with the novel exposure chamber using guinea pigs that she invented with her husband, Benjamin Amdur. When she reported her findings in 1954, it led to her being threatened, to her funding being pulled, and to her losing her job at Harvard. Undeterred, she carried on her research in a different role at the Harvard School of Public Health, and subsequently at MIT and the New York University Center for Environmental Medicine. Despite her early controversy and overcoming gender, political, and scientific barriers, her work was used in the creation of standards in air pollution, and she is widely considered the "Mother of Air Pollution Toxicology." Without her bravery and ingenious work, we would not have mostly clear skies or the Clean Air Act. In 1997, Dr. Amdur became the first woman to receive the Merit Award from the Society of Toxicology. She died the following year in 1998. It is believed that Amdur had ties to Donora with Ochsenhirt relatives and she would visit as a little girl.
In 1950, a 21-year-old German man named Guenter Kunert (pictured in the photo to the right) took pen to paper and wrote a poem about the 1948 Smog titled, "The Song of a Small Town" after reading a LIFE Magazine article about the event. For him, what took place in Donora in 1948 paralleled his struggles of surviving WWII as a young German-Jew whose relatives were exterminated in concentration camps, and what was taking shape politically in Berlin at that time. Later, Guenter Kunert would go on to become one of Germany's greatest contemporary writers, and this poem would be translated by Penn State University languages professor Dr. Manfred Keune and presented to the Donora Historical Society. In 2013, as part of a Cal U of PA Honors English class titled "Digital Storytelling" that was also sponsored by the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, two freshman students (Corrine Dowlin and Rachael Fawley) used Kunert's poem and combined it with some of their own poetic flair for their video project. Click on their YouTube video titled "A Town Called Donora: A Digital Story" to view. This is as good of an example of what took place on that October weekend in 1948. Guenter Kunert died in 2019. To read his obituary click - Kunert obituary. 
Additional information on Cal U and their "Digital Storytelling" class can be found on their website link Cal U of PA. Also, numerous articles have also been written in local newspapers on our video, one of which is Tribune-Review Digital Storytelling.
In 2002, Donora native and world-renowned epidemiologist Dr. Devra Davis (pictured in the photo to the left) published a book titled, "When Smoke Ran Like Water," that discusses the 1948 Smog as well as confronts the public triumphs and private failures of her lifelong battle against environmental pollution. She documents the shocking toll of a public-health disaster—300,000 deaths a year in the U.S. and Europe from the effects of pollution—and asks why we remain silent. She shows how environmental toxins contribute to a broad spectrum of human diseases, including breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and emphysema—all major killers—and in addition how these toxins affect the health and development of the heart and lungs, and even alter human reproductive capacity. 
Carnegie Mellon University professor Lester Lave and student Eugene Seskin dismissed the views of those who believed that only high-pollution episodes caused health problems: "It is the minimum level of air pollution that is important, not the occasional peaks. People dealing with this problem should worry about abating air pollution at all times, instead of confining their concern to increased pollution during inversions." (pp 103-104) This was Donora and Webster for 42 years during the life of the Donora Zinc Works from 1915 to 1957 minus that one fateful week in October of 1948.
Click on our site's Merchandise tab to learn more on both the hardback and softback versions. 
Click on Dr. Devra Davis' Resume to view her credentials, accomplishments and upcoming projects.
Dr. Robert K. Musil's book (pictured in the photo to the right) titled, "Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America's Environment," gives a unique perspective by placing Pittsburgh native Rachel Carson's achievements in a wider context, weaving connections from the past through the present by connecting Carson and her contemporaries or "foremothers" of toxicology who have historically received less attention, such as Alice Hamilton, Harriet Hardy, Anna Baetjer, Pittsburgh native Mary O. Amdur and Donora native Devra Davis, to name a few.
On Saturday, September 13th, 2014, as part of the Heinz History Center Affiliate Ambassador's Series, Smog Museum archivist and curator Brian Charlton presented "Donora and the 1948 Air Quality Crisis" at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. The presentation was filmed by C-SPAN and was featured on October 12th, 2014, on C-SPAN3. Click on Donora and the 1948 Air Quality Crisis to view the show in its entirety (1 hour 15 minutes.)
In 2015, we worked with photographer Annie O'Neill on her portion of the project In The Air: Visualizing What We Breathe - The Documentary Works on a collaborative project documenting the social, environmental and economic factors contributing to air quality in Western Pennsylvania. The work went on exhibit in Pittsburgh in late 2015 and was featured in the New York Times "Lens" column. Using 4x5 Polaroid film, Annie O'Neill created a series of portraits of survivors of the Donora smog inversion of 1948. Pictured to the right is Rose Marie Iiams, former Donora Historical Society member and pharmacist during the 1948 Smog.
In the summer of 2017, we worked with Blink Publishing from London, England for the use of our Smog Museum logo image (see logo above) for their book "The Crown - The Inside History." Written by Robert Lacey, the book is the official companion (Volume 1) to the Emmy-winning Netflix drama created by Peter Morgan, chronicling the reign of Elizabeth II (1947-1955). In Season 1, Episode 4 is titled "Act of God" and tells the story of the 1952 London Killer Fog. Donora's 1948 Smog predates that 1952 event by four years and they discuss Donora during that specific show. The book features a two-page spread that shows the Smog Museum logo, as well a brief story on the 1948 Smog and a mention of the Donora Historical Society, the Smog Museum and this website.
In October 2017, we participated with Point Park University in their Environmental Journalism Program's 2017 Multimedia Workshop. Within a 24-hour window, the students and their mentor were expected to visit their host site, tape footage, conduct interviews and put together their video story. Our student was Chloe Jakiela and her mentor was Rebecca Devereaux. Their video story can be seen below:
In October 2018, we recognized the 70th anniversary of the 1948 Smog with a presentation at the Donora Library featuring a WQED/PBS documentary and our own presentation at the Smog Museum. 
Numerous news organizations also recognized the anniversary with newspaper articles and social media posts. One of those articles was written by Patrick Kiger for HowStuffWorks titled "Deadly 1948 Donora Smog Launched the U.S. Clean Air Movement." 
Another was written by Elizabeth T. Jacobs, PhD, corresponding author Jefferey L. Burgess, MD, and Mark B. Abbott, PhD for American Journal of Public Health titled "The Donora Smog Revisited: 70 Years After the Event That Inspired the Clean Air Act." 
In December 2018, we shared photos and primary resource materials with Suzan Satterfield of SaltRun Productions, Inc. who wrote, directed and produced a PBS TV show series titled "EcoSense for Living." EcoSense Episode 303 - "Do We Still Need the Clean Air Act?" takes us back in time to Donora, Pennsylvania (10 minutes of the 23-minute show,) the epicenter of the clean air initiative thanks to the thick yellow smog that blanketed the city for five straight days in 1948 and led to 27 deaths from that toxic air. Dr. Devra Davis (see below,) an environmental health expert and Donora native, explains how the tragic incident led to the Clean Air Act and why it’s still necessary today. 
In May and November of 2019, we partnered with GASP (Group Against Smog and Pollution) and Venture Outdoors for our first ever Smog Hikes titled "HIKE THROUGH HISTORY: How Donora's Killer Smog Gave Birth to Cleaner Air" to take hikers on a trek through the past, present, and future of air quality in Southwestern Pennsylvania. We started at "ground zero" of the 1948 Smog - in the footprint of what was once Donora’s mighty Zinc Works and then walked along the Monongahela River through what was once American Steel & Wire Works, then visited the Donora Smog Museum to learn more about the 1948 Smog event that took the lives of over 50 people and helped spur the clean air movement in the United States. The total hike was roughly two miles. Registration was handled through Venture Outdoors. This Hike Through History was part of GASP's Athletes United for Healthy Air campaign. The main goals of that campaign are to get people who are active outdoors to understand that they are uniquely affected by air pollution, learn some ways to minimize their exposure while being active outside, and to get them interested in taking a stand for cleaner, healthier air. 
In May 2019, the second edition of 100 Things To Do In Pittsburgh Before You Die was released by author Rossilynne Skena Culgan, director of a Pittsburgh news website called “The Incline.” This is a book of bucket list items that people from Pittsburgh or visitors to Pittsburgh should accomplish before they, well, "kick the bucket." The story of Pittsburgh's transformation from a smoky steel town to a modern, high-tech city draws people from around the world to this corner of southwestern Pennsylvania. Among the “100 Things,” the Smog Museum of the Donora Historical Society was included as #78 “Learn about the Clean Air Movement at the Smog Museum” on page 102. This is a huge accomplishment for the Donora Historical Society and we are flattered to walk among the other titans of the Pittsburgh cultural landscape. 
In April 2020, we were contacted by Amy Balkin of San Francisco who was selected as the 2020 Artist-in-Residence at the University of Pennsylvania for their Penn Program in Environmental Humanities. Balkin is an artist whose works propose alternatives for conceiving the public domain outside current legal and discursive systems, addressing property relations, environmental justice, and equity in the context of climate change. Our participation included interviews about Donora's 1948 Smog or Donora Smog Museum Interviews for their project. This project is an all-digital series of engagements showcasing publicly engaged environmental research projects marrying environmental art and science and supported in part by the National Geographic Foundation, this platform invites explorations of how story, paired with data, can spur action on climate. Amy Balkin's website. 
In September 2020, we were contacted by Cynthia Gorney, a Contributing Writer for National Geographic Magazine and former professor from the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Gorney hails from San Francisco and recently learned about Donora’s 1948 Smog after researching air quality and pollution related to the California wildfires. After numerous emails, phone calls, and even a lengthy FaceTime tour of the Smog Museum, Gorney featured our smog event from 72 years ago on October 27, 2020, with the National Geographic online in an article titled, Decades ago, this pollution disaster exposed the perils of dirty air. To read the entire story, you may have to submit your email address. 
In April 2022, WTAE Channel 4 News Anchor Shannon Perrine and Video Journalist Brian Caldwell stopped by to film for Chronicle - a dedicated magazine style show focusing on topics relevant to Pittsburgh. Their show, titled "Forecasting Our Future," was an effort by WTAE and Hearst Television to explore the impact of weather on all aspects of our lives. This hour-long show concentrates on climate change with a small segment about Donora's 1948 Smog with interviews conducted at the Smog Museum. The segment on Donora starts at the 26-minute mark with an excellent explanation of a weather inversion. To view the show, click - Chronicle: Forecasting the Future.
On October 24, 2022, the History Channel's "History This Week" podcast (31 minutes) featured The Donora Death Fog - October 26, 1948. A mysterious fog descends upon the valley town of Donora, Pennsylvania. Most of its residents work at the local steel mill and are used to murky air. But there’s something different about this miasma of acrid vapors. People begin to cough convulsively; some have trouble breathing. Residents crowd into local doctors’ offices, some arriving at the doorstep gasping for breath. They wonder, what is happening to us?  The fog lifts from the valley 5 days later, leaving 20 people dead. What caused the Donora Death Fog? And how did it lead to the creation of the Clean Air Act? To hear the podcast, click - History This Week: The Donora Death Fog, then click the RSS speaker button under the logo, then finally click the PLAY button.
On December 14, 2022, the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) virtual webinar (90 minutes) featured a discussion about the 1948 Smog and titled, "Making the Connection: What the Donora Smog Disaster Can Teach Us 74 Years Later" that featured Brian Charlton from the Donora Historical Society and Smog Museum, Scott Beveridge, a retired, award-winning investigative journalist from the Observer-Reporter newspaper in Washington County, and Myranda Fullerton, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service. To see the webinar, click - GASP: Donora Smog Disaster.
Olfactory Media Library
LINDSEY FRENCHAssistant Professor, Faculty of Media, Art and PerformanceUniversity of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada
ALEX YOUNGMedia Manager, Video and Media Design, School of DramaCarnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
TITLE: Developing an Olfactory Media Library for an Atmospheric Commons
The atmospheric commons require negotiations of risk as we collectively imagine climate futures. In this presentation, we share early work towards developing an Olfactory Media Library - a socially engaged mobile art and research lab focused on developing tools and practices for embodied learning about the air we share, while asking critical questions about climate, atmosphere and environment.
The Olfactory Media Library project, a mobile olfactory and atmospheric sensing station supported in part by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Additional support for this event comes from the Frank-Ratchye Further Fund at the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, the Donora Historical Society and Smog Museum, the Center for Coalfield Justice, and the University of Regina.
Expect completion in 2024. Expected display in 2025.
On December 6, 2023, a 90-minute virtual roundtable discussion was held about the ways that artists and community members figure, represent, respond to, and participate in an atmospheric commons. The event focused on southwestern Pennsylvania as a region where conditions of toxicity and industrial pollution have significantly impacted social and ecological communities, and where local conversations regarding shared atmospheres have generated international public discourse and environmental legislation.
A Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission (PHMC) plaque was erected in 1995 and can be seen in front of the Donora Public Library (see photo to the left).  In November 2017, author Liam Baranauskas stopped by to do research and to write an article for Atlas Obscura titled "The Historically Hazy Story of Donora’s Deadly Smog."
Learn more about the 1948 Smog and the Society For Better Living firsthand by visiting the Smog Museum.
Read the US Geological Survey report titled "Historical Zinc Smelting in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., with Estimates of Atmospheric Zinc Emissions and Other Materials" that compares the Donora Zinc Works with other zinc smelting facilities in the United States.
Click on our site's Merchandise tab to see some of the environmental books (including When Smoke Ran Like Water), DVDs and Smog Museum T-shirts/sweatshirts being sold by the Donora Historical Society.
In 2018, Four Points Brewing launched their Donora Smog beer, in kegs only, to join their ever-expanding line of beers and named after Donora's smog incident in 1948. The Imperial Stout 9.5% includes notes of dark chocolate, toffee and hints of coffee. This was their first beer that recognizes Donora, the other being Donora Cement City IPA. Owner Dave Barbe pays homage to his family's Donora roots by featuring these two beers. Brewmaster Adam Boura claims Donora Smog is one of their more popular selections. In 2020, Four Points started to can their Donora Smog beer. Four Point Brewing is located in nearby Charleroi at 400 Washington Avenue. Click Four Points Brewing and Fourth Street BBQ to learn more about their beer and food.
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