NEW YORK — When Dr. Janette Sherman was practicing internal medicine in suburban Detroit in the 1970s, she noticed that several of her patients were reporting similar symptoms, and that they all worked in automobile factories.
She soon realized that they were all being exposed to the same hazardous chemicals, including arsenic. She shared her findings with the consumer activist Ralph Nader’s Health Research Group, and in 1973 they issued a report on the health of 489 Detroit autoworkers.
Their jobs, the report said, were “associated with increased amounts of chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive lung disease, or other disabling and killing diseases.”
A key finding was that nonsmokers had just as much chronic illness as smokers. The nonsmokers also had a 50 percent greater chance of developing those diseases than nonsmokers whose jobs did not expose them to the dust, smoke, fumes, chemicals, and exhaust from forklift trucks to be found in factories. Such diseases had previously been attributed to cigarettes.
Dr. Sherman, who died on Nov. 7 at 89 in Alexandria, Va., “made the connection that this was not a lifestyle issue — this was a work issue,” her daughter, Connie Bigelow, said. “People were being made sick by their work.”
Dr. Sherman testified on behalf of thousands of these autoworkers as they sought compensation for their illnesses while pressing for cleaner work environments, labeling of the hazardous materials they were working with, and regular monitoring of their health.
Through the efforts of the United Auto Workers union, many of these changes came about.
As an internist, Dr. Sherman started out by treating the autoworkers. But she shifted her focus to researching the causes of their illnesses and trying to prevent them, becoming a pioneer in occupational and environmental health.
A chemist by training, she took up toxicology and helped pinpoint how hazardous substances, toxic chemicals, and nuclear radiation could lead to cancer, birth defects, and other diseases. Some of the chemicals she identified as particularly harmful have since been banned or restricted.
Over the course of her career Dr. Sherman served as a medical-legal expert witness in more than 5,000 workers’ compensation claims. Her medical-legal files, among the largest collections of their kind in the United States, are preserved at the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
In addition to testifying on behalf of workers, Dr. Sherman served as an expert witness for residents in communities affected by environmental hazards, most famously the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, N.Y. Developed in the 1950s atop a toxic chemical landfill, the area became the site of one of the worst environmental disasters in US history in the late 1970s, prompting President Jimmy Carter to declare an emergency. Dr. Sherman was among those urging that residents be evacuated, which they were.
She also studied the continuing health effects of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, in 1986 at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine and in 2011 at the Fukushima plant in Japan.
Her work often pitted her against powerful business and political interests.
“She definitely went up against the corporate establishment,” Bigelow, her daughter, said. “She was always on the side of the worker.”
Janette Dexter Miller was born in Buffalo on July 10, 1930, to Wilma and Frank Miller. (Miller was also her mother’s maiden name.) Both parents were pharmacists. They divorced when Janette was a toddler, and her mother raised her in Warsaw, N.Y., just east of Buffalo.
An athletic young woman, Janette planned to major in physical education when she went to Western Michigan College of Education in Kalamazoo, now Western Michigan University. But while there, she took a job in a chemistry lab to help pay for school and became interested in science. She ended up majoring in chemistry and biology and graduated in 1952.
That same year she entered into the first of her three marriages.
She went on to Michigan State University in Lansing, where, from 1956-60, she studied German and mathematics part time, though she did not obtain an advanced degree. She then enrolled in medical school at Wayne State University in Detroit, where she was one of only a handful of women studying for a medical degree. She had recently been divorced and was raising two children on her own at the time. She graduated in 1964 and later set up her own private practice just north of Detroit, where she first encountered the autoworkers.
Dr. Sherman, who was a professor of oncology and medicine at Wayne State from 1976-88, consulted with or served on a number of advisory boards and government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Cancer Institute.
She wrote two books, “Chemical Exposure and Disease: Diagnostic and Investigative Techniques” (1988) and “Life’s Delicate Balance: Causes and Prevention of Breast Cancer” (2000).
Dr. Sherman’s first marriage, to John Bigelow in 1952, ended in divorce in 1960. Her marriage to Howard Sherman in 1965 also ended in divorce, in 1972. In 1987 she married her high school sweetheart, Donald Nevinger. He died in 2005.
Dr. Sherman, who died at an assisted living community, had a combination of dementia and Addison’s disease, Bigelow said. In addition to Bigelow, she is survived by her son, Charles Bigelow; two stepchildren, Kevin Nevinger and Donna Kellogg; and five grandchildren.
At 56, Dr. Sherman took up the cello. “It was a lifelong dream, and her goal was to be last chair in a community orchestra,” her daughter said. She achieved that goal, playing with the all-volunteer symphony orchestra in McLean, Va., for several years.