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joan wickersham

The haze of history

Why are some events — like the deadly pollution of Donora, Pa. — forgotten?

On Oct. 30, 1948, the main business district of Donora, Pa., was cloaked in smog, the sunlight virtually obliterated by thick low-hanging pollution.ASSOCIATED PRESS/file

Sixty-five years ago, in October of 1948, the weather suddenly turned cool in the town of Donora, Pa. As the smokestacks of Donora’s steel and zinc factories went on spewing their usual mix of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and fluoride gas, the blanket of cold air created an inversion, keeping these poisonous gases trapped in the valley where the town lay. The air turned dark and murky. Streetlights burned all day. Motorists couldn’t see where they were going and had to navigate by scraping a front wheel along the curb. People got sick; people started dying. The factories kept running. After five days, the factories finally shut down, and the rains came. The air began to clear. By that point, 20 people were dead. Fifty more died within the next month, and a subsequent public health study showed that 6,000 more (approximately half the town’s population) had suffered permanent heart and lung damage.

Donora is the worst air pollution disaster in American history.

And, until recently, I had never heard of it.

My friend Regina mentioned that she was taking a day trip to visit Donora, and I said, “Why? What’s in Donora?” Reggie, who has spent her life working for the US Environmental Protection Agency, told me about the 1948 disaster. “A lot of people see it as the beginning of the environmental movement,” she said. I was horrified by the story and troubled by my own ignorance. I asked around and most of my friends, including several environmentalists, hadn’t heard of it either. And that started me wondering about how and why certain events become — or fail to become — lodged in our cultural memory. Stonewall, Selma, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire: These are indelible images of injustice, events that became dramatic symbols of a wrong, and helped to catalyze social change. So why isn’t Donora equally famous?

It happened in an obscure place, far away from media attention.


Establishing clear cause and effect was hard. According to “When Smoke Ran Like Water,’’ a history of pollution by epidemiologist Devra Davis, who grew up in Donora, the damage to people’s hearts and lungs was not visible upon autopsy. Public officials blamed the deaths on the freakish weather event.

There were vested interests at work. Donora’s (and for that matter Pennsylvania’s) economy relied on the steel and zinc industry, and people generally try to make events mean something consistent with their existing beliefs and self-interest. The mills were keeping the town alive, even if they were also literally killing it.

And finally, the Donora disaster happened too early. In 1948 there was no existing environmental movement. Events don’t take on historical meaning and become emblematic unless there is already a group of people committed to the cause, a cauldron waiting for a dramatic incident to bring it to a boil. The Boston Tea Party, for instance, could have been forgotten, or remembered as petty vandalism, but because it happened where and when it did, it became a symbol of the burgeoning independence movement. Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on the bus was part of an active effort to focus attention on civil rights. Even a dreadful accident like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred at a time when the progressive labor reform movement was already advocating for safer working conditions.


In 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, awash with spilled oil, caught fire. In 1976, reporters discovered that houses and schools had been built on top of a toxic waste dump at New York State’s Love Canal. These two incidents, unlike Donora, became rallying points in what was by then a growing movement to protect the environment.

History is the story of what we know and what we remember. When we think of great social causes and reforms, our historical understanding coalesces around certain points of outrage, instances so egregious that some fundamental danger or inequity is caught red-handed. But in addition to the big stories that galvanize the public, there are thousands of smaller stories, not widely famous but not entirely forgotten. These are the Donoras: the incidents that raise the first alarms, alerting the few people who later, in hindsight, will prove to have had foresight.


Joan Wickersham’s website is www.joanwickersham.com. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.