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April 1, 1992

Deadly Dust: Silicosis and the Politics of Occupational Disease in Twentieth-Century America

Author Affiliations

Pennsylvania State University University Park

JAMA. 1992;267(13):1842. doi:10.1001/jama.1992.03480130162047

Dust-induced diseases have been recognized since antiquity: medieval lapidaries died of them, as did countless miners, stonecutters, and metal polishers. With the development of steamand, later, gasoline-powered machinery early in the 20th century, however, workers in such trades were exposed to dramatically increased levels of dust. The result was a minor epidemic of dustinduced diseases, notably silicosis, that aroused both popular and medical attention in the 1920s and 1930s.

Rosner and Markowitz have produced a carefully crafted history of the rise and fall of this occupational disease, focusing especially on the political forces behind changing disease definitions. The central thesis is that silicosis, a disease prominent in 1930s medical literature and public consciousness, essentially disappeared from both realms in the 1950s, not just because fewer people were suffering from it, but also because industry and allied interests were able to monopolize definition of the hazard.

Silicosis was recognized as a