Remembering Morris Greenberg, 1926-2021

by Laurie Kazan-Allen

In the days and weeks to come others, more learned than I, will write tributes to Dr Morris Greenberg, a kind-hearted and generous physician who died on August 19, 2021. Their expositions will no doubt, detail his many accomplishments, scientific publications and collaborations with international agencies, regional authorities and national governments.

My thoughts when hearing the sad news of Morris’ demise were a jumble of memories of his kindness to the maverick ban asbestos campaigners he came across and the lengths to which he would go to help us. We could never pay him nor could we ever repay him for his assistance but he was always willing to provide guidance and information out of his commitment to making the world a safer place not only for workers but also for members of the public whose lives were being jeopardized by exposures to asbestos.

On occasions, Dr Greenberg provided a lone voice of reason and it was as a result of his decisive but tactful action that dangerous missteps were avoided. I recall an incident in the late 1990s when a United Nations agency was poised to publish a brochure on asbestos in housing that would almost certainly have caused more harm than good as the author had uncritically accepted many of the asbestos industry’s arguments. Dr Greenberg was asked to advise on the publication; his diplomatic approach helped ensure that the contentious text was withdrawn and that, when the brochure was finally published, the advice given was correct.

I remember my outpouring of frustration at the ill-advised actions of one of the international agencies, which at that time was espousing the asbestos industry’s "safe and controlled use of asbestos." After letting me vent for, what seemed liked ages, Morris calmly talked me down, explaining that we had no alternative to working with this and other such agencies and had to educate them so that, in future, they would make appropriate choices and decisions based on accurate and updated information. Of course, he was right.

Even in retirement, Dr Greenberg’s work as a medical historian and advisor didn’t stop. When Canada made a complaint to the World Trade Organization (WTO) about the French Government’s ban on chrysotile (white) asbestos, the European Union’s legal team called on Dr Greenberg to assist with defence of the ban. They succeeded. As a result of the WTO rulings upholding the rights of Member States to prohibit toxic imports to protect public health, the EU continued to progress efforts to eradicate the asbestos hazard in all member states.

Morris was one of the greats in the world of occupational medicine, always supporting David against the many corporate Goliaths; his legacy lives on in the cornucopia of publications which he left behind and in the positive changes he effected in HM Factory Inspectorate, the Department of Health, the Royal Society of Medicine and the hearts of those he inspired.

Commenting on the news of Dr Greenberg’s passing, Dr Daniel Teitelbaum remembered:

"his brilliant and biting wit, his scholarship and his human kindness. There won’t be another like him. Grace, scholarship and humanity don’t come along very often."

Another colleague spoke of Morris’ "enduring and powerful voice for workers and their families and of course for the science," while others recalled his total commitment and dedication and "his cryptic sense of humor and his advocacy for worker health and safety." I remember Morris’ exquisite cursive handwriting, his turn of phrase which harked back to a gentler age and his endless courtesy.

The areas of interest that attracted Morris’ attention were wide and varied but for those of us in the ban asbestos community, it was his lifelong commitment to documenting the catastrophic global asbestos legacy and to ending toxic exposures that were our points of connection. By continuing the campaign to eradicate the asbestos hazard, we honor his memory. Thank you, Morris for your scholarship, generosity, friendship and support. You will be sorely missed.

Our sincere condolences to his wife, children, grandchildren, friends and colleagues.

Morris Greenberg Obituary

The Times

Morris Greenberg’s fight against the asbestos industry began in 1967 when he inspected a London factory. Workers without masks were brushing the floor, churning up clouds of the so-called magic mineral, unaware of the danger, even though one of them was gasping for breath.

In a decades-long battle, Greenberg’s opponents included Sir Ralph Bateman, the former president of the Confederation of British Industry and chairman of Turner and Newall, the world’s largest asbestos factory. Bateman considered that asbestos could be sold "safely" in developing countries where life expectancy was so low that people would die of other causes before developing asbestos-related diseases, which can occur up to 50 years after exposure.

Greenberg researched and wrote prolifically on the public health and corporate history of asbestos, which was not totally banned in Britain until 1999, despite the first reports of severe respiratory disease in asbestos factory workers surfacing in the UK as early as 1898. It remains the world’s biggest single cause of work-related deaths, with about 90,000 people each year dying of diseases caused by asbestos exposure.

Born in 1926, the youngest of six children of Ukrainian immigrants in the East End of London, Greenberg was encouraged to study hard by his father, who learnt English by reading Sir Walter Scott’s novels. As a medical student at University College Hospital, London, Morris became severely ill with tuberculosis and spent nearly four years convalescing before returning to medical school and graduating in 1953.

His first medical paper in 1957 was followed by hundreds more, mainly about asbestos. From 1959 to 1967 he was a company doctor for Philips Electrical and for 17 years a senior adviser to the Health and Safety Executive. After founding the HSE statistical and epidemiology unit, he moved in 1985 to the Department of Health.

Greenberg was a measured and well-mannered man whose wife Gillian, a retired epidemiologist, heard him swear only once in 60 years. Gillian survives him with their children Naomi, a chemistry teacher; Daniel, a lawyer; and Susannah, an occupational physician.

A skilled Scrabble player and an avid reader, particularly of Trollope and Thackeray, he never lost his sense of playfulness or ability to find humour in small things. The former chief rabbi Lord Sacks once remarked that Greenberg had all the erudition to write a dozen encyclopaedias and "all the modesty to keep us from knowing it".

Dr Morris Greenberg, campaigner, was born on June 6, 1926. He died on August 19, 2021, aged 95

A life to celebrate, not a death to mourn

by Vivian Wineman

Last Thursday evening my father in law Morris Greenberg passed away peacefully aged 95. Though physically frail, he had suffered no loss of faculties or dignity and was working up to the very last day of his life. Death came to him as to a friend. He died, as it says of his namesake Moses, by the kiss of God, leaving us to celebrate his life rather than mourn his death.

It was indeed a life to celebrate. He was born in the East End of London in 1926 to parents who were recent immigrants from the Ukraine with modest means but passionate aspirations. Their determination for their children to be educated was manifested in his own academic achievement. As Lord Sacks said of him; he had all the erudition to write a dozen encyclopaedias and all the modesty to keep us from knowing it. He went on to qualify as a Doctor at University College Hospital London. He was attracted by the academic side of the profession – he was to publish literally hundreds of academic papers – but it was the social side of medicine that attracted him more. In the words of another practitioner in the field, he defined the art of occupational medicine for a generation of practitioners. He specialised in occupational diseases in particular the various diseases caused by exposure to asbestos.

It is not often appreciated how little was known about occupational diseases when he started and, in particular, quite how lethal asbestos was. It is estimated that even today 100,000 people die worldwide as a result of exposure to it each year. In this country more people die of exposure to it than are killed on the roads. It took a long time, though, for the threat posed to be appreciated. The first case of asbestosis in the UK was diagnosed in 1924. The victim Nellie Kershaw a female factory worker was not considered entitled to any medication to treat her symptoms. When she died at the age of thirty three, her employers Turner Asbestos later Turner and Newall refused to admit liability. She received no compensation and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

Even though it was becoming clear during the 1930s that asbestos was a killer it was not until the 1970s that controls were imposed on its use and that workers or rather their estates were compensated for being killed by it. Throughout this period the asbestos companies and their insurers deployed all sorts of legal stratagems to avoid having to answer for the consequences of their misdeeds from denying that asbestos was dangerous to admitting that it was but claiming that its victims were really being killed by something else – to plain old legal delaying tactics. In the chilling prose of a memo unearthed by Morris the plaintiff ‘had a poor expectation of life’. There was no need therefore to be too hasty with a settlement.

While the victims of asbestosis and related diseases died in destitution the Directors of the companies responsible for their plight ended their lives laden with honours and wealth. The efforts of Morris and his colleagues, however, helped bring about a change in the climate of opinion which led to more restrictions on the use of asbestos and compensation for its victims. The costs were so significant many of the asbestos companies had to file for bankruptcy and huge losses were incurred by their insurers.

Morris was honoured by grateful workers associations as far away as Australia. In 2011 he received an award from the Ramazzini Institute named for Bernardino Ramazzini the father of occupational medicine. After his death, tributes flowed in from places as far as India His family nominated him for an award in the UK. It was heart-warming to read the enthusiastic endorsements written by serious people on his behalf. Unsurprisingly, though, he did not get an award. With a succession of business friendly governments a man who had dedicated his life to the protection of ordinary people against the worst abuses of big business was not likely to be favoured. Besides Morris was far too honest and forthright – for him his yeah was always yeah and his nay was nay. There were no shortcuts or compromises. He did not care how many important people he offended.

He was not unduly disappointed at this failure. For him, his real concern was the good he could achieve. The appreciation of his peers and the gratitude of those he had helped were far more significant than a gong from the establishment. Besides he was always happy with his lot- cheerful irreverence being his stock in trade. He loved his research and continued working at it until the very day he died.

He lived to see his Diamond Wedding; together with his beloved wife Gillian receiving a letter of congratulations from the Queen. Devoted to each other and in similar professions they almost defined the phrase Darby and Joan. They were due to hold a party to celebrate their anniversary just three days after he died. Ironically that suited Morris. Fuss and attention were the last things he wanted. He remained modest, quiet and private to the end.

Remembering Dr Morris Greenberg, Distinguished Public Health Worker

by Barry Castleman, ScD, Environmental Consultant

Dr Morris Greenberg died peacefully on August 19, 2021. As UK Medical Inspector of Factories, he published a report of cases in the UK Mesothelioma Registry in 1974. In addition to cases with occupational asbestos exposure as short as 3 weeks, one case included was a man whose only identified exposure was spending just one day sawing up asbestos sheets to make a chicken coop.

In his work at the UK Factory Inspectorate, in publications continuing throughout his retirement, and in his willingness to be an activist and work with others for a world free of asbestos use, Morris Greenberg was an exemplar. He wrote many papers analyzing historical events and showing where the authorities and industry had failed to protect the workers.

In one paper, he recalled that London dock workers concerned about handling jute sacks of asbestos sought out the advice of renowned occupational health physician Donald Hunter in 1965. Though Hunter supported their concerns, they were later lulled by reassurances from the port doctor and then trade union doctor Robert Murray (who would later go on to bankrupt asbestos activist Alan Dalton with a libel suit and testify in defense of T&N against asbestos victims). Greenberg went on to show that the reassurances were not evidence-based and that existing data at the time and in decades since have shown that dockers were at increased risk of cancer.

In 1997, the WHO Regional Office for Europe circulated draft reports "Asbestos and Health" and "Asbestos in Buildings." Dr. Richard Lemen, retired chief of the US National Institute of Occupational Health, raised concern that the reports were misleading and read like endorsements for using asbestos. As controversy grew, WHO turned to Morris Greenberg to advise on the matter. Though the "Asbestos and Health" report was modified by its author, Greenberg slammed the revision as containing elements unfitting in a WHO report. Further criticism by union leaders and scientists including former IARC Director Lorenzo Tomatis led WHO headquarters to halt the report’s distribution in 1999. A second edition of the report, much improved by the adoption of language from previous international reports, was published in 2000. The "Asbestos in Buildings" report, whose atrocious draft advised local authorities to "de-dramatize the problem," was never issued by WHO.

In 2008, the Collegium Ramazzini had just met in Carpi, Italy, and the periodic review of the Rotterdam Convention was scheduled to take place immediately afterward at the FAO in Rome. Activists were coming to contest the opposition (by countries including Canada) to including chrysotile asbestos in the PIC list of substances covered by the convention’s "prior informed consent" duty. Scientists were needed to join the activists in trying to make a difference, where over 100 countries were represented. Morris Greenberg and Colin Soskolne agreed to come down with me on the train and spend several days in Rome, in case anybody wanted to argue about the epidemiology of chrysotile asbestos. At one point, we joined a protest, holding large photographs of asbestos factory pollution in Asia.

Morris Greenberg was a kind and decent man as well as a distinguished public health worker.

A Fellow of the Collegium Ramazzini practically since its founding in 1982 by Dr. Irving Selikoff and Cesare Maltoni, Dr. Greenberg was remembered with great affection by his colleagues and activists. "A dear colleague and consummate gentleman" (Dr. Arthur Frank). "Wise, deeply committed, and very dedicated." (Dr. Phil Landrigan, former President of the Collegium) "What a gentleman and scholar. His cryptic sense of humor and his advocacy for worker health and safety were from his heart. His contributions were many." (Dr. Richard Lemen) "I remember his brilliant and biting wit, his scholarship and his human kindness. There won’t be another like him. Grace, scholarship and humanity don’t come along very often." (Dr. Daniel Teitelbaum) "A real mensch." (Dr. David Egilman)

Asbestos activists reacted with deep sadness to the passing of Morris Greenberg. "He was such a wonderful man." (Laurie Kazan-Allen, IBAS) "His great contributions to public health and to end the man-made asbestos disaster will be remembered forever." (Linda Reinstein, ADAO) "His work was dedicated to occupational justice across the globe which is an inspiration for countries like India where environmental-occupational health doctors are rare to find and required infrastructure is almost non-existent." (Gopal Krishna, BANI)

Morris Greenberg was also a great help to US lawyers representing asbestos victims, in their efforts to excavate the public health and corporate history of asbestos. Gary Dimuzio wrote: "Morris, gentle giant of public and occupational health was unquestionably one of the major figures in occupational health including asbestos since the 1960s, he always fought for the ‘little guy’ even at the potential expense of his own career. We all use his articles. Despite advancing age and a fairly serious stroke several years ago, Morris was always willing to provide insights or help find an article or document that only he could find, as recently as just a few weeks ago. He will be missed."

Longtime US plaintiffs’ lawyer Conard Metcalf reacted, " A great loss. An incredible and enduring and powerful voice for workers and their families and of course for the science."

Obituary: Dr Morris Greenberg

by Peter Sasieni

Names not numbers

Morris Greenberg was once one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Factories. In that role, he worked tirelessly for the health and safety of workers. We remember his life on this blog because of his huge accomplishments in the prevention of cancers caused by asbestos.

Despite his job as a civil servant, Morris Greenberg spoke the truth to power. He fought the might of industry throughout his career, dedicating himself to the health, safety, and well-being of employees. He stood up for the victims against industry and the establishment. Whilst other epidemiologists accepted that there might be insufficient data to prove that asbestos caused cancer, he fought hard to obtain the data needed to expose the risk and then campaigned to ensure that the industry was appropriately regulated. Listening to colleagues talk about Morris Greenberg it is tempting to say that whilst others might have tried to estimate how many lives might have been saved by ending exposure to asbestos, Morris was interested in getting to know the individuals whose lives had been ruined by a failure to act early and avert the mesothelioma epidemic.

After retirement, Morris Greenberg spoke out against the government whose cuts reversed much of the progress he had helped to make. Dr Greenberg had a unique ability to prick the conscience of others. He inspired a whole generation of physicians, practitioners and crusaders dedicated to the protection of workers and their health. He wrote with wit but did not hold his punches. Reflecting on the history of occupational health in the UK he wrote: "The UK’s heyday of occupational health and safety of the early 1970s was short-lived and followed by a policy of reducing staff and resources, which, in shades of Orwell, was euphemised by the then chief employment medical advisor in discussion as ‘cutting out the fat’; unfortunately, this operation lacked surgical precision as HSE’s skeleton and higher nervous system also suffered." And he explained why he continued to work pro bono well into his retirement "My concern is that American practice is advanced to justify unsafe practices in the Third World; particularly effectively in the case of asbestos."

A gentleman of a bygone age, Morris Greenberg was also in many respects ahead of his time. In 1993 he wrote a letter to the BMJ championing open access to data. He was researching factors that contributed to the delay in the recognition of the health hazards of asbestos dust and the consequential delay in the implementation of effective measures of control. He was frustrated by his inability to gain access to the data reviewed by the British Occupational Health Society. He wrote, "Should it be a condition that data and analyses that formed the basis of a publication be preserved and kept accessible for further study?"

People around the world have eulogised Morris Greenberg, "a kind-hearted and generous physician", who died on 19 August 2021 aged 95. Gopal Krishna from the Ban Asbestos Network of India wrote "His work was dedicated to occupational justice across the globe which is an inspiration for countries like India where environmental-occupational health doctors are rare to find and the required infrastructure is almost non-existent." Toxicologist Dr Daniel Teitelbaum reflected: "I remember his brilliant and biting wit, his scholarship and his human kindness. There won’t be another like him. Grace, scholarship and humanity don’t come along very often."