Last week we lost a giant in the field of black lung disease and advocacy, Dr. Donald Rasmussen. He spent most of his 87 years evaluating coal miners for black lung disease, reporting his research and working tirelessly to create and improve the black lung benefits system. Until recently hospitalized, he was actively examining miners at his clinic in Beckley, W.V.
No single source obituary or eulogy can catch the breadth of his work in the field of black lung medicine and advocacy, but any account of the black lung movement and the current state of the disease must include his name. In the early days, Dr. Rasmussen was one of the key players in the group called Physicians for the Miners' Health and Safety that provided medical support for miners' experiences with black lung — a disease that most of the medical community refused to acknowledge at the time. Dr. Rasmussen's evidence-based approach and detailed research helped prove that coal-mine dust causes breathing problems that may not show up on x-rays and may not show up without quality exercise testing. Dr. Rasmussen's advocacy contributed to the passage of the landmark 1969 Coal Act which set the first federal limits on miners' exposure to coal-mine dust and created the federal black lung benefits system for miners disabled by the disease.
In the decades since, Dr. Rasmussen continued to refine the science of black lung disease. He evaluated over 40,000 coal miners and made regular presentations to educate groups about the history and current issues related to black lung. Records from his detailed research into gas exchange impairment will no doubt be used by other medical professionals to gain a better understanding of the impact of dust exposure on the human body.
The attorneys who represented claimants and were fortunate enough to have worked with Dr. Rasmussen knew what a unique and special physician he was. His thorough testing and reasoned examination reports were invaluable evidence in individual benefits claims. He regularly met with lawyers and law students to explain the medical process of a pulmonary evaluation. Attorney Evan Smith, who worked with Dr. Rasmussen the past two years, paid this tribute: "He had no equal as an examiner, researcher, teacher and advocate. He was always my first recommendation for miners who had concerns for their health. I feel lucky to have gotten to hear his stories, be schooled by him in pulmonary medicine in his clinic (and during depositions), and be able to tell miners that they'll get benefits due to the thorough work of Dr. Rasmussen."
In addition to his outstanding work as a physician, Dr. Rasmussen was a person people loved. He was generous with his time and considerate in his interactions with others. The 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which created the federal black lung benefits program, begins by stating, "the first priority and concern of all in the coal or other mining industry must be the health and safety of its most precious resource--the miner." Dr. Rasmussen lived that statement. He was a champion for justice. His work made the world a better place not only for miners and their families, but for all us all.