"The death-dealing smog over Donora, Pennsylvania": Industrial air pollution, public health, and federal policy, 1915-1963

Lynne Page Snyder, University of Pennsylvania


An air pollution disaster over the two southwestern Pennsylvania towns of Donora and Webster in October 1948 took dozens of lives, left thousands literally gasping for breath, and motivated the United States Public Health Service (PHS) to enter the arena of air pollution policy. This dissertation explores how investigations of Donora's smog reflected and contributed to the power of manufacturing interests over environmental and public health conditions and to the emergence of federal environmental health policy after World War Two. Outside of the Donora region, the episode symbolized the excesses of post-1945 economic growth which were already visible in southern California's eye-stinging haze. For public health professionals, government officials, and industrial managers, the smog focused attention on the freshly perceived threat that air pollution posed to public health. Near Donora, smog explanations were shaped by controversy regarding the role of a zinc smelter in contributing to the disaster. Decades of litigation over damages attributed to the mill, and preparation for suits anticipated after the smog, transformed PHS activities in Donora into an illuminating case study of the science and politics of interpreting a disaster and assigning responsibility. Following a narrative overview of the disaster itself, chapters are arranged chronologically from the first years of the smelter's operations (1915) to the passage of the 1963 Clean Air Act, which established a permanent federal air pollution program under the aegis of the PHS. Industrial manufacturers used the production of expertise about Donora to frame public discussion about air pollution. This strategy benefitted from a shift in federal policy that would direct public health resources toward the subsidy of scientific research rather than support for public health programs. Donora's legacy became that of a freak of Nature, an instance where weather and topography concentrated air pollution to hazardous levels, rather than of a warning sign about the threat that industrial deterioration posed to working-class communities like Donora and Webster.

Subject Area

Science history|Environmental science|American history

Recommended Citation

Snyder, Lynne Page, ""The death-dealing smog over Donora, Pennsylvania": Industrial air pollution, public health, and federal policy, 1915-1963" (1994). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9521124.