Remembering a Pioneer in Medical Research

May 20, 2012, marked the twentieth anniversary of the passing of Dr. Irving J. Selikoff, one of the greatest advocates for public health that this country has ever known.  As I reflected upon his passing, I wanted to share some of my observations about Dr. Selikoff’s legacy.  I write this article to honor Dr. Selikoff’s memory and pay tribute to this exceptional man.

Dr. Selikoff was a medical doctor and epidemiologist who played a pioneering role in documenting and publicizing the relationship between asbestos and mesothelioma.  When I filed my first asbestos case in 1978, it was Dr. Selikoff’s research that helped me prove that asbestos was the cause of my client’s mesothelioma.

I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Selikoff in person several times.  He was a wonderful and inspiring man.  Although he faced ridicule, personal attacks, and even threats from the asbestos industry, he never backed down.  He was always positive and extremely motivated about his mission to protect workers and their families.


By exposing the hazards of asbestos, Dr. Selikoff helped to save the lives of thousands of American workers.  His work continues to have a profound impact on millions of people throughout the United States and the world.

Dr. Irving Selikoff’s Early Career

Dr. Selikoff began his career as a medical doctor in suburban New Jersey.  When he began treating members of the local Asbestos Workers Union, Dr. Selikoff noticed a surprising and disturbing trend.  Asbestos workers were being diagnosed with lung disease and cancer at a significantly higher rate than his other patients.  Moreover, he found several cases of pleural mesothelioma among asbestos workers every year – an incredibly rare disease that was almost unheard of in the general population.

Dr. Selikoff knew that something was wrong.  He began a larger epidemiological study to measure the incidence of cancer and lung disease among workers who were exposed to asbestos, including shipyard workers.   In 1963, these findings were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  His conclusion:  asbestos causes cancer.

1964 Conference on the Biological Effects of Asbestos

Although Dr. Selikoff was not the first to verify the connection between asbestos and cancer, he played a key role in publicizing the danger to workers.  The results of his epidemiological research were so alarming that Dr. Selikoff knew he needed to act.

Asbestos was widely used by American industry in the 1950s and 60s.  The public health implications were grave.  Dr. Selikoff was determined to make sure that the dangers of asbestos would not be ignored.

In 1964, Dr. Selikoff organized a conference on the “Biological Effects of Asbestos” through the New York Academy of Sciences.  The conference was a turning point in public and scientific awareness of the hazards of asbestos.   The discussions were far-reaching and even included presentations showing that housewives could develop mesothelioma from exposure to their husbands’ work clothes.

Dr. Selikoff’s Legacy

Dr. Selikoff continued to work on behalf of asbestos workers throughout his career.  The asbestos industry and its lawyers criticized and questioned Dr. Selikoff’s work.  But he was tenacious; he never backed down or gave up.  Dr. Selikoff continued his fight because he believed that the public deserved to know the truth about asbestos, and that industry and government needed to take action to protect workers and their families.

Dr. Selikoff eventually became director of Mount Sinai Hospital’s Environmental and Occupational Health Division in New York.  The division was later renamed the “Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine.”

Today, medical researchers at Mount Sinai are focused on finding new and better ways to treat mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.  The Mount Sinai Thoracic Surgery division is at the cutting edge of mesothelioma treatment and care.    While Dr. Selikoff may be gone, his great legacy lives on.

For more information on the latest mesothelioma research, visit our Mesothelioma Knowledge Center.

History of the Ether Dome Offers Hope that Scientists Will Discover a Cure for Mesothelioma

Scientists are working every day to discover a cure for mesothelioma. I have always been optimistic that science will prevail over this terrible disease one day.  My optimism was invigorated after recently hearing the story of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Ether Dome and one of the most significant advances in medical history – the use of anesthetic to alleviate the excruciating pain of surgery.   The development of ether as an anesthesia over 150 years ago at the Ether Dome revolutionized medical treatment.   There is no reason that we cannot experience a similarly momentous event in the treatment of mesothelioma.

Massachusetts General Hospital’s Asbestos Medicine Conference

I knew that the use of anesthetia was a revolutionary development in medical history.  But my knowledge was greatly expanded after several of my firm’s members returned from the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Harvard Medical School’s annual Asbestos Medicine Conference.  This conference brings together the world’s foremost scientists and researchers on asbestos-related diseases.  During two days of presentations, these experts shared their extraordinary knowledge, including the most up-to-date and cutting-edge research.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to have my firm’s attorneys, paralegals, and registered medical-legal assistant regularly attend the conference. This year Todd Eddins, a trial lawyer, and Cynthia Davis, our RN medical-legal assistant attended the conference along with two other members of my firm.  I believe that it is critical to stay abreast of all the recent developments in asbestos medicine and mesothelioma development, so I am always eager to hear what my team learns from many of the best scientists in the world.    This year was no different.  But it was particularly interesting for me to listen to my firm members’ enthusiastic description of a guided tour of the Ether Dome and its compelling story.

The Ether Dome

The Ether Dome is located in the Bulfinch Building in Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital.  It was situated just a few hallways and an elevator ride away from the meeting theater of the Asbestos Medicine Conference.   During lunchtime, members of my team  were delighted to have world-renowned pathologist Dr. Eugene Mark of Massachusetts General and Harvard Medical School, serve as tour guide.   Dr. Mark showed them the Ether Dome, and gave a guided tour through medical history.

Although the Ether Dome served as the hospital’s operating room following the opening of Massachusetts General in 1821, it was not called the Ether Dome until 1846.  This was the year that medical history was made when William Morton, a Boston dentist, performed the first use of an anesthetic during a public surgery.  As a result of that momentous event, the Ether Dome is a registered National Historic site.


The First Use of Anesthesia During Surgery

Prior to the advent of anesthesia, surgery was a terrifying event.  Alcohol or opium was used to numb patients, but provided little relief.  Patients often refused surgical treatment due to the excruciating pain.  Doctors had to operate quickly, often with fatal consequences, because most patients went into shock from the pain.  Those who survived surgery took weeks and months to recuperate.  In 1846, everything changed.

On October 16, 1846, a man named Edward Gilbert Abbott had a tumor on his neck surgically removed.  Mass General’s chief surgeon Dr. John Collins Warren undertook the normal preparations to remove the tumor.  But this surgery was like no other.  To an assembled audience of the leading physicians of the day, William Morton administered ether to Mr. Abbott.  Dr. Warren, recognized as the finest surgeon of his time, then removed the tumor.  The audience did not hear the usual screams of agony associated with surgery. The surgery was successful and Abbott experienced no pain.  He reported that the invasive surgery merely felt like his neck had been scratched. The event was celebrated in the newspapers and medical journals of the time.

Historical Medical Advancements Provide Hope Today

Ether’s use revolutionized hospital operating rooms around the world.  Surgery was no longer feared as it had been for hundreds of years.  Lives were saved.

When I reflect on what my team and I learned about Massachusetts General Hospital’s Ether Dome, I am heartened to think that there will one day be a similar breakthrough moment where we find a cure for mesothelioma.   The history of medicine is filled with small advances and large ones, like the use of anesthesia.  With patience, hard work, and will power, I am optimistic that we will eventually have a day even bigger than October 16, 1846.  We will have a celebrated day where mesothelioma no longer devastates families.

For more information about the medical research being done on mesothelioma today, visit our Mesothelioma Publications and Articles.