Selikoff, asbestos and “la trahison des clercs”

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Morris Greenberg

Keywords

asbestos, history of medicine

Abstract

Irving J. Selikoff lived by Virchow’s axiom that “Physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor”. Not given to intemperate language, his harshest judgement of physicians he deemed guilty of wilful intellectual dishonesty, whether for financial gain or otherwise, was to condemn them for “la trahison des clercs”. In the context of the awful history of asbestos, the term “clercs” came to embrace lay, scientific, and medical members of the intelligentsia. For many years, industry’s creatures employed the facile ploy of accusing critics of merely exercising hindsight, until towards the end of the 20th Century, when vast confidential archives were opened by discovery in the American Courts, and finally put an end to this spurious defence. The revelation of ignorant and wicked conduct on the part of acknowledged mercenaries came as no surprise, but what was profoundly shocking was discovering the tangible rewards by industry of certain honoured and distinguished scientists who over time had developed a more sanguine attitude to the hazards of asbestos than the evidence allowed. The widely varying attitudes of a selection of clercs involved with asbestos in the first half of the 20th Century is reviewed in the context of the prevailing economic cum political climate.

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