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Mary Amdur

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Mary Amdur
Mary Amdur.jpg
Born (1921-02-18)February 18, 1921
Donora, Pennsylvania
Died February 16, 1998(1998-02-16) (aged 76)
Cause of death Heart attack
Nationality American
Education Chemistry (BSc.) at University of Pittsburgh; Biochemistry (Ph.D.) at Cornell University
Known for Toxicology research into 1948 Donora smog
Spouse(s) Benjamin Amdur
Children David Amdur
Scientific career
Fields Toxicology
Institutions Harvard University; MIT; New York University
Thesis Role of Manganese and Choline in Bone Formation in the Rat

Mary Ochsenhirt Amdur (February 18, 1921 – February 16, 1998) was an American toxicologist and public health researcher who worked primarily on pollution. She was charged with studying the effects of the 1948 Donora smog, so she specifically looked into the effects of inhaling Sulfuric acid by experimenting on guinea pigs. Her findings on the respiratory effects related to sulfuric acid led to her being threatened, to her funding being pulled, and to her losing her job at the Harvard School of Public Health in 1953. Undeterred by the setback, she carried on her research in a different role at Harvard, and subsequently at MIT and New York University. Despite the early controversy related to her work, it was used in the creation of standards in air pollution, and towards the end of her life she received numerous awards and accolades.

Early life[edit]

Mary Amdur was born in 1921 in Donora, Pennsylvania.[1][2] She received a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1943 from the University of Pittsburgh, moving to Cornell University to study biochemistry at the postgraduate level. She received her PhD in biochemistry in 1946, writing her thesis on the "Role of Manganese and Choline in Bone Formation in the Rat".[2] After achieving her PhD, she worked at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary before joining Philip Drinker's team at Harvard School of Public Health in 1949.[2] By 1953 she had married another scientist in the field, Benjamin Amdur, with whom she had a son, David.[3]


The American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) funded Drinker to investigate the 1948 Donora smog, as the company had an interest in showing that its primary pollutants (sulfuric acid and sulfur dioxide) had not significantly contributed to the damage it caused.[2][4] In the middle of 1953, Amdur and her husband developed a method of spraying a combination mist of sulfuric acid and sulfur dioxide into humid chambers containing guinea pigs to investigate the damage that it would cause to their lungs.[2] Guinea pigs were used as they breathe more deeply through their mouths than smaller rodents which breathe through their noses.[2] The Amdurs bought their own guinea pigs for the mini project, and spent a holiday weekend doing the investigation.[4]

"The trouble with this branch of medical science is that it is always tied up more or less with somebody's pocketbook—Maybe the companies, maybe the insurance people, maybe the doctor in charge ... Looked at that way, realize that Philip Drinker has wife and children who are 'hostages ... to fortune, an impediment to all great enterprises, whether good or evil'"
Personal note from Alice Hamilton to Mary Amdur after she was fired.[5]

Amdur presented the results of the experiment, that inhaling the combination mist led to dramatic effects on breathing, loss of weight and lung disease,[6] to the American Association for the Advancement of Science at their annual meeting in December 1953.[4][5] She then wrote a damning paper on the effects of lower levels of sulfuric acid on humans, levels similar to those of the 1948 smog. The paper, and her attempt to present the associated findings to the American Industrial Hygiene Association, caused her many difficulties.[4] Amdur was accosted and threatened by two thugs in an elevator at the association's 1954 annual meeting. She presented the findings regardless.[5] As Drinker received funding from ASARCO, the company's management assumed that they would hold sway over what was published. When Amdur returned from the meeting, Drinker demanded that Amdur remove her name from the paper and to withdraw it from The Lancet, despite the fact it had already been accepted. Amdur refused Drinker's demands, so her position on his staff was removed and she was left to find new work.[5] The paper was never published.[5]

She quickly found a new untenured research associate role under James Whittenberger, Chair of Physiology at Harvard School of Public Health, working with Dr. Jere Mead.[4] She continued the research on air pollution, which she began under Drinker, until she left the school in 1977. Partly because of the difficulty in obtaining tenure at Harvard, both for herself and for her colleague Sheldon Murphy, and partly because she needed to work with engineers to produce suitable combustion products, she moved her research to the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and accepted a promotion to lecturer, securing funding for 12 years. When she moved, her new focus was the role of metals in the inhalation of sulfuric acid.[4] Dissatisfied with the attention the research received at MIT, she moved to the Institute of Environmental Medicine at New York University in 1989 as a senior research scientist, where she remained until her retirement in 1996.[4]


In 1953, Amdur was inducted as a member of Delta Omega Honorary Society in Public Health.[7] In 1974, she received the Donald E. Cummings Memorial Award from the American Industrial Hygiene Association in recognition of her lifetime contributions and application of her knowledge in the field.[3][8][9] The American Academy of Industrial Hygiene Council awarded her the Henry F. Smyth Jr. Award in 1984 for identifying and fulfilling research needs within the industrial hygiene profession.[3][10] In 1986 she received the Inhalation Section of the Career Achievement Award from the Society of Toxicology.[3][11] She received the Herbert E. Stockinger Award from the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists in 1989[3][12] In 1988 she gained, the Mid-Atlantic Section, Society of Toxicology Ambassador Award.[12] Then in 1997, she was awarded the Merit Award from the same society, in celebration of her achievements throughout her life and her contributions to Toxicology.[3][12][13][14]

Death and legacy[edit]

"At every step along the way, people tried to pull the rug out from under her. In fact, she got it right years before the rest of us. The world only caught up with her several decades later, by which time so many people had confirmed what she found that it could no longer be discounted."
John Spengler[2]

Amdur died on 16 February 1998 of a heart attack while returning from a holiday in Hawaii.[3][15] At least three societies wrote obituaries[3][4][12] and a toxicology book was dedicated to her memory.[15] A Toxicology Society Award was set up in her name by students and colleagues. The award, the Mary Amdur Student Award is presented for the Inhalation and Respiratory Specialty Section.[16] She is considered the "mother of smog research"[17] and her work had "a major role in the development of air pollution standards."[3]


  1. ^ Marquis Who's Who, LLC (1976). Who's who of American women. Marquis Who's Who. ISBN 9780837904092. Retrieved 23 January 2016. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Musil, Robert, K. (2014). "2. Don't harm the people: Ellen Swallow Richards, Dr. Alice Hamilton, and their heirs take on polluting industries". Rachel Carson and her sisters: Extraordinary women who have shaped America's environment. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 9780813571768. Retrieved 4 January 2016. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Mary Amdur, former toxicologist at School of Public Health, dies". The Harvard University Gazette. 26 February 1998. Retrieved 4 January 2016. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Costa, Daniel; Gordon, Terry (3 March 2000). "Mary O. Amdur". Toxicological Sciences. 56 (1): 5–7. doi:10.1093/toxsci/56.1.5. PMID 10869448. Retrieved 4 January 2016. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Davis, Devra (2002). When smoke ran like water: tales of environmental deception and the battle against pollution (Pbk. ed.). New York: Basic Books. pp. 69–75. ISBN 0465015220. 
  6. ^ Amdur, Mary (1954). "Effect of a combination of SO2 and H2SO4 on guinea pigs: A preliminary report". Public Health Reports. 69 (5): 503–506. doi:10.2307/4588810. PMC 2024354Freely accessible. PMID 13167274. 
  7. ^ "National membership list". Delta Omega Honorary Society in Public Health. Retrieved 4 January 2016. 
  8. ^ "AIHA awards and honors: Donald E. Cummings memorial award". American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA). Retrieved 5 January 2016. 
  9. ^ "Donald E. Cummings memorial award". American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA). Retrieved 5 January 2016. 
  10. ^ "Henry F. Smyth Jr. award". American Industrial Hygiene Association. Retrieved 5 January 2016. 
  11. ^ "The twenty-sixth year of the society" (PDF). Society of Toxicology. 1987. pp. 3–4. Retrieved 5 January 2016. 
  12. ^ a b c d Costa, Daniel (1998). "In memoriam: Mary O. Amdur, Ph.D" (PDF). Society of Toxicology Communique: 14–16. Retrieved 5 January 2016. 
  13. ^ "SOT honor and award descriptions" (PDF). Society of Toxicology. 2007. p. 245. Retrieved 5 January 2016. 
  14. ^ Linkov, Igor; Wilson, R. (2012). Air pollution in the Ural mountains: environmental, health and policy aspects (Illustrated ed.). Springer Science & Business Media. p. 4. ISBN 9789401152082. Retrieved 4 January 2016. 
  15. ^ a b Klaassen, Curtis D., ed. (27 July 2001). Casarett & Doull's toxicology: the basic science of poisons (PDF) (6th ed.). McGraw-Hill Professional. p. 10. Retrieved 4 January 2016. 
  16. ^ "Endowment fund resolution approval: Creation of Mary Amdur Student Award Fund" (PDF). Society of Toxicology. 30 October 2007. Retrieved 4 January 2016. 
  17. ^ Wittner, Lawrence S. (16 April 2014). "Review of Robert K. Musil's "Rachel Carson and her sisters: extraordinary women who have shaped America's environment"". History News Network. Retrieved 4 January 2016.