Those of us who work to give a voice to thousands of victims of asbestos exposure understand that sometimes we stand on the shoulders of giants. Those who came before us—the first scientists, doctors and advocates who stood up to the asbestos industry when it wasn’t popular to do so—have had a lasting legacy when it comes to protecting people from asbestos exposure around the world. It is for this reason that we mourn the loss of Dr. Gerrit W.H. Schepers, one of those early pioneers whose work provided the foundation necessary to curb the use of asbestos and seek remedies for victims of asbestos exposure. Dr. Schepers passed away on September 6 at the age of 97 but his efforts to change the world for the better will live on.
Dr. Schepers was a South African specialist in occupational disease who started his professional work related to asbestos in the 1940’s. This was at a time before asbestos was widely known to be linked to serious and deadly human disease and when the asbestos industry was at times doing its best to cover up those risks. Dr. Schepers work was instrumental in bringing to light the now widely accepted understanding about the risks of asbestos exposure.
His research at places such as asbestos mines and factories in Quebec and laboratories in the United States led him to conclusions about asbestos that the industry didn’t like. Those conclusions were published in reports that Dr. Schepers made sure saw the light of day even when industry attorneys tried to suppress them and in papers—such as this one from 1995—that passionately stood up to those who tried to discredit the scientific evidence linking asbestos to cancer. And in the 1970s Dr. Schepers began to make sure this research helped individual victims when he began testifying in U.S. courts on behalf of plaintiffs about the asbestos industry. In his home country of South Africa, he helped to pave the way for miners to receive compensation related to occupational disease. In short, Dr. Schepers worked to hold the industry accountable for the harm it caused—and in many cases, continues to cause—to countless individuals.
Dr. Schepers was never one to shy away from unpopular opinions and he dedicated his life to standing up to corporate powers that were much greater than him. His research and his advocacy in the area of occupational disease is something to be greatly admired and those of us who follow in his wake will continue to find inspiration and motivation in his life’s work.