The tragic tale of Nellie Kershaw

The reporting of asbestos related deaths has sadly become commonplace in the modern age. However, there was once a time when very little was known about the substance and the maladies it can spawn.

To learn about the evolution of asbestos knowledge, a journey back in time is required. The year is 1924. The town is Rochdale, Greater Manchester. Nellie Kershaw, a 33-year old textile worker, dies on 14th March after a harrowing illness. Her passing sparks an inquest that will change the world forever.

Born in 1891, Kershaw left school at the age of 12 to work in a cotton mill. She later moved into the asbestos industry, transferring to Turner Brothers, a local firm, in 1917. There, she worked as a factory rover, spinning raw asbestos fibre into yarn. That trade would eventually truncate her life in tragic circumstances.

Kershaw first encountered health complications aged 29. Nevertheless, she continued to work with asbestos until 1922, when illness finally thwarted her. The National Health Insurance certificate declaring her unfit for work referred to ‘asbestos poisoning,’ a rather generic term betraying the rudimentary knowledge prevalent in society at that time.

As this was not a recognised occupational disease, Kershaw failed to qualify for any significant benefits. To compound the problem, Turner Brothers refused to make any financial contributions, leaving Kershaw to spiral towards destitution as her illness deteriorated.

After a harrowing struggle, Kershaw died at 6.30 am on the aforementioned date. Again, Turner Brothers accepted no liability for her injuries, paid no compensation to her family, and even refused to help out with her funeral expenses.

Details of Kershaw’s death were recorded in the British Medical Journal. Perhaps more importantly, EN Molesworth, coroner for Rochdale, launched a formal inquest into Kershaw’s case, kick-starting the journey to industry regulation.

Dr FW Mackichan completed an autopsy and returned ‘pulmonary tuberculosis and heart failure’ as the cause of Kershaw’s death. However, the inquest was subsequently adjourned to allow for a closer inspection of the lungs. After completing that process, Dr William Edmund Cook testified that “mineral particles in the lungs originated from asbestos and were, beyond reasonable doubt, the primary cause of the fibrosis of the lungs and, therefore, of death.”

Walter Joss, the man who made the initial diagnosis of ‘asbestos poisoning,’ contributed a written testimony to the inquest. He explained how “previous experience of such a lung condition for many of his patients who were asbestos workers” contributed to the diagnosis, and said that up to twelve cases per year came before him.

As such, when Nellie Kershaw’s death certificate was issued on 2nd April 1924, it cited ‘fibrosis of the lungs due to the inhalation of mineral particles’ as the cause of death. Three years later, in a more detailed reporting of Kershaw’s case by the British Medical Journal, Dr Cook gave the disease a name that will echo for eternity: ‘pulmonary asbestosis.’

Following Cook’s paper, Parliament launched an inquiry into the effects of asbestos dust. The resultant report – Occurrence of Pulmonary Fibrosis & Other Pulmonary Affections in Asbestos Workers – concluded that asbestosis was irrefutably linked to the inhalation of asbestos dust. It also contained the first significant health study of asbestos workers, and found that 66% of those employed as such for more than 20 years suffered from asbestosis.

In turn, such shocking discoveries led to the first Asbestos Industry Regulations, which came into effect in March 1932.

More than seven decades later, in April 2006 – seven years after a final ban on the supply and use of asbestos in Britain – a relative of Kershaw unveiled a memorial stone to all asbestos victims around the world. It was a fitting tribute to the first publicly-known victim of asbestos, and a timeless reminder of its horrific consequences.

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