Magazine article Academe

The Historians of Industry

Magazine article Academe

The Historians of Industry

Article excerpt

What happens when historians enter the courtroom as expert witnesses-and start to affect legal outcomes and social policy?

Five years ago, one of us received an odd e-mail. "Dear Dr. Rosner," it began. "I am writing to introduce you to the Round Table Group, and to notify you of a short-term consulting opportunity which may be of interest. Our client is seeking an historian, highly credentialed, at a prestigious university to perform some historical research, and instruct a lay jury about what was known about a particular occupational hazard (lead paint contamination) in 1950 to 1980."

The letter went on to explain how the historian they sought "need not be a subject matter expert" but need only be a "good communicator" who could "easily communicate a story to a jury." The e-mail continued in some detail, telling how the process would work: if David were interested, he could send in his résumé, a brief explanation of his expertise, and a statement of his consulting fee. The note continued by informing him about the consulting group: it was a consortium of "several thousand professors" in "management, law, medicine, science, computer science, education, engineering, economics, and other disciplines who make themselves available to law firms and companies who are clients of the Round Table Group."

During the past two decades, historians have been brought into legal cases in unprecedented numbers. As the courts have tried to adjudicate responsibility for environmental and occupational diseases, history and historians have played an increasingly central role in shaping decisions in the cases themselves as well as in related social policy. In suits over tobacco-related diseases, asbestosis, harm from radiation, and other toxic substances, historians of technology and science, social history, and public health are being brought to the courts in growing numbers to provide expert testimony aimed at assessing responsibility for damages that have arisen years, sometimes decades, after exposure.

The basic questions asked are those with which we became familiar during the Watergate hearings: Who knew what, and when did they know it? Did industry executives understand that specific substances could cause disease? If so, when did they learn of the dangers, and when did they begin to warn their workers or consumers of their products that they were at risk?

As the role of the historian has expanded, so, too, has the controversy surrounding the participation of historians in legal cases. At the 2003 annual meeting of the American Association for the History of Medicine, traditionally a collegial conclave of subspecialists, a panel on the history of childhood diseases ended in a shouting match after a well-known historian-who had been a paid consultant for the tobacco, asbestos, soft drink, and lead industries in the past-presented a paper arguing that the lead industry had done "nothing wrong" before the 1950s and that, in any case, the problem of childhood lead poisoning was vastly overblown. During the conference, the halls were abuzz with gossip and amazement (the New York Times covered the controversy in a June 14, 2003, article by Patricia Cohen). It soon became apparent that many more members of the association had been dipping into the corporate till, testifying on behalf of the tobacco industry, the lead industry, and other producers of toxic products. In March 2005, Jon Wiener, professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, reported on this issue in The Nation.

A much smaller group of historians is being called upon to study the responsibility of industry in causing disease and death. Allan M. Brandt of Harvard University (whose article "A Not-So- Slippery Slope" appears in this issue of Academe) worked for the federal government on a lawsuit against Philip Morris. Stanford University professor Robert Proctor was involved in the same suit and has worked for women damaged by radiation experiments at Vanderbilt University in the past. …

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