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Environmental Medical Service celebrates 50th anniversary

MIT's Environmental Medical Service celebrated its 50th anniversary with a May 26 program that included a tribute to its founder, Dr. Harriet Louise Hardy, a physician and industrial toxicologist who pioneered the field of occupational medicine.

The Environmental Medical Service (EMS) was established in 1949 as the Occupational Medical Service, one of the first programs of its kind at an academic institution. Initially founded in response to reports of beryllium poisoning by nine people working on a research project, the program, under Dr. Hardy's direction, went on to help firmly establish the field in the medical profession.

Since 1949, the EMS has grown to a staff of more than 50 professionals in occupational and environmental health disciplines, inlcuding biological safety, industrial hygiene, radiation protection and occupational medicine. The primary goal of the office is to prevent MIT faculty, staff, students and the community from contracting illness from the workplace.

The four offices of the EMS -- Radiation Protection, Industrial Hygiene, Biosafety and Occupational Medicine -- provide medical evaluations for illnesses that may be related to work, such as repetitive strain injury, indoor air-quality illness and animal exposures. The EMS also provides medical surveillance examinations to ensure that work with chemical or physical agents, particularly in laboratories, does not adversely affect researcher's health. The offices hold consultations for people who are concerned about exposure to occupational or environmental hazards, including potential reproductive risks.

"With the recent proliferation of technology and science-based businesses, there are now -- more than ever -- new and often unexpected threats to human health. Industry is repeatedly challenged to develop creative ways to protect us all from hazards that are esesntial to the production of necessities of our lives, such as food, electrical power and automotive parts," said Dr. Robert J. McCunney, the EMS director since 1994.

"Dr. Harriet Hardy's vision of addressing the full consequences of occupational hazards on human health is also a credit to the intellectual atmosphere of MIT, where innovation is not only routine, but also expected," he said.

Dr. Hardy, who in the mid-1940s identified a link between beryllium and respiratory illness among workers in plants manufacturing flourescent lamps, also established the Occupational Medicine Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). She worked with the Atomic Energy Commission in Los Alamos, NM to study hazards associated with nuclear energy and advised MIT on safety considerations relating to its first nuclear reactor. She was the first woman appointed to a full professorship at the Harvard Medical School; her portrait hangs in the medical school library today. Her autobiography, Challenging Man-Made Disease, was published in 1983. Dr. Hardy died in 1993.

At Wednesday's celebration, a new conference room and library, the Harriet L. Hardy, MD Library, was dedicated in Building 16.

In addition to Dr. McCunney, other speakers at Wednesday's event were Dr. Arnold Weinberg, medical director in the MIT Medical Department; Dr. Melvin Chalfen, director of EMS from 1977-83; Dr John Stoeckle of MGH Internal Medicine Associates and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School; Francis Masse, radiation protection officer; Fred Viles and Janet Walkley Cares, the first employees of the Industrial Hygiene Office; Richard Chamberlin, former industrial hygiene officer and former acting director of EMS; and Daniel Liberman, former biohazard assessment officer.

EMS headquarters is in Rm 16-267 and the Bates RPO is located at the Bates Linear Accelerator in Middleton, MA.

A version of this article appeared in the June 2, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 32).

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