Project Site: Donora 1948 Smog
Oxygen Delivery: Age and Class as Factors of Affection by Smog
In 1948, a weather phenomenon caused the smog being emitted from three industrial plants around Donora to descend into the town causing thousands of residents to become ill, killing about twenty residents during this four-to-five-day episode. Residents who were severely affected by the smog quickly filled the local hospital. Not everyone who needed medical support or treatment because of the smog was able to visit the hospital. In response, members of the community took it upon themselves to deliver oxygen to other community members more severely affected by the smog and unable to be treated at the hospital. On November 1, 1948, a photographer joined a group of firefighters as they took oxygen tanks to community members, making sure they had access to clean, breathable air. November first was when the smog started to break up in Donora because of rain. This photo depicts a group of three firefighters helping a man, and assumably grandfather, receive clean air from the oxygen tanks while the man’s family stands around the couch watching the process. No identifying information is given other than a typed caption stating the date, a visual description of image, the context of the photo, and that the photo was staged. While the photograph may have been staged, this photograph is from a series of photos taken during the smog event where a photographer went around the community documenting what was happening. The phrase “set-up” does not imply that this photograph is entirely fiction, just that the photographer likely moved the scene in some way, such as posing figures or allowing the family to dress a certain way. There is no evidence to show that the person being treated was not a real victim receiving actual care. This photograph does show that there were inequalities involved with the smog. The photograph shows that during the smog episode, not everyone was affected equally nor did everyone have equal access to care.
The focal point of the image shows a man holding an oxygen mask onto another man, who is laying on the couch. The man on the couch, while the viewer cannot see much of him, there are details in the rest of the photograph that allow the viewer to know more about this man. Behind him there are an adult couple and three younger persons. They can be assumed to be his child, spouse, and grandchildren. The entire family, except the baby, is staring at the man on the couch with serious expressions. Since the photographer had the entire family present so that the view can assume the man to be a grandfather, we can also assume that he is an older gentleman. This detail is important since residents who were older tended to be more severely affected by the smog. The man’s exact condition is unknown; but if he is receiving oxygen, then it must be at least somewhat severe. The men who are operating the oxygen machine are seemingly in their thirties or forties. No one else in the photograph is shown to be elderly except for the man on the couch. That man is the only one actively receiving medical care due to the smog. This is a visual representation of the general trends of who was affected by the smog. Generally, those who were fifty years or older were more severely affected by the smog. This does not mean that the other people in the photo were not affected by the smog at all or have long-term health effects, it shows that they did not require immediate medical attention because of the smog. No one else in the photo is visibly affected by the smog.
The captain on the photo allows the viewer to know some information about who is delivering the oxygen to the man. The three men in the photograph working the oxygen machine are part of emergency crews. These emergency crews were mostly composed of local firefighters volunteering to help others in the community. These men were not medical experts. Without of the captain, there would be no way to know who these men were in the photo. Knowing who they are is important to understanding another inequality in Donora during the smog episode. The longer the smog sat in Donora, the more people breathed it into their bodies, and the more it affected them. As more people were affected by the smog and required medical attention, they initially went to the hospital for treatment. Yet the local hospital could not support all the people coming in with respiratory ailments. Not every resident who needed medical care was able to receive it. Therefore, the emergency crews went around the town delivering oxygen to residents. This was a community response to inequality, which was exasperated by the smog affecting so many residents. Those who received care, but not in the hospital, received it in their homes. While the background is mostly covered by the family and the men, there is enough visible to recognize that this man is being treated in a house. He is laying on a couch with a quilt over the back and behind the boy holding the baby, there is a fireplace with a mantle displaying family photos.
Even being treated in a house represents a form of inequality. The photo may not reveal enough of the home to show its physical condition, homes were a factor when it came to severity of affection from the smog. A report from a study conducted during the year following the episode revealed that the quality of house one lived it affected how the smog affected them. The study did not break down the specific factors that caused this relationship, but it did highlight data that showed a trend that residential areas with higher quality homes were less severely affected by the smog and residential areas with lower quality homes had higher rates of severe affection from the smog. The photographer does not reveal the quality of the house in this photo, so the viewer cannot assume house quality as a factor for why this man is receiving medical care. Yet if it is, one may ask how would him being in a home with low quality air or insufficiently filtering out the smog affect his ability to be treated at home? For how long did the man use the oxygen machine? These are questions about the scene that the photograph does not answer, but further research into other photos from the series or other materials available in the archive may assist in further understanding these factors.
This photograph helps the viewer understand and visualize some of the inequalities that affected this smog episode in Donora. While the inequalities may not be immediately recognizable, one’s age and class status were factors that contributed to how severely a resident was affected by the smog. The photograph shows an elderly man receiving air from an oxygen machine that was delivered by an emergency crew. The fact that the photographer chose to photograph the elderly man receiving air, provides an image for who was thought of as the standard group to be most severely affected. The reason the man is being treating in his home is because he could not access the local hospital. While the reason for lack of access is not given, it is likely due to the overcrowding that occurred in the local hospital preventing residents from accessing it. These emergency crews were a response to this community response. These factors show that while the smog sat in the town affecting everyone, there were societal factors that influenced how severely a resident was affected by the smog. The entire town responded to the event, even though not everyone was equally affected by the smog. This also only shows immediate inequalities affecting the immediate event. It does not show inequalities involved with the long-term affects of the smog. Everyone needs breathable air to live, but during this moment, not everyone had access to clean air.
Keywords: class, toxics, air, pollution, factories