The Big Smoke: Fifty Years After The 1952 London Smog – A Commemorative Conference

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Harlesden Bridge, with old Acton Lane Power Station, Winter, 1952. (Photograph courtesy of Dr Keith Ball.)

 

A conference co-organised by Dr Tony Fletcher (Public and Environmental Health Research Unit) and Professor Virginia Berridge (Centre for History in Public Health) of LSTHM to commemorate the 1952 London Smog. It was held at the Brunei Gallery SOAS, on the 9-10 December 2002.
This major international Conference which attracted over 200 participants from various countries, reviewed the events that led up the the 1952 smog and reflected on the current state of air pollution.

 

 

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The History Group organised the Witness Seminar held on the second morning of the Conference. Speakers at the Witness Seminar included Professor Roy Parker, Sir Donald Acheson and Professor Richard Scorer. Funding was provided by the Wellcome Trust. The full transcript of the seminar is now available to read on-line or to purchase as a hard copy. Please follow the link: http://www.icbh.ac.uk/icbh/witness/bigsmoke/index.html

 

 

 

 

View Transcript


 

Review of the Conference

Almost fifty years to the day, LSHTM held a conference to commemorate the lethal London Smog of 1952. It is an auspicious time for such a meeting and the conference attracted over 200 participants. It aimed to reassess the historical context and the health impacts of the episode, to summarise current health impacts of pollution in large cities and to present future trends and policies on urban air pollution for London, in particular, and Europe, generally. The conference was organised jointly by DR Tony Fletcher (Environmental Epidemiology Unit) and Professor Virginia Berridge (History Group) of LSTHM, with the help of a planning committee.

After a welcome by Professor Andy Haines (Dean of LSHTM), the first morning session provided the historical background, and considered the health impacts. Professor Peter Brimblecombe (University of East Anglia) analysed why London suffered from so much lethal smog. Catherine Wills (University of Essex) examined the impact of the ‘Clean Air Crusaders’ including the National Smoke Abatement Society. Dr Stephen Mosley (University of Birmingham) showed that whilst domestic smoke came to be considered more harmful than industrial smoke, Victorian governments feared the public’s response to any interference with freedom within the home. Activists tried to impress that a good citizen would reduce smoke outputs from the home, but householders failed to respond effectively. Professor Ross Anderson (St George’s Medical Hospital School) explained that the main health problems lay with the respiratory and cardiovascular systems; elderly people with bronchitis being especially affected. Intriguingly, it appeared that children with asthma were not unduly troubled. A screening, to a packed audience, of the film Killer Fog, was introduced by Dr Michael Clark (Wellcome Trust).

 

Air pollution in Harlesden London. View from the Central Middlesex Hospital. Winter 1952. (Photograph courtesy of Dr Keith Ball.)

The afternoon session focused on new agendas for air pollution after the 1950’s. Dr Mark Jackson (Exeter University) contrasted two quotes, one from 1955 that stressed the links between pollution and bronchitis and one from 2000, which attributed the deaths to asthma. He explored the reasons for this contrast, arguing that the Smog set in motion a series of events which served to change approaches to respiratory disease and to fashion new classificatory methods and a new appreciation of the links between pollution and health. Professor Berridge presented on ‘lifestyle versus environment’ arguing that the air pollution issue was symbolic of a wider change within the focus of public health. Pollution by individual smokers came to the forefront and this was emblematic of the move to individually oriented public health. Day One’s final session focused on air pollution in London and across the world. Professor Frank Kelly, (King’s College, London) highlighted the changing nature of air pollution, from the decrease in traditional pollutants like sulphur dioxide, to increases in nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and PM10’s, namely due to the growth in motor vehicle traffic. Dr Michael Krzyzanowski (WHO) spoke of the global health burden of air pollution. He summarised the World Health Report’s section on air pollution which indicated that the burden fell predominately on developing countries. David Hutchinson (GLA) expanded upon London’s present air quality strategy. After concluding remarks by Dr Fletcher, guests adjourned to continue their discussions at a reception held at LSHTM.

Day Two began with a witness seminar chaired by Professor Brimlecombe. Professor Roy Parker, Sir Donald Acheson and Professor Richard Scorer constituted the panel. Each spoke about their unique experiences during the Smog, triggering contributions from the audience, members of which commented that they found the testimony of witnesses invaluable. A poster exhibition opened for participants to view a range of posters and to talk to their authors.

The afternoon sessions were more specialised and focused on the lessons of air pollution incidences and future prospects. Speakers included Professor Devra Davis (Carnegie Mellon University, USA) and Professor Michael Brauer (University of British Columbia.) Brauer read a paper on air pollution caused by vegetation fires, focusing on the 1997-8 Southeast Asian fires which were associated with decreased lung function and mortality. After the presentations, guests had the opportunity to attend the opening of an art exhibition at LSHTM, at which contemporary artists marked the anniversary of the London Smog. This exhibition will continue until the 14th February 2003.

This successful conference commemorated the 1952 Smog but also highlighted the necessity in continuing to combat air pollution and it brought together perspectives from historians, epidemiologists, doctors and the general public. Its importance and present day relevance was highlighted by its truly international flavour, attracting participants from Canada, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, and the USA, as well as, generating press interest, particularly, in the USA and Germany. It attracted a great deal of media interest at home, with the conference organisers appearing in various locations and articles appearing in The Guardian, History Today, The Independent and elsewhere.

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