Nellie Kershaw, an Inspiration to Women Everywhere: Stand Up Against Asbestos Exposure

“I have not received a penny…I should have had nine weeks wages now through no fault of my own.”

Those are the words of Nellie Kershaw – a young, hard-working, once healthy British woman who died in poverty from asbestosis in 1924. Nellie was a wife and mother who unknowingly went to a job for fourteen years that slowly poisoned her. She, and later her husband, begged for rightful compensation as she lay on her deathbed, but ultimately received nothing.

Her death would become the first documented case of occupational asbestos exposure in medical literature. Nellie’s story had the power to change an entire industry and save thousands of lives – if only her employers had listened and taken action. Instead, they put profits over people and poisoned an entire generation of workers, just like Nellie.

In honor of Women’s History Month, I think it’s important to share Nellie’s story, because it lies at the heart of the asbestos epidemic. Sadly, it’s a story that many men and women diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases are still experiencing today.

Nellie Kershaw’s Story: The Heart of the History of Asbestos

Nellie was born in Rochdale, England in 1891. She began her career at a cotton mill at the age of 12. Five months later, Nellie went to work at a local asbestos company where she stayed until she was 26 years old, when she transferred to a textile factory called Turner Brothers Asbestos Company. It was around this time that asbestos for commercial use kicked into high gear, environmental control was poor, and health complaints from workers were growing more common.

With strong health for most of her life, as described by her physician, family and friends, Nellie first began experiencing pulmonary symptoms at the age of 29. Despite her symptoms, she continued to work at Turner Brothers. The week of July 22, 1922, however, Nellie became too sick to work any longer. Her doctor diagnosed her with “asbestos poisoning” and submitted a National Health Insurance sickness certificate of unfitness for work. This certificate should have given Nellie entitlement to payment of benefits under specified circumstances from the insurer.

Those specified circumstances, however, lie in the type of diagnosis given. Because Nellie’s doctor diagnosed her with “asbestos poisoning” caused at work, and therefore an occupational illness, Nellie’s insurer advised her to seek compensation from her employer under the Workmen’s Compensation Act. This act stated that workers with certain occupational diseases (determined by the government) were entitled to payment from their employers.

Was “asbestos poisoning” included on that list of applicable occupational diseases? No. Therefore, Turner Brothers was under no obligation to pay Nellie for her lost wages.

It gets worse.

After rejecting Nellie’s application for compensation, Turner Brothers alerted its insurance company, which stated it would be “exceedingly dangerous [to accept] any liability whatever in such a case.” The company knew this diagnosis was a big deal and could change everything, including its own profits.

There are no records of Nellie Kershaw or her estate receiving any type of compensation. Nellie spent the last 20 months of her life without an income and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. She died at the age of 33.

Asbestos Litigation & Nellie Kershaw’s Legacy

It is evident that Nellie’s diagnosis of “asbestos poisoning” and her employer’s choice to ignore it not only stole her life, but prevented her from the rightful compensation she deserved. After her death, this same diagnosis led to the interest of many medical professionals, including the coroner of Rochdale, who conducted pathologic studies and microscopic examinations of her lungs. Findings revealed, and were documented, that “mineral particles in the lung originated from asbestos and were, beyond a reasonable doubt, the primary cause of fibrosis of the lungs and therefore death.”

Despite these findings, it took ten years before asbestosis was listed as an occupational disease eligible for benefit. And even after inclusion on the list, asbestos companies like Turner Brothers still did not acknowledge the hazard presented by asbestos in the workplace enough to actively initiate protective measures. Additional deaths were reported, and asbestosis was found among many more workers. One survey conducted by the Factory Department of the Home Office found that after 20 years, 80% of Turner Brothers workers would have evidence of fibrosis.

In 1955, another study found that lung cancer was 10 times as frequent among Turner Brothers’ long-term employees as among British citizens in general. A third study found that 50 years after Nellie’s death, “asbestosis was widely prevalent among workers in the [Turner Brothers] factory.”

Had Turner Brothers immediately acknowledged and taken accountability for Nellie’s cause of illness, a chain reaction of awareness and preventive measures would likely have taken place. Protection against exposure may have been enforced. Insurance companies may have insisted on protective measures to decrease liability. Public awareness would have increased.

Instead, the fact that Turner Brothers deliberately ignored its role in Nellie’s death resulted in not only the impoverished final months of Nellie’s life and death, but also the careless deaths of many other men and women for decades to come.

Taking Action by Filing an Asbestos Lawsuit

Turner Brothers is one company. One company out of thousands that took the same stance – deliberately ignoring the asbestos health hazard lurking in their facilities, allowing workers to get sick and die, and not compensating those same workers for their lost wages and wrongful death. Companies like Turner Brothers knew asbestos was causing fatal illnesses, yet they chose to do nothing. They chose to ignore. They chose to risk the lives of their workers for monetary gain.

The events following Nellie’s death may not have been ideal, but they did teach us invaluable lessons. Being the first asbestos-related death documented in medical literature meant that further research and studies would be done, and regardless of the pace, would eventually ignite education and public awareness on asbestos dangers. Yes, Nellie’s story was a missed opportunity for change, but as we reflect on what we’ve learned nearly 100 years later, we can say we have come a long way.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease such as mesothelioma, you can choose, too. You can choose to win back what you have lost through no fault of your own, just like Nellie. You can choose to hold your employer accountable. Your story may seem like Nellie’s in that you were wronged, but it doesn’t have to end like Nellie’s.

By filing a mesothelioma lawsuit, your story may have a different ending. Your story may end in justice. Learn more about standing up to those who poisoned you by filing mesothelioma lawsuit with help from our compassionate asbestos lawyers today.

Source: “A Landmark Case in Asbestosis” by Irving J. Selikoff, MD, Morris Greenberg, MB. JAMA Vol. 265, No. 7, February 20, 1991.