James P. Keogh, 49, doctor who exposed occupational hazards

June 17, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Dr. James P. Keogh, who exposed cases of asbestosis and lung cancer in steel and construction workers, leading to nationwide lawsuit settlements, died Monday of liver cancer at his Mount Washington home. He was 49.

Dr. Keogh, who last served as associate professor of medicine and director of the University of Maryland Occupational Health Project, was a young specialist and director of the old City Hospitals' occupational and environmental health program when, during the late 1970s, he became increasingly alarmed at the high incidence of asbestosis and lung cancer in steel workers from Local 2610 whom he was examining for retirement benefits.

He urged the workers to seek legal help.

Many of Dr. Keogh's patients went to Baltimore attorney Peter G. Angelos, who represented the union.

"Had it not been for him, the steel workers' suffering would not have been identified. He faced a great deal of resistance, and still that didn't deter him. He faced down those who didn't want this to come to light," Mr. Angelos said yesterday.

"He remained a courageous and committed physician who never gained the recognition for his work in the community. He was an advocate, and all he cared about was that his patients receive proper treatment and care," he said.

Suits against asbestos manufacturers resulted in settlements of hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Without his efforts, very little recovery would have been made," said Mr. Angelos.

"He knew early in his career that asbestos caused cancer and that there had been a cover-up," said his wife of 23 years, Dr. Debra S. Wertheimer.

"He felt very strongly that [the workers] had been exposed knowingly and, after contacting the union later, set up a screening in Baltimore," she said.

"He was a leading authority on asbestos, lead and other toxic agents in the field of industrial medicine," said Barry I. Castleman, a Baltimore asbestos expert and environmental consultant.

"He was outspoken and, in an address at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, said, `If you poison your boss each day, it's called murder. If your boss poisons you a little each day, it's called a `threshold limit value,' " said Mr. Castleman.

It was Dr. Keogh's early work with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union that enlightened him about the health hazards to which workers in those industries were exposed.

"What he did at City Hospital was get the powers there to agree to create a new discipline, occupational medicine, that could relate to workers' occupations," said Janie Gordon, assistant director of the Occupational Health Project that moved from City Hospital to the University of Maryland in 1987.

Before his death, Dr. Keogh was completing research on the long-term effects of lead poisoning on construction workers and of repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

"He had an enormous respect for working people and the doctors who work in those communities," said Ms. Gordon.

She described Dr. Keogh as a "man of strong principles" who "wasn't afraid to stand up for them." She added, "He was a real pioneer whose thinking had a widespread imprint on occupational medicine and education."

Dr. Keogh was an activist from the time of his youth, crusading for civil rights and peace.

Born in Washington and raised in Hyattsville, he graduated in 1967 from Bladensburg High School. He earned his bachelor's degree in biology from the Johns Hopkins University in 1970 and his medical degree in internal medicine from the University of Maryland Medical School in 1974. He completed his internship and residency at City Hospital.

"He was always trying to figure out ways to get people more help, how he could make things better and the world safer for people," said his wife.

An eclectic reader whose literary tastes ranged from history to mysteries, Dr. Keogh also had a penchant for languages, including Arabic, which he taught himself. His interest in music led him to teach himself to play classical guitar last year.

A memorial gathering will be held at 2 p.m. tomorrow at Stony Run Meeting House, 5116 N. Charles St.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Keogh is survived by a son, Joshua S. Keogh; two daughters, Sarah E. Keogh and Molly S. Keogh, all at home; and several nieces and nephews. Donations may be made to the James P. Keogh Memorial Fund, c/o Gunther Wertheimer, 5729 Ridgedale Road, Baltimore 21209.

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