Vivian Wineman
Vivian Wineman

A life to celebrate, not a death to mourn

Morris Greenberg
Morris Greenberg

Last Thursday evening my father in law Morris Greenberg passed away peacefully aged 95. Though physically frail, he had suffered no loss of faculties or dignity and was working up to the very last day of his life. Death came to him as to a friend. He died, as it says of his namesake Moses, by the kiss of God, leaving us to celebrate his life rather than mourn his death.

It was indeed a life to celebrate. He was born in the East End of London in 1926 to parents who were recent immigrants from the Ukraine with modest means but passionate aspirations. Their determination for their children to be educated was manifested in his own academic achievement. As Lord Sacks said of him; he had all the erudition to write a dozen encyclopaedias and all the modesty to keep us from knowing it. He went on to qualify as a Doctor at University College Hospital London. He was attracted by the academic side of the profession – he was to publish literally hundreds of academic papers –  but it was the social side of medicine that attracted him more. In the words of another practitioner in the field, he defined the art of occupational medicine for a generation of practitioners. He specialised in occupational diseases in particular the various diseases caused by exposure to asbestos.

It is not often appreciated how little was known about occupational diseases when he started and, in particular, quite how lethal asbestos was. It is estimated that even today 100,000 people die worldwide as a result of exposure to it each year. In this country more people die of exposure to it than are killed on the roads. It took a long time, though, for the threat posed to be appreciated. The first case of asbestosis in the UK  was diagnosed in 1924. The victim Nellie Kershaw a female factory worker was not considered entitled  to any medication to treat her symptoms. When she died at the age of thirty three, her employers Turner Asbestos later Turner and Newall refused to admit liability. She received no compensation and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

Even though it was becoming clear during the 1930s that asbestos was a killer it was not until the 1970s that controls were imposed on its use and that workers or rather their estates were compensated for being killed by it. Throughout this period the asbestos companies and their insurers deployed all sorts of legal stratagems to avoid having to answer for the consequences of their misdeeds from denying that asbestos was dangerous to admitting that it was but claiming that its victims were really being killed by something else – to plain old legal delaying tactics. In the chilling prose of a memo unearthed by Morris the plaintiff ‘had a poor expectation of life’. There was no need therefore to be too hasty with a settlement.

While the victims of asbestosis and related diseases died in destitution the Directors of the companies responsible for their plight ended their lives laden with honours and wealth. The efforts of Morris and his colleagues, however, helped bring about a change in the climate of opinion which led to more restrictions on the use of asbestos and compensation for its victims. The costs were so significant many of the asbestos companies had to file for bankruptcy and huge losses were incurred by their insurers.

Morris was honoured by grateful workers associations as far away as Australia. In 2011 he received an award from the Ramazzini Institute named for Bernardino Ramazzini the father of occupational medicine. After his death, tributes flowed in from places as far as India His family nominated him for an award in the UK. It was heart-warming to read the enthusiastic endorsements written by serious people on his behalf. Unsurprisingly, though, he did not get an award. With a succession of business friendly governments a man who had dedicated his life to the protection of ordinary people against the worst abuses of big business was not likely to be favoured. Besides Morris was far too honest and forthright – for him his yeah was always yeah and his nay was nay. There were no shortcuts or compromises. He did not care how many important people he offended.

He was not unduly disappointed at this failure. For him, his real concern was the good he could achieve. The appreciation of his peers and the gratitude of those he had helped were far more significant than a gong from the establishment. Besides he was always happy with his lot- cheerful irreverence being his stock in trade. He loved his research and continued working at it until the very day he died.

He lived to see his Diamond Wedding; together with his beloved wife Gillian receiving a letter of congratulations from the Queen. Devoted to each other and in similar professions they almost defined the phrase Darby and Joan. They were due to hold a party to celebrate their anniversary just three days after he died. Ironically that suited Morris. Fuss and attention were the last things he wanted. He remained modest, quiet and private to the end.

About the Author
I studied at Yeshivat Kerem Beyavneh in Israel and then at Cambridge University. After practising as a commercial lawyer I became active in communal affairs. I was Co-Chair of British Friends of Peace Now and the New Israel Fund. I was President of the Board of Deputies and then took a Masters at UCL in Jewish History and am now doing graduate research there.
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