Letters presents readers' comments and reactions to specific articles in Pennsylvania Heritage, the initiatives of PHMC, and other developments in the historical, cultural and museum communities of Pennsylvania.

Worthy of Note

The Summer 2006 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage was warmly received in no small measure due to the well-written articles about Edwin Austin Abbey [“Edwin Austin Abbey, A Capital Artist” by Nancy Mendes] and Joseph Leidy [“Joseph Leidy, A Natural Observer” by Tom Huntington]. The article on the now vanished silk indus- try in Pennsylvania was also worthy of note [“If Looms Could Speak: The Story of Pennsylvania’s Silk Industry” by Liz Armstrong Hall].

The summary in “Bookshelf,” on page 96, describing Pennsylvania Wilds: Images from the Allegheny National Forest contains, I believe, a real faux-pas. Reference is made to the tropical paradise found three hundred and seventy-five years ago, or in 1631.The writer probably meant three hundred and seventy-five million years ago.

Robert J. Sarlo
Philadelphia, Pa.

Our eagle-eyed reader is absolutely correct. Three hundred and seventy-five million years ago, the area of what is now the Allegheny National Forest – eight hundred square miles of awe-inspiring terrain in north central Pennsylvania – was a “tropical paradise,” much of it covered by a warm, inland sea. The editor, not the book author, is guilty of this time warp.


Karl Mason

The feature on Karl Mason was wonderful [“Profile,” Summer 2006]. I met Karl in early September 1961, when I arrived in Harrisburg as a very green U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) officer assigned to the state Department of Health’s radiological health program.

Prior to Karl’s arrival, state agencies were largely peopled with political appointees. One of his contributions was to implement the conversion to a professionally trained staff at the health department. Back then the USPHS was a strong influence in upgrading and professionalizing state health agencies, something I didn’t realize until much later. John C. Villforth, a Pennsylvanian, became director of the USPHS Bureau of Radiological Health, rising to flag officer grade and becoming corps engineer. The story of the Pennsylvania radiological health program is an interesting one. The Commonwealth had one of the earliest radium control programs, dating to before World War II, performed pioneering work improving safety with analytical x-ray systems and accelerators, and responded to the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, where the radon problem first came to light. And then there’s the Lansdowne Radiation Superfund Site in Delaware County, a legacy of the Standard Chemical Company, which operated a radium extraction mill at Canonsburg, Washington County.

Joel Lubenau
Lititz, Pa.

Joel O. Lubenau’s popular article “Radium City, U.S.A.,” appeared in the Fall 2005 issue to chronicle the history of the Standard Chemical Company, headquartered in Pittsburgh, and a visit to the company’s plant and offices by French physicist Marie Curie in May 1921.

Having worked in the environmental field for my entire career with the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, I enjoyed Vagel Keller’s profile on Karl Mason.

It should be noted in Dr. Keller’s article describing the 1948 smog incident in Donora, Washington County, that the emissions from the Donora Zinc Plant causing the health problems were sulfur dioxide gases and not fluorides, as stated.

My first assignment at Bethlehem in 1950 was to visit George Clayton at the U.S. Public Health Service in Cincinnati, Ohio, and John White at the U.S. Weather Bureau, Washington, D.C., to review their method of study and findings of the problem prior to the publication of a final report analyzing the unfortunate episode. Coauthored by Clayton and White, this report concluded that during the six-to-eight-day-period in October 1948, sulfur dioxide concentrations in the outdoor air reached levels three-to-five times greater than the threshold limit value for an industrial worker. Sulfur dioxide was indeed the culprit!

Russell Ruhf
State College, Pa.

In 1995, the PHMC dedicated a state historical marker to commemorate the 1948 Donora Smog or, as many at the time called it, the Donora Death Fog.