When Dr. Janette Sherman was practicing internal medicine in suburban Detroit in the 1970s, she noticed that several of her patients were reporting similar symptoms, and that they all worked in automobile factories.
She soon realized that they were all being exposed to the same hazardous chemicals, including arsenic. She shared her findings with the consumer activist Ralph Nader’s Health Research Group, and in 1973 they issued a report on the health of 489 Detroit autoworkers.
Their jobs, the report said, were “associated with increased amounts of chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive lung disease, or other disabling and killing diseases.”
A key finding was that nonsmokers had just as much chronic illness as smokers. The nonsmokers also had a 50 percent greater chance of developing those diseases than nonsmokers whose jobs did not expose them to the dust, smoke, fumes, chemicals and exhaust from forklift trucks to be found in factories. Such diseases had previously been attributed to cigarettes.
Dr. Sherman, who died on Nov. 7 at 89 in Alexandria, Va., “made the connection that this was not a lifestyle issue — this was a work issue,” her daughter, Connie Bigelow, said. “People were being made sick by their work.”
Dr. Sherman testified on behalf of thousands of these autoworkers as they sought compensation for their illnesses while pressing for cleaner work environments, labeling of the hazardous materials they were working with and regular monitoring of their health.
Through the efforts of the United Auto Workers union, many of these changes came about.
As an internist, Dr. Sherman started out by treating the autoworkers. But she shifted her focus to researching the causes of their illnesses and trying to prevent them, becoming a pioneer in occupational and environmental health.
A chemist by training, she took up toxicology and helped pinpoint how hazardous substances, toxic chemicals and nuclear radiation could lead to cancer, birth defects and other diseases. Some of the chemicals she identified as particularly harmful have since been banned or restricted.
Over the course of her career Dr. Sherman served as a medical-legal expert witness in more than 5,000 workers’ compensation claims. Her medical-legal files, among the largest collections of their kind in the United States, are preserved at the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
In addition to testifying on behalf of workers, Dr. Sherman served as an expert witness for residents in communities affected by environmental hazards, most famously the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, N.Y. Developed in the 1950s atop a toxic chemical landfill, the area became the site of one of the worst environmental disasters in American history in the late 1970s, prompting President Jimmy Carter to declare an emergency. Dr. Sherman was among those urging that residents be evacuated, which they were.
Her work often pitted her against powerful business and political interests.
“She definitely went up against the corporate establishment,” Ms. Bigelow, her daughter, said. “She was always on the side of the worker.”
Sometimes she was “threatened and hassled,” Ms. Bigelow said. “She talked about being in hotel rooms with attorneys, and they’d turn on the TV and the radio and the shower because they were afraid they were being bugged.”
Ms. Bigelow said that her mother, as a woman in what was largely a man’s field, felt she had no room for error.
“She did very careful, very detailed research,” she said. “I suspect there were some doctors who shunned her because of her work, but she didn’t care. She did what she thought was right.”
Janette Dexter Miller was born in Buffalo on July 10, 1930, to Wilma and Frank Miller. (Miller was also her mother’s maiden name.) Both parents were pharmacists. They divorced when Janette was a toddler, and her mother raised her in Warsaw, N.Y., just east of Buffalo.
An athletic young woman, Janette planned to major in physical education when she went to Western Michigan College of Education in Kalamazoo, now Western Michigan University. But while there, she took a job in a chemistry lab to help pay for school and became interested in science. She ended up majoring in chemistry and biology and graduated in 1952.
That same year she entered into the first of her three marriages.
Dr. Sherman went on to Michigan State University in Lansing, where, from 1956 to 1960, she studied German and mathematics part time, though she did not obtain an advanced degree. She then enrolled in medical school at Wayne State University in Detroit, where she was one of only a handful of women studying for a medical degree. She had recently been divorced and was raising two children on her own at the time. She graduated in 1964 and later set up her own private practice just north of Detroit, where she first encountered the autoworkers.
Dr. Sherman, who was a professor of oncology and medicine at Wayne State from 1976 to 1988, consulted with or served on a number of advisory boards and government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Cancer Institute.
She wrote two books, “Chemical Exposure and Disease: Diagnostic and Investigative Techniques” (1988) and “Life’s Delicate Balance: Causes and Prevention of Breast Cancer” (2000).
She also edited “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment” (2007), which analyzed thousands of articles in the scientific literature and concluded that the Chernobyl disaster had caused an estimated 985,000 premature deaths. That number far exceeded previous estimates, the highest of which was about 50,000, and led to criticism of the book in the academic press.
Dr. Sherman had studied the effects of radiation early in her career and later worked with Joseph Mangano, executive director of the nonprofit Radiation and Public Health Project. By analyzing the baby teeth of children who lived near nuclear reactors, they suggested in five peer-reviewed journal articles that even small doses of radiation had caused increases in childhood cancer. Some scientists were skeptical, saying no direct link could be proved.
“We were alone in doing the research but not alone in our concern that radiation from nuclear reactors is getting into people’s bodies and harming them,” Mr. Mangano said.
Dr. Sherman’s first marriage, to John Bigelow in 1952, ended in divorce in 1960. Her marriage to Howard Sherman in 1965 also ended in divorce, in 1972. In 1987 she married her high school sweetheart, Donald Nevinger. He died in 2005.
Dr. Sherman, who died at an assisted living community, had a combination of dementia and Addison’s disease, Ms. Bigelow said. In addition to Ms. Bigelow, she is survived by her son, Charles Bigelow; two stepchildren, Kevin Nevinger and Donna Kellogg; and five grandchildren.
At 56, Dr. Sherman took up the cello. “It was a lifelong dream, and her goal was to be last chair in a community orchestra,” her daughter said. She achieved that goal, playing with the all-volunteer symphony orchestra in McLean, Va., for several years.