James Melius ’70, ’72 MMS

James Melius ’70, ’72 MMS

Architect of aid for 9/11 first responders

“For most occupational or environmental illnesses, what treatment do we have?” Dr. James Melius ’70, ’72 MMS told the Niagara Sunday Gazette in the late 1980s. As director of the New York Department  of Health’s division of occupational health and environmental epidemiology, he was leading the cleanup of Forest Glen, a Niagara Falls neighborhood that became a Superfund site.  “Our best treatment,” Melius insisted, “is to stop exposure.” 

Melius, who died January 1 of cardiac arrest at his home in Copake Falls, N.Y.,  had a decades-long career as a strong advocate for workers’ health and safety, with an emphasis on prevention. His repeated testimony before Congress was key to the passage of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which authorized billions of dollars for the medical care of first responders. “The failure of the government to properly inform and protect these people from these exposures added substantially to their health risks,” Melius testified in 2009.

As an international expert on workplace medicine, Melius was part of the cohort of U.S. experts sent to Bhopal, India, in 1984, to investigate the poisonous gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant, considered one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. From 1994 until his death, Melius served the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA). “Jim was a true working class warrior,” said LIUNA general president Terry O’Sullivan, in a tribute. 

James Malcolm Melius was born on June 16, 1948, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and raised in nearby Copake Falls, New York. At Brown, he studied biology and managed the varsity hockey team. In a letter to the BAM from 1972, Melius’s last year in the six-year medical science program,  he and fellow members of the Brown Medical Student Society made a forceful argument that Brown should start a medical school, both to enhance the University and to improve health care in Rhode Island. 

The son of a farmer and a first-grade teacher, Melius showed concern for the working class even before the start of his career. “Quality medical care is a right rather than a privilege which must be made equally available to all people,” he and his classmates wrote in the BAM.

Melius received his MD from the University of Illinois School of Medicine and his doctorate of epidemiology from the University of Illinois School of Public Health.  

Starting with a residency in occupational medicine at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Melius’s career was focused on reducing the number of workers killed, injured, or exposed to dangerous substances on the job. “He had an early sense of wanting to do good and remain connected to working class people,”his son Jeremy Melius told the New York Times in early January. “He had a strong sense of service.”

Melius improved occupational health practices in New York  long before he spelled out to Congress what hadn’t been done properly after 9/11 and what the procedure should be in future disaster response. In 1980, after an explosion and fire at the Chemical Control Corp. chemical storage site in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Melius got the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, where he’d worked previously, to come in and do medical evaluations of the firefighters. “It was one of the first times that firefighters were evaluated after a major incident,” a longtime former official of the International Association of Fire Fighters told the Times. “And that continues today.” 

Just months before his death, Melius coauthored an op-ed in the New York Daily News calling a monument for 9/11 first responders a moral imperative. “For them,” he wrote, “9/11 and its aftermath is still a daily battle.”

—Louise Sloan ’88

See more notes:
Class of 1970, Class Notes - Graduate Studies

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