Why is it that hindsight is always 20/20? Why does it take us so long to recognize things that seem so obvious in retrospect?
My husband and I recently watched the Netflix series “The Crown” that begins before the death of Britain’s King George VI, in 1952, and follows the events surrounding the accession to the throne of his daughter, the current queen, Elizabeth II.
Episode 1 begins, jarringly, with the king coughing up blood in the bathroom sink. We soon learn that he has lung cancer. Yet despite that terrifying diagnosis, he is seen smoking in every scene. And even after one of his lungs has been removed, he carries on smoking while indulging his love of hunting and boating, wheezing and choking until the bitter end.
And he is not the only smoker in the royal family. The queen’s grandmother, Mary, is seen puffing away every time she’s onscreen, even on her death bed, near which an ashtray is overflowing with cigarette butts.
(Elizabeth II has never smoked, which may account in part for her longevity, although it is said that the Queen Mother, who lived to be over a hundred, smoked into her eighties.)
Humans have been smoking for thousands of years. Wouldn’t you think that common sense might have told us, before Surgeon General C. Everett Koop decided to do so in 1984, that setting dried leaves on fire and inhaling their smoke into the lungs might be doing us bodily harm?
Yet it was several hundred years before scientists decided to examine the situation. For the first several decades of my life cigarettes were everywhere – in restaurants, on airplanes, in offices – just about everywhere except church sanctuaries and public school classrooms. No sophisticated actor in a movie was seen without a cigarette, often in a sleek, metal holder. Television doctors proclaimed the health benefits of one brand of cigarette over another. When we see old videos of those commercials now we find them laughable but also pathetic in their naiveté.
I was one of the millions who got sucked into the joys of smoking myth. At the age of fourteen I stood in front of a mirror in my cabin at Deerwood Music Camp determined to teach myself to blow smoke rings. Smoking was cool, but blowing smoke rings was really cool, a further degree of sophistication. And there was a fellow camper, from New York City of course, who smoked unfiltered cigarettes and used her pinky finger nail to remove a particle of tobacco from the tip of her tongue before exuding a thin column of smoke. Her style was to be emulated. She was probably all of fifteen.
We smokers did crazy things in order to satisfy our cravings. For the thirty-plus years that I was a church organist, I would sneak down to the ladies room during the Sunday sermon to have a smoke. And on Good Friday, when there was a sermon for each of the Seven Last Words, I got more than the usual amount of exercise running up and down from the choir loft.
Early in Episode 3 of “The Crown,” the name Donora is mentioned. I wonder, Donora? Is there another Donora besides our Donora? One of the characters had said, “Donora, Pennsylvania, somewhere near Philadelphia.”A second character corrected him: “No, Pittsburgh.”
They were indeed referring to our Donora. But why?
The 1948 Donora Smog was an air inversion that created a wall of smog that killed 20 people and sickened 7,000 more. It was referenced in “The Crown” because a similar but much deadlier smog was bearing down on London.
The Great Smog of London, among the deadliest environmental disasters in recorded history, occurred between Friday, December 5 and Tuesday, December 9, 1952. “Four thousand people died as a direct result of the smog and 100,000 more were sickened by its effects.
The Smog was the result of “a period of cold weather, combined with anticyclone and windless conditions and collected airborne pollutants – mostly arising from the use of coal – that formed a thick layer of smog over the city.
“During the day on December 5, the fog was not especially dense and generally possessed a dry, smoky character. But when nightfall came, the fog thickened. Visibility dropped to a few meters.
“The following day, the sun was too low in the sky to burn the fog away. That night and on the Sunday and Monday nights, the fog again thickened. In many parts of London, it was impossible for pedestrians to find their way at night because the fog was so thick people could not see their feet.
“The weather changed on December 9 as wind swept in unexpectedly, and the killer smog vanished as quickly as it had arrived.”*
In England a series of laws, including the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968, were enacted to avoid a repeat of the disaster. These acts banned emissions of black smoke and decreed that residents of urban areas and operators of factories must convert to smokeless fuels.
The Donora incident is credited with triggering environmental safeguards in the United States, including the Clean Air Act of 1970.
It took a while longer for the public and the medical community finally to acknowledge that inhaling smoke from cigarettes was taking a toll on our lives.
It is difficult for us to imagine today how pervasive cigarette smoking was in everyday life until relatively recently. I was a pack a day smoker, thought nothing of it and had plenty of company.
I am lucky to have reached this point, unscathed so far, after polluting my lungs for more than thirty years with the poisons emitted by cigarettes. I finally saw the light in 1978.
It’s too bad the members of the British royal family during the reign of King George were not able to benefit from the enlightenment that was to arrive a few decades later.
*All quoted material is taken directly from Wikipedia.