In Memory of Jock McCulloch
Our friend Jock McCulloch died on January 18, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. The grief caused by his passing is shared by so many who have worked with him to reveal the human cost of the global asbestos trade. Asbestos was my point of contact with Jock I first became aware of his work when I saw copies of his book: Asbestos Its Human Cost on sale at a reduced price in a central London bookshop. I bought all ten of them. Some while later, I had the chance to meet Jock in London and from then on we were in regular contact. It is poignant and tragic that Jock, whose compassion and humanity was so great, shared the fate of so many of the people whose plight he documented. Like them, Jocks death was caused by exposure to asbestos; in April 2017, he was diagnosed with the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma. At this sad time, our thoughts are with his partner Pavla, their family, his friends and colleagues at RMIT University and so many others whose lives were enriched by knowing Jock. While mourning his passing, we will remain forever grateful for the time we had with him and for the impact he had on our lives.
Professor Jock McCulloch was an Emeritus Professor of History in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University, Melbourne Australia. During a long and distinguished career he researched the impact and machinations of the asbestos industry, undertaking field work and archival research in key asbestos hotspots. His book Asbestos Its Human Cost (1986) was followed in 2002 by Asbestos Blues: Labour, Capital, Physicians & The State in South Africa and Defending the Indefensible (2008) with co-author Geoffrey Tweedale. Throughout his career, Jock explored a wide range of topics including African history, political theory and the nexus between colonial psychiatry and sexuality.
Jock first came across the subject of asbestos quite by chance when he was employed by the Federal Parliament as a Legislative Research Specialist. One of his jobs was to read newspapers from abroad; the voluntary bankruptcy of Johns Manville (JM), the biggest of the US asbestos corporations, was big news in the mid-1980s. The firm had massive financial resources but was still using Chapter 11 to protect itself from asbestos personal injury claims. At around the same time as JM was seeking to avoid its asbestos liabilities, the behaviour of James Hardie Ltd. (JH), Australias dominant asbestos mining and manufacturing company, was being investigated by the Australian Parliament. Jocks opinion of the asbestos conglomerate was informed by his attendance at some of the JH hearings, Jock told me during email exchanges last year:
Hardie was a vile company which ran a chrysotile mine at Baryulgil in Northern NSW employing Aboriginal workers in the sort of conditions only found in South Africa under apartheid. There was no published history of asbestos in Australia and so I decided to write one.
Comparing the reputation of James Hardie then and now, he wrote:
In 1984 James Hardie was a greatly respected Australian company which had dominated the building materials market for the best part of a century. It is now probably the most reviled commercial enterprise in the country. That shift is the result of litigation which had revealed its predatory behaviour toward employees, consumers of its products and by-standers it has injured. One positive outcome is that community awareness of the dangers of asbestos exposure has improved.
South Africas Asbestos Legacy
Jock spent years undertaking field and documentary research in Southern Africa. His PhD and first two books were on Africa which had always been a primary research interest. He told me that:
For various reasons, I worked in Zimbabwe long before I visited South Africa where most asbestos mining was done. While Turner and Newall has managed to walk away from the damage it has done mining asbestos in Swaziland Cape plc was forced in 2003 to settle out of court for its South African crimes. Those stories are not yet finished because the health impact of mining is ongoing
I have learned a great deal from Southern African activists. Many of the people in groups such as the Concerned People Against Asbestos (South Africa) are politically gifted. They understand power and how it can be manipulated by the supposedly weak to their advantage. The out of court settlements in Johannesburg and London to former asbestos miners and their families against Cape plc and Gencor in 2003 were remarkable as they were achieved by groups with minimal material resources and very powerful enemies. It was the first time South African miners had won a court case for occupational injury. Those victories against the odds represent a model of how democratic change can be achieved.
Asked about the stand-out moments hed experienced throughout his career, Jock commented:
The best part of my research experience has been meeting people I would not otherwise have met. That has been true in Brazil, Italy, the US, the UK, and in a number of Southern African countries. I also got to work with the British historian Geoff Tweedale on Defending the Indefensible. It was hard work but fun
In a later email discussing his long years working on the history of asbestos he again stressed the value he accorded to the personal contacts he had established:
especially through the National Institute for Occupational Health in Johannesburg. I have also been the beneficiary of generosity from a number of people who have shared their time, knowledge and materials. Dr. David Egilman gave me a copy of twenty years of document collecting which made it possible to write the book with Geoff Tweedale.
My own encounters with Jock include meeting him from time to time at conferences I have attended. Below are several images that bring back special memories:
Jock with fellow Australians Robert and Rose Marie Vojakovic at the Osasco Global Asbestos Congress, Brazil 2000.
Again at Osasco: Jock relaxing with a group of conference delegates and organizers on his immediate left Dr Sophia Kisting and Fernanda Giannasi.
Jock speaking in Canada (2003) at the conference: Canadian Asbestos: A Global Concern.
Jock addressing IMIG 2014 delegates, Cape Town, South Africa.
During our email exchanges last year, Jock informed me of his diagnosis and of his desire to contain the news.1 When I asked him if there was anything I could do for him, he replied: I'd like you to keep up the work you have been doing since before we met all those years ago. His message for activists campaigning for asbestos justice, environmental remediation, medical research and a global ban was the following:
It is an important and ongoing struggle. Because some gains have been made that does not mean those gains will endure. The current lack of public regulation in OECD states in regard to building materials means asbestos based products are currently being used in settings where consumers expect to be protected. They are not.
Emails received since Jock died have spoken of his sharp mind, his compassion and his humour, his thoroughness and persistence, his generosity [and] extraordinary contribution to scholarship. He possessed all of those traits and many more besides. When I last saw him in Cape Town in 2014,2 we enjoyed some time together amidst like-minded colleagues at the biennial meeting of the International Mesothelioma Interest Group. Little did we know that mesothelioma, a disease caused by exposure to asbestos, would take his life just a few years later.
January 21, 2018
1 In an email from Jock on July 21, 2017, writing about the causation of the disease he wrote: The injury almost certainly occurred while I was researching Asbestos Blues in South Africa, which is all of twenty years ago.