UNC Honors Alumnus Who Helped Reduce Brown Lung Risk

October 11, 2005
CHAPEL HILL — As a graduate student at Carolina’s School of Public Health in the 1970s, James Merchant studied the impact of byssinosis, a chronic respiratory condition, commonly known as “brown lung disease,” that affected many textile workers in North Carolina. A devoted advocate of workplace safety and health, Merchant helped identify the risks of exposure to cotton dust. His work led the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to establish the 1978 Cotton Dust Standard, which set limits for occupational exposure to cotton dust for workers in the textile industry and several other industries. This standard is credited with substantially reducing the number of brown lung cases in the state and nation.For that life-saving work, and his many contributions to public health throughout the world, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will present its Distinguished Alumna/Alumnus Award to Merchant, now Dean of the College of Public Health at The University of Iowa. The award will be presented Oct. 12 during University Day Ceremonies.

A native of Ames, Iowa, Merchant received a bachelor’s degree in bacteriology from Iowa State University in 1962 and an M.D. degree from the University of Iowa in 1966. He completed an internship and an internal medicine residency at Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital, followed by a fellowship in pulmonary and environmental medicine at Duke University.

In 1973, he received a doctorate in public health in epidemiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was awarded a Trudeau Fellowship from the American Thoracic Society for post-doctoral study at the University of London’s Brompton Hospital and Cardiothoracic Institute. Merchant directed the Appalachian Laboratory for Occupational Safety and Health and the Division for Respiratory Disease Studies for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and taught and practiced pulmonary medicine at the University of North Carolina and West Virginia University (adjunct appointment).

Merchant returned to Iowa in 1981. He served as head of the University of Iowa’s Department of Preventive Medicine and Environmental Health from 1997 to 1999, directed the department’s Division of Occupational and Environmental Health from 1983-1997, and taught in the department since 1981. He was named the first Dean of the University of Iowa College of Public Health in July 1999. He also is a professor in Department of Occupational and Environmental Health.

Merchant has been the principal investigator on many research grants funded by federal agencies, private foundations, and corporations, and he has been honored with numerous awards, including a commendation medal from the U.S. Public Health Service and a Health Policy Fellowship with the United States Senate. In 1999, he was elected to the Institute of Medicine.

He continues to advocate for workplace safety – for example, raising awareness of the hazards in rural and agricultural settings has led to a number of advances in the injury control field. His other research interests include childhood asthma epidemiology and prevention, environmental health science, occupational medicine practice, rural and public health policy, and rural health and injury control.

For more information on the awards and other 2005 Distinguished Alumna/Alumnus

For further information please contact Ramona DuBose by email at ramona_dubose@unc.edu