Joseph J. Schwerha, MD, MPH, FACOEM, a great-hearted leader in occupational medicine, died suddenly on April 27, 2011, age 72. In 2005, Joe was the recipient of the William Knudsen Award, the highest award conferred by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM). He received this award in recognition of his distinguished career including his role as a leader in the practice of occupational medicine, as an educator, and for his service to the field.
Joe was born in Southwestern Pennsylvania where he spent much of his career. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh where he majored in chemistry, the West Virginia University School of Medicine, and the University of Michigan where he received an MPH in Environmental Health and Industrial Hygiene. His interest in occupational health was spurred in part by a serious injury sustained when he was a teenager which left him with hip injuries. Despite a lifelong limp, no one I know ever heard Joe complain of his injury. He was certified in occupational medicine by the American Board of Preventive Medicine.
He began his career in occupational health at the US Steel Corporation where he rose to the position of Corporate Medical Director and General manager of Health Services. As the field of occupational and environmental health broadened, so did Joe's responsibilities which expanded to include health promotion, family medical centers, employee assistance programs and global health. Joe was not only able to convince his own corporation to expand the traditional role of the occupational medicine department, he was a major contributor to this trend among his colleagues nationally and internationally. His methods were those of a gentle but firm advocate who led by example and by his own hard work.
After serving thirty years at US Steel, Joe joined the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. As the Director of the Occupational Medicine Residency Program, Joe was a mentor to a generation of occupational medicine physicians. He also served as a Clinical Professor in the West Virginia University Occupational Medicine Program. Joe was a role model to residents and to others in the field not only because of the breadth and depth of his knowledge, but also as a figure of compassion and high moral rectitude who always put the worker first. At the University of Pittsburgh he again demonstrated his ability to broaden our field by taking on the responsibility of developing and directing a Public health Preparedness Certificate Program.
Joe's service to the field of occupational and environmental medicine was wide-ranging. He focused on achieving results through encouraging thoughtful approaches to major issues. It is hard to find an occupational health and safety committee in which he did not serve, extending beyond ACOEM to the National Safety Council, the International Iron and Steel Institute and the Ramazzini Society. His service to the Institute of Medicine included participation in the preparation of five reports, including the seminal 2007 study on "Training Physicians in Public Health".
Joe was an integral member of the leadership of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine
where he served on the Editorial Board since 2004. A member of ACOEM since 1968, Joe was elevated to Fellowship in 1975, and 10 years later he was elected to the first of 2 terms on the ACOEM Board of Directors (1985-1989). In addition to his service on the ACOEM Board, he was chair of the Occupational Medicine Practice Committee, the Bylaws Committee, and the Council on Special Occupational Health Interests. He was a past president of the Tri-State OMA (1999-2000), one of ACOEM's component societies, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Occupational Physicians Scholarship Fund.
In today's highly structured world, it is easy for those of us in academia or corporate medicine to drift away from caring for individual patients. Joe Schwerha never did. Throughout his career, Joe maintained a small private practice near his home in Peters Township, working nights after his full days. This service as a community physician was an integral part of "Doc Schwerha" that extended beyond his own local area. When his family obtained a winter home in Naples, Florida, Joe volunteered his time at the Neighborhood Health Clinic. Joe's low-key manner, and his caring personality, led him to be described as both a gentleman and gentle man. Aside from his profession, his passions were for his large family and for antique cars, about which he was an expert. The death of Doc Schwerha is a loss to his loving wife of more than 50 years, Dorothy Schwerha, four children, many grandchildren, his patients, and to his friends and colleagues in the field of occupational and environmental medicine.