The occupational health and safety community is mourning the death of Leslie Nickels, MEd, PhD, who passed away earlier this week from breast cancer. Leslie embodied the heart and spirit of public health. She was passionate about social justice and advocacy, devoted to educate and mentor, committed to research, and loved public health’s history of struggle, resistance, and victories.
Leslie’s career included positions with the Chicago Department of Public Health, the University of Illinois School of Public Health, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the World Health Organization. She worked for more than 40 years with communities and workers to improve the conditions that adversely affect their health. Her occupational health and safety research included collaborations with home care aides, day laborers, construction workers, and farm workers.
Leslie’s contributions to public health were recognized with admiration last month with a lifetime achievement award from the Health & Medicine Policy Research Group (HMPRG). Dr. Linda Rae Murray presented the award, saying:
“Leslie is one of the national leaders in occupational health and safety, and that is a field that is very controversial, underappreciated, and often ignored. Make no mistake about it, this is a war, and Leslie Nickels is one of our finest warriors.”
Dr. Murray went on:
“I first had the pleasure of meeting and working together when we were students together over 40 years ago, and she really represents in our field someone who has been able to bridge the different silos of the struggle. That is how we are defeated all the time, because we decide that we are an expert in biochemistry, or we’re an expert in safety, or an expert in nursing.
Leslie has taught all of us in health and safety that we have to bring together all these disciplines.”
My favorite recollections of Leslie are from our membership with the American Public Health Association (APHA). I relished hearing about her escapades searching archives for historical treasures about Dr. Alice Hamilton (1869 – 1970).
At the APHA annual meeting in 2014, for example, Leslie presented “Alice Hamilton and The Illinois Survey 1910-1911: Shifting paradigms in documenting workplace disease.” (You can see and hear it streamed here.) She spoke about Alice Hamilton with admiration for the barriers the physician and advocate broke down to improve worker protections. I remember, too, the twinkle in Leslie’s eyes and her joyful smile when she noted that she and Alice Hamilton shared the same hometown. They were kindred spirits from Fort Wayne, Indiana!
Leslie Nickels shared her love of occupational health history with others, including Mark Catlin, director of safety and health for the Service Employees International Union. (Mark’s YouTube channel features hundreds of archival film and video clips on worker safety topics.) In December 2016, Mark said that Leslie gave him a “grand afternoon labor history tour” around Chicago. It included a stop at the Haymarket Memorial monument at its temporary location in Chicago’s Union Park.
Mark also shared this memory with me:
About a year ago, Leslie emailed me excited about listening to the voice of Alice Hamilton, on a 1963 oral history interview she’d uncovered at the Center for the History of Medicine at the Countway Library of Medicine in Boston.
A few weeks later, I was at that same library. As I heard Dr. Hamilton’s voice for the first time – I texted Leslie that I was happily smiling as I listened.
She immediately texted back – ‘I did the same!’
That audio recording (3 minutes) is available on Mark Catlin’s YouTube Channel. On it, you’ll hear Dr. Alice Hamilton speaking with Dr. Jean Curran about the inadequacy of protecting workers from lead poisoning. (Curran’s voice is heard at the beginning of the recording.) I can absolutely imagine the joyful look on Leslie’s face as she listened to the voice of Alice Hamilton. Leslie Nickels—the educator and activist—would encourage you to listen to Alice Hamilton’s voice for yourself.
Upon accepting the award from the Health & Medicine Policy Research Group, Leslie shared words of advice from Alice Hamilton’s mother.
“There are two kinds of people in the world: those who say ‘somebody ought to do something about it, but why should it be I’, and those who say, ‘somebody must do something about it, then why not I?”
Leslie Nickels embraced that maxim with gusto. She said, “why not I?” time and time again. Our world is a better place because she did.