Howard Ayer was a Pioneer in Protecting Workers
Enlisting after graduation from Roosevelt High in Minneapolis in 1942, the bright young man scored well on various aptitude tests, but was disqualified from pilot school by a color-blindness test. During an interview for a new Army program to boost its engineering corps, Howard was asked, “Why should we consider you for this program?” The answer that proved satisfactory and set the course for an illustrious career was, “It might as well be me as somebody else.”
After a semester of engineering school at the University of Illinois, that program was discontinued and Howard Ayer became a Private in the Army Signal Corps. He finally landed in Nancy, France to assist in maintaining the city’s telephone system until war’s end.
Howard returned to Minneapolis and completed a Chemical Engineering degree on the GI bill at the University of Minnesota, and married his sister’s friend Elsie Donaldson in 1947. Howard then accepted a commission in the US Public Health Service. He worked through training rotations with the Kansas State Health Department before assignment to a field station in Salt Lake City, where he studied health hazards at the uranium mines in the West and co-authored the sampling method for the lung cancer-causing decay products of radon.
After receiving a Master’s of Public Health degree from Harvard University, he was assigned to the Public Health Service field headquarters in Cincinnati. While advancing from a staff engineer to Assistant Chief, Howard had a distinguished career in a group of scientists, physicians, and engineers who were developing measurement methods and standards for protecting our nation’s workers. He was instrumental in developing a method to measure respirable silica, and, following studies in the Vermont granite industry, developing a concentration value to use as an industry standard for the protection of quarry workers.
From 1964 to 1972, the Cincinnati office conducted environmental, medical, and mortality studies of the asbestos products industry. Various studies took Howard across the country analyzing industries and hazards, often for weeks at a time. Each summer, he took his vacation time all at once, carefully packing the station wagon and embarking on a month-long camping adventure to the national parks with his wife and four children.
Upon retirement from the PHS in 1976, Howard became the last tenured faculty member of the University of Cincinnati without an MD or other doctoral degree, and taught courses in Industrial Hygiene and Safety until “early” retirement at age 65.
Motorists recognized and came to watch for him as a pioneer in bicycle commuting as, weather permitting, he rode his 10-speed each day from Hyde Park to work in Clifton.
As Professor Emeritus, he continued to give lectures and participate in research projects. Hundreds of today’s senior Industrial Hygienists were mentored at UC’s Kettering Laboratories by Professor Ayer. He dedicated personal financial resources to establish a computer lab for use by IH students. As one of a few surviving individuals with personal experience in the development of measurement and standards for the asbestos industry, he provided expert testimony until age 82.
He was an active member of his church and served in many different positions. He and his wife enjoyed travel (including an annual theater trip to New York with the University’s film department), and continuing education through elder hostel programs. He and Elsie remained in their home in Hyde Park for 55 years, then moved two blocks away to the Marjorie P. Lee retirement center.
Howard passed peacefully on July 22, in the presence of family, just a week shy of his 93rd birthday and a month after celebrating his 70th wedding anniversary. He is survived by his wife Elsie, sister Margaret Olson; children Mitchell (Kathy), Matthew (Paula), and Elizabeth Ayer Garvin (Andrew); daughter-in-law Verna; grandchildren Mitchell, Jr., Karin, Ethan, Eliot, Daniel, Brendan, and Joshua; and five great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his son William (“Gus”) in 2013.
Howard has been recognized as one of the pioneers in the field of Industrial Hygiene. Over the course of his 53-year professional career, he witnessed the transition from a manufacturing-based to a service-centered economy, with different problems. From depression-era survival mode in South Minneapolis, as his family was forced to relocate from one rental home to the next, Howard epitomized our “greatest generation” in a steadfast work ethic, commitment to family, service in his church and his commitment to his students.
In a humble summary of his legacy, which produced a generation of scientists, and a family spanning fields including law, engineering, medicine, public service, music, art, finance, and technology, he liked to sum things up in a corny field office expression: “Well, I did asbestos I could.”