Overlooked No More: Elizabeth Hayes, Coal Town Doctor Who Fought for Miners

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

It was 1943, and Elizabeth Hayes was several months into her new job as a coal town doctor in Force, Pa., when she noticed something worrisome. Many of the miners she treated were falling ill, not from the black lung disease so common from inhaling coal dust, but with mysterious stomach ailments and diarrhea.

Hayes was employed by Shawmut Mining, the company that owned the entire town — the streets, the church, even the miners’ homes. She was certain that the ailments she was seeing were caused by the town’s dirty drinking water and other unsanitary conditions; Shawmut had refused to build sewers, pave streets or pipe clean water into the miners’ homes. After rainstorms, raw sewage flowed through yards, alleys and unpaved streets. Children played in sewage-filled ditches, and many of the wells were dug too close to outhouses.

Hayes implored the company to install a new water system, but nothing changed. So in April 1945, she told the company that she would quit unless it fixed the town’s sanitation problems. When Hayes, one of nation’s few female coal town doctors, spoke up at a union meeting with management, Shawmut grew fed up with her and accepted her resignation.

Credit…Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Hayes, often called “Dr. Betty,” was the only doctor within a 15-mile radius, and local miners were furious to lose her. About 350 of them went on strike in three Shawmut-owned Pennsylvania towns, Force, Byrnedale and Hollywood, demanding that the company keep Hayes and build a new water system.

Overnight, newspapers and magazines, in writing about Hayes’s crusade, “catapulted her to media stardom,” Marcia Biederman wrote in her book “A Mighty Force: Dr. Elizabeth Hayes and Her War for Public Health” (2021). Some reports called her the miners’ “Joan of Arc.”

“I see no point in having well baby clinics when you feed these babies ‘toilet’ water,” Hayes was quoted as saying in The New York Times about the 1945 strike.

She told The Daily Worker, the Communist Party newspaper, “We never dreamt that people would take such an interest in our local problems.”

Hayes “was putting the miners and their welfare before her responsibility to her employer,” Janet Wells Greene, a coal mining expert and former professor of labor studies at SUNY Empire State College, said in an interview. “That was shocking to many people.”

Newspapers and magazines played up the fact that she was not just brave and principled but also young (she was 33) and a rare female doctor. “Dr. Betty Hayes was a smartly dressed, wisecracking career woman out of a Jean Arthur or Rosalind Russell film,” Biederman wrote. “No other labor story carried a photo like Hayes’s portrait, fit for the women’s pages or the society columns.”

Elizabeth Omega Hayes was born on May 7, 1912, in a mining camp in Conifer, Pa., near Force, about 120 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. Her father, Leo Zeno Hayes, was a doctor, and her mother, Anna Hivick Hayes, was a homemaker. Elizabeth was the youngest of eight children, and when she was still young the family moved to Force, where she attended public schools. Most of her classmates were the children of miners.

She graduated from Villa Maria Academy in Erie, Pa., then studied pre-med at Pennsylvania State College (now Penn State University). She graduated from the Temple University School of Medicine in 1936 and did an internship at Nesbitt Memorial Hospital in Kingston, Pa. She became a general practitioner in that town for four years and later moved to Newfoundland to work as a doctor and tuberculosis researcher at the Grenfell Medical Mission, which helped small fishing villages.

Hayes in Pennsylvania coal country in 1936 shortly after her graduation from medical school. She took over her father’s practice as a coal town doctor.Credit…via William Kunkle

Elizabeth’s father had served as a coal town doctor in the Force area for four decades, and shortly before he died, he asked that one of his children — five of them had become doctors — agree to take over his job. The family chose Elizabeth, and she moved back into her childhood home. Unlike the miners’ homes, it had indoor plumbing.

Hayes was a beloved figure in Force; Biederman wrote that children often jumped onto her car’s running boards as she drove to miners’ homes.

Force’s sanitary conditions gnawed at her. The drinking water smelled bad, and townspeople often complained of mysterious ailments. Suspecting a case of typhoid, Hayes hired a private lab to test the water, and it found that many wells were contaminated.

The state authorities tested Force’s wells, and they, too, found contamination. They declined to take action against Shawmut, though they added disinfectant and warned families to boil their water — measures that Hayes felt did not go nearly far enough.

After the strike started, Hayes continued caring for the miners and their families, with the miners paying her directly. Shawmut insisted that it couldn’t afford to build a new water system; it had declared bankruptcy four decades earlier and was still in receivership. Yet The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the company’s president, John D. Dickson, was taking a large salary.

Hayes at a farewell picnic hosted by miners and their families in 1947, when Hayes decided to leave her job as the local doctor.Credit…via William Kunkle

The strike dragged on partly because Shawmut’s executives so disliked Hayes that they refused to negotiate with the miners if she attended the bargaining sessions, even though the miners wanted her there. Shawmut even evicted Hayes from her house and office.

In her biography, Biederman wrote that Dickson went so far as to suggest that Hayes was an enchantress who had bewitched the miners, saying that she was “not unlike” the “sirens of old” in Homer’s “Odyssey.”

The miners, members of the United Mine Workers, sent a telegram to President Harry S. Truman asking for help, and a federal judge, Guy K. Bard, was assigned to investigate Shawmut’s finances. At a hearing, Hayes and the miners testified about the horrid sanitation conditions, Biederman wrote, with Hayes’s testimony clearly moving the judge. She spoke of delivering a baby after she had fallen into a ditch and sewage had splattered her clothes. Public health professionals had urged women to have their babies in hospitals, “using everything that science has taught us about baby care,” Hayes said, yet, she added, “we have to mix our formula with sewage and diluted urine.”

Judge Bard appointed two new executives to run Shawmut, ousting Dickson and his top aide. The new executives rehired Hayes and agreed to fix the sewage problems and pave the roads. Declaring victory, the miners ended their five-month strike.

Hayes became so celebrated that Woody Guthrie wrote a song, “The Dying Doctor,” about her and her father. The lyrics go, in part, “My daddy told me to fight to cure sickness / But I can’t cure sickness with sewage all around.”

Hayes decided to leave her job in 1947, and the miners and their families threw a big farewell picnic. She married Charles Williamson and worked as a civilian doctor at the Cherry Point Marine Air Base in North Carolina. While her husband was serving in Korea, she moved to Brockway, Pa., and helped run a medical practice there. After her marriage to Williamson ended in divorce, she married LeRoy Voris, an agricultural researcher, in 1957. They lived in Washington and ultimately retired to Pine Knoll Shores, N.C.

Hayes died of a stroke on June 26, 1984, in New Bern, N.C. She was 72.

During the 1945 strike, when “Dr. Betty” was a national sensation, The Philadelphia Record wrote, “The prescription of Dr. Hayes — ‘Get good and mad — and start fighting’ — reminds us that many, many more Americans need to follow her example.”