Oxford library asbestos ‘could have caused professor’s death’

Among the many deaths from mesothelioma – the lethal cancer usually caused by the breathing in of asbestos fibres – to have been reported in the news recently is that of a former professor at Oxford University, who passed away earlier this year, aged 93.

Dennis Shaw was a distinguished figure in the recent history of the university, having once held the position of ‘Keeper of the Books’ at the Bodleian Library, where an inquest has heard he may have come into contact with the notorious now-outlawed substance.

Efforts underway to trace academic’s possible asbestos exposure

 As reported by the Oxford Mail, Dr Shaw wrote a personal statement to his family during his dying days, outlining his former workplaces where he could have encountered the asbestos fibres that led to the development of his cancer.


A coroner heard that he was working at the Bodleian Library during the 1970s as major refurbishment and underground construction work took place, and that this may have been the source of the asbestos exposure that ultimately caused his death.

Dr Shaw made specific reference in his personal statement to the library, where he was employed as Keeper of Scientific Books from 1976 to 1991. Prior to taking on the position, he had made regular use of the library as a physics and science academic at the university’s Keble College. He served the college for more than 30 years in all.

He said that nearly every day during work to extend the Bodleian Library in the early 1970s, he was present for an hour and a half to supervise construction. In early December 2016, he was diagnosed with the cancer of the lung lining known as mesothelioma, and was told it was caused by hazards in his workplace.

A much-missed father

 Rosamund Rhodes-Kemp, assistant coroner for Oxford, commented: “Dr Shaw sadly died on July 20 this year of mesothelioma, which possibly had work-related causes. He died suddenly in the night.

“Mesothelioma is a disease that comes about due to someone’s exposure to asbestos. He was not aware of any exposure, but it is difficult to know when you’re clearing large amounts of dust during any building project.

“I would suggest the conclusion here is one of industrial disease.”

Dr Shaw’s 58-year-old daughter, Deborah, added after the inquest: “His family is very proud of him. We miss him very much. The last 18 months of his life were marred by such a horrible disease.”

A Bodleian Library spokesman declined to comment on the suggestion that asbestos fibres may have been present during the construction of the library extension, but described Dr Shaw as “a valued colleague and… a much-missed member of staff.”

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