Barry Commoner, 1917-2012

Barry Commoner, ca. 1960s.

On September 30, 2012, Barry Commoner, an important environmentalist and key collaborator with Linus Pauling on the famous United Nations bomb test petition, died in Manhattan.

Commoner, born on May 28, 1917 in Brooklyn, was interested in science from a young age, spending hours examining life through the lens of a microscope. He worked his way through college and earned his bachelor’s degree in Zoology from Columbia University in 1937. From there he took his Ph. D. in cellular biology from Harvard University in 1941.

After receiving his doctorate, Commoner taught for a few years at Queen’s College, to which he would return later in life. He served in the Naval Air Corps during World War II and moved on to teaching at Washington University in St. Louis shortly after war’s end. In 1966 he became the founding director of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, a research institute that continues to this day to investigate and remedy occupational and environmental threats to public health.

Commoner was not just an influential scientist, but a noteworthy grassroots activist as well. He has been called “the Paul Revere of Ecology” and the “father of the environmental movement” for promoting awareness of key environmental issues such as radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing, the consequences of nuclear energy, waste management and recycling, and the overall environmental impact of human existence.  He strongly believed in the importance of democracy and the need to empower informed choice through the free dissemination of scientific information. He advocated for scientific collaboration on key issues which affect the global population.

Original sponsors of the United Nations Bomb Test Petition.

Commoner’s first major activity as an activist was thrust upon him following Linus Pauling’s famed anti-nuclear speech at Washington University on May 15, 1957. Directly after the lecture, Pauling, Commoner and a fellow professor, Edward Condon, met in Commoner’s office to draft the “Appeal by American Scientists to the Governments and Peoples of the World,” a petition demanding the cessation of nuclear bomb testing worldwide. The three scientists were inspired by mounting evidence of negative health consequences caused by radioactive fallout from nuclear tests conducted in Earth’s atmosphere. This petition was immediately signed by about 100 scientists at Washington University.

Within a week, Commoner had formulated a plan to collect the signatures of scientists nationwide by sending out Pauling’s finalized petition to contacts a multiple universities. By the end of June, 2,000 signatures had been obtained and Commoner and Pauling began to spread the petition all over the world. “We were all as pleased as you must have been to discover how many signatures had been obtained on the Appeal,” Commoner wrote to Pauling at the time. “We are all quite convinced that the Appeal expresses a very widely held view among scientists.”

He was right: by January 13, 1958 the petition had been signed by 9,235 people and by July 3, 1958 it had been signed by 11,038 people from 49 nations.

Linus Pauling sent copies of the massive petition to President Dwight Eisenhower and United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, but initially received little support from either the federal government or the UN.  Congressional hearings on nuclear fallout held contemporary to the petition did not yield sufficient evidence to stop the United States’  testing program, leaving the community of activists to continue their fight.

Time magazine cover, February 2, 1970.

Barry Commoner was a vocal proponent of the widespread dissemination of scientific information to the public. He believed that as many people as possible should be involved in the dialogue over moral decisions, such as the hazards of fallout and the political necessity of nuclear bomb testing. In a speech given at a symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Committee on the Social Impacts of Science, held in Indianapolis on December 29, 1957, Commoner advocated for continued research on nuclear testing and for open communication about this research.

What appears to trouble the public is not that political opponents have disagreed on the nuclear test issue, but that the opinions of scientists have been marshaled on both sides of the debate. This appears to violate science’s traditional devotion to objectively discernible truth…In this situation the available facts are often not sufficient conclusively to support or contradict a given explanatory idea, and therefore opposing ideas will for the time flourish together…The remedy is apparent if not easy: more research…What we call a scientific truth emerges from the scientists’ insistence on free publication of their own observations. This permits the rest of the scientific community to check the data and evaluate the interpretations so that eventually a commonly held body of facts and ideas come into being…The development of a scientific truth is a direct outcome of the degree of communication which normally exists in science…The public must be given enough information about the need for testing and the hazards of fallout to permit every citizen to decide for himself whether nuclear tests should go on or be stopped…scientists must take pains to disclaim any special moral wisdom on this matter [because]…a public informed on this issue is the only true source of moral wisdom that must determine our nation’s policy on the testing – and the ultimate use of – nuclear weapons.

In February 1958, Commoner began to organize The Citizen’s Committee for Atomic Information to educate the people of St. Louis about the realities of radioactive fallout. This committee, along with two St. Louis area dental schools, went on to conduct the Baby Tooth Survey, which investigated the concentrations of Strontium-90 found in the human body as a result of nuclear fallout.  This philosophy of promoting grassroots direct democracy would guide Commoner’s environmental efforts for the rest of his life.

Although the United Nations Bomb Test Petition did not affect immediate policy change, it did yield important lasting effects. In 1963, Linus Pauling won the Nobel Peace Prize for his nuclear test ban petition efforts. The prize came in the wake of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited above-ground nuclear explosions and was signed to by the governments of the U.S., U.K. and U.S.S.R. This treaty was influenced both by the bomb test petition and by the Baby Tooth Survey.

Barry Commoner spent the rest of his life advocating for social justice in many areas, including environmental pollution, war, and racial and sexual inequality – all of which he believed were interconnected issues. He wrote five books about the intersection of environmental causes and social politics and ran for U.S. President as the head of his own Citizen’s Party in 1980, receiving 234,000 votes. Commoner advocated a prevention-based approach to environmental sustainability that never fully caught on politically in the U.S., but which a growing number now believe may be a key to solving many of the economic and environmental problems that we face today.


The Baby Tooth Survey

On January 1, 2011, Louise Reiss, a physician best known for having directed a project called the Baby Tooth Survey, died in her Florida home at the age of 90. Reiss, a New Yorker born Louise Zibold, received her medical degree from the Women’s College of Pennsylvania (now part of the Drexel University College of Medicine) in 1945. During her residency at Philadelphia General Hospital, she met the man who would become her husband, Eric Reiss.  The couple moved to St. Louis in 1954 where Eric worked in the medical school at Washington University and Louise as an internist at the City Health Department.

Beginning in 1959, the Reiss’ began collaborating with a local group that included Washington University biologist Barry Commoner to found the Greater St. Louis Citizen’s Committee for Nuclear Information. Later in the year, the committee, along with two St. Louis area dental schools, initiated the Baby Tooth Survey.

The mission of the Baby Tooth Survey was to demonstrate that nuclear bomb testing was increasing the concentrations of Strontium-90 found in the human body. Strontium-90, one of the components of radioactive fallout, can make its way into the human food chain through cow’s milk. As a result of its chemical similarities to calcium, it is readily incorporated into human bones and teeth, where it remains for the rest of its long half-life, emitting radiation that damages the surrounding tissue and increasing one’s chances of developing cancer.

Over the twelve years that the Baby Tooth Survey ran, more than 300,000 teeth were collected from the St. Louis area and analyzed in the project’s laboratories. The results of the project were profound, if not entirely unexpected. Chemical analysis showed that the teeth of children born in 1950 – before most of the bomb testing had taken place – contained about fifty times less Strontium-90 than did the teeth of those born in 1963. The study clearly indicated that the effects of radioactive fallout from nuclear testing were trickling down to humans.

CNI newsletter, ca. 1960, which includes an update on the Baby Tooth Survey.

In mid-1963, Eric Reiss presented the to-date results of the Baby Tooth Survey to a Senate committee, and although the data at the time didn’t come across as forcefully as the statistic mentioned above, they still proved to be significantly persuasive. Later in 1963, after years of negotiation, a Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed by the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain.

This was a major victory for the Reiss’ and the rest of the Committee for Nuclear Information, but they weren’t the only ones who were pleased. As has been well-documented on this blog, Linus Pauling had taken a strong anti-bomb stance after the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945, and had been protesting nuclear weapons testing for several years before the Baby Tooth Survey was conceived.

As increasingly powerful bombs – especially the hydrogen bomb – were developed in greater quantities, Pauling’s concern grew accordingly. In 1955 he signed the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which spoke out against the dangers of nuclear war; one of many anti-nuclear petitions that Pauling supported during this time. However, Pauling wasn’t content to only protest war; he also wanted to put a complete stop to the testing of nuclear bombs.

In May 1957, after a period filled with many speeches exposing the possible health issues that bomb testing could create not only in the United States, but all over the world, Pauling, his wife Ava Helen, and two other scientists decided to circulate a scientists’ petition to stop atmospheric nuclear testing. One of those original scientists was Barry Commoner, the same man that would collaborate with the Reiss’ to found the Baby Tooth Survey two years later. Commoner worked closely with Pauling to distribute the petition, and within a few weeks they had already gathered signatures from about two thousand scientists.  By the end of 1957, that number had grown to over nine-thousand signatures.

Tally of petition signatures by country, 1958.

Although Pauling’s petition didn’t lead directly to a nuclear test ban, it was – along with the CNI’s Baby Tooth Survey – undoubtedly instrumental in getting the Partial Test Ban Treaty signed. After the signing of the treaty in 1963, the Baby Tooth Survey continued to run, eventually ending in 1970. Final analysis of the data gathered by the survey indicated that Strontium-90 levels in the teeth of children born in 1968 were fifty-percent lower than were the levels in the teeth of those born in the immediate wake of the treaty’s signing five years earlier. Pauling liked to state in his anti-testing speeches that “the only safe amount of Strontium-90 in the bones of our children is 0,” and although the treaty couldn’t achieve this, it was undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Louise Reiss, 2003.