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.

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The SISS Ordeal: Background to a Trying Time

Pauling testifies before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, 1960.

[Ed Note: June 21, 2010 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Pauling’s first appearance before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee.  We are marking the occasion with a five-part series that tells the story of this important and traumatic experience.]

[Part 1 of 5]

In 1956 and 1957, Linus Pauling helped organize a petition which protested against above-ground nuclear bomb testing by the world’s nuclear powers. The project was first endorsed only by American scientists, but became an international appeal shortly after the completion of a robust initial release.

Though many found the display inspirational, others questioned the petition’s motives and organization. Pauling was not alone in crafting the document, but much of both the praise and the criticism that it generated was directed at him. The petition remained a contentious issue into the following decade, as Pauling became entangled with members of the United States Senate over questions concerning the petition’s distribution.

As was the standard for him after World War II, Linus Pauling was kept busy in the late 1950s by a frenzied mixture of research, public speaking and social demonstration. He remained actively engaged in academia, but was directing more and more attention to nuclear non-proliferation issues.

Pauling’s main concern at the time was the tepid response from public officials and the Atomic Energy Commission to what he viewed to be a major problem – radioactive fallout from atomic bomb detonations. After conferring with two scientific colleagues, Barry Commoner and Edward Condon, it was concluded that, because of their insight and technical knowledge of the dangers involved, the nation’s scientists bore a special responsibility to speak out about nuclear testing.

As a result, Pauling and several associates began circulating a petition. Copies were distributed to individual scientists across several states, and soon large swaths of scientists from several universities and institutions began responding en masse. The petition’s purpose was made very clear from the outset of its introduction:

We, the American scientists whose names are signed below, urge that an international agreement to stop the testing of nuclear bombs be made now.

The initial document, “Appeal by American Scientists to the Government and Peoples of the World,” came back to Pauling adorned with over two-thousand signatures, including those of several prominent members of the scientific community. After a short interlude, the petition was supplemented by an international version, ultimately raising the total to a tally of more than 13,000 signatures.

The endeavor was seen as a huge success by advocates, but it also instigated a new movement against Pauling, one propelled by several public agencies and officials. In particular, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) began focusing more attention on Pauling, though it was not the first time he had found a place on their agenda. In 1955 the SISS released a tract titled “The Communist Party of the United States of America: What It Is, and How It Works.” Linus Pauling’s name was on a list of individuals said to be among the most active participants and supporters of communist fronts.

Similarly, when Pauling and his associates released their nuclear test ban petition in June 1957, they were met with substantial criticism from a wide variety of opinion makers. Initially Pauling’s scientific authority on the issue was the primary in question. Soon enough though, Pauling was being accused of communist conspiracy, and was subpoenaed by the SISS to discuss the potential role of communist organizations in the petition’s distribution. Pauling expressed his willingness to appear before the subcommittee, but unforeseen senatorial politics eventually interceded, forcing a temporary delay of his compulsory appearance in Washington, DC.

The SISS itself was essentially the Senate version of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), having served similar purposes in the past. Indeed, in 1960 the committee was composed of many staff members recycled from past HUAC activities. Most notably, Senator Thomas Dodd, chairman of the Subcommittee at the time, conferred regularly with former HUAC investigator Benjamin Mandel. Senator Dodd and others were also working periodically with the FBI in a joint effort against suspected communist subversion.

Before they refocused on Pauling, Dodd and the SISS were popularly credited with instigating the dissolution of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), a collection of locally oriented anti-bomb protest groups. Dodd worked discretely with SANE’s national leadership in providing the organization with an ultimatum:  either cull itself of alleged communist membership or risk a prolonged investigation by federal authorities. SANE’s leadership chose to impose loyalty oaths, a move that split the entire organization, leaving the severed parts largely incapacitated. After the subcommittee’s apparent victory, Dodd and his counsel were emboldened enough to focus their full attentions on Pauling.

Following a speech given to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in the spring of 1960, Pauling was handed several fliers, a poem, some news clippings and other random papers while answering people’s questions. That night, after returning to his hotel room, he found a subpoena addressed to him within the clutter.

Subpeona issued to Linus Pauling by the Internal Security Subcommittee of the United States Senate. June 20, 1960.

The subpoena adjured his appearance before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee on June 21st, two days from then, to address:

Communist participation in, or support of, propaganda campaign against nuclear testing, and other Communist or Communist-front activity with respect to which you [Pauling] may have knowledge.

Abraham Lincoln Wirin, a lawyer who had helped Pauling through an earlier dispute, flew directly to Washington, DC the next day. The duo discussed Pauling’s options and decided to utilize the press as much as possible, a tactic that had proven fruitful for Pauling in the past. Though Pauling was given very short notice, he and Wirin were able to devise what seemed to be a simple but promising broader strategy. They decided to make the entire affair as public as possible, cooperate to whatever extent was appropriate, and maintain the integrity of Pauling’s constitutional rights. Though he was alarmed, Pauling felt reasonably prepared for the engagement ahead of him.