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.

A Feminist and an Educator

Ava Helen Pauling at home, 1977.

[Part 3 of 3; “The Atomic Awakening of Ava Helen Pauling,” by Ingrid Ockert]

Ava Helen the Educator

As a public speaker, Ava Helen sought to both educate and empower her audience. She deftly wove scientific facts, sociological theories, and inspirational prose into an entertaining speech. A survey of the speeches which remain in the Pauling Papers at Oregon State University offer a glimpse of the scientific topics which Ava Helen covered; a range which included ecology, chemistry, physics, and biology. Most of her speeches were focused on the dangers of radiation and many would have fit well into the National Committee on Atomic Information’s collection of educational atomic literature. In one such speech, “High Energy Radiation and the Human Race,” Ava Helen discussed the history of radioactivity. Drawing on then-current studies, she clearly explained how radiation affects the human body. “High Energy Radiation,” like all of her speeches, was tailored to a female audience. Throughout the speech, Ava Helen beseeched fellow mothers to think about the health of their own children:

[Scientists] from the Atomic Energy Commission estimated the total genetic hazards of carbon-14 produced by the explosion of atomic bombs…their estimates are 500,000 children with gross physical and mental defect, 1,900,000 still born and childhood deaths, and 4,500,000 embryonic & nonnatal deaths.

Ava Helen utilized hard statistics and emotional appeals to connect the women in her audience to the dangers of atomic weapons. Her desire to educate women on radiation dangers extended beyond the lectern. Ava Helen, like many women who were allied with the NCAI, also promoted scientific education by creating public informational displays on atomic energy and arranging showings of scientific educational films. She distributed literature, such as pamphlets and booklets, on the dangers of nuclear weapons. Only two educational pamphlets on the dangers of atomic warfare survive in Ava Helen’s personal papers.

As Ava Helen’s reputation as a dynamic lecturer grew, she started to speak to her audiences on more general scientific topics. She became interested in the environment in the 1970s and gave speeches on water pollution and habitat loss. She asked audiences members to consider how their actions affected the quality of local drinking water. She also appeared on radio stations and gave short speeches on various scientific topics. Only one transcript of these broadcasts survives – on the science of making bread.

Ava Helen the Feminist

Ava Helen wanted to both educate and empower her audiences. She paired the democratic vision of the atomic scientists with the egalitarian beliefs of the feminists. Ava Helen earnestly believed that social equality for women was key to creating world peace. “I believe that we can only make real progress towards a better world if men and women work together,” she told an audience in the early 1960s. The peace movement had successfully united intelligent and motivated women towards a common goal. Ava Helen recognized the potential strength of the women’s peace movement and wanted to see that energy channeled toward women’s liberation.

Ava Helen at a women’s group meeting, ca. 1950s.

Ava Helen had certainly witnessed gender discrimination throughout her life. She had especially seen it within in the academic community. In a private interview in the 1970s, she confided her fury regarding the treatment of Rosalyn Franklin, who greatly contributed to the discovery of DNA. “If only women’s lib had come along a few years earlier,” she lamented. “If ever there was a woman who was mistreated, it was Rosalind Franklin…. She didn’t get the notice that she should have gotten for her work on DNA. She died.”

Ava Helen could personally empathize with Franklin. Both women had been denied the highest public honor for their contributions to society, a Nobel Prize. Linus Pauling received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963, which both delighted and disappointed the Paulings. Although Linus certainly deserved credit for galvanizing the scientific community towards peace, Ava Helen had worked within the peace movement for at least as long. She was thrilled for him, but they were both saddened that the prize hadn’t been awarded jointly. Publicly, Linus gave Ava Helen full credit. As he accepted the Nobel, Linus told the crowd, “In the fight for peace and against oppression, [Ava Helen] has been my constant and courageous companion and coworker.” Still, the entire incident highlighted Ava Helen’s growing frustration with the accepted status of women.

Ava Helen was especially appalled by the lack of social progress in the United States. She angrily observed in a 1964 speech

Discrimination against women is still very real and nowhere more than here in the United States, which lags woefully behind the more advanced Western Nations and indeed in many respects behind the socialist countries.

Determined to rally the spirit of American women, Ava Helen traveled nationally to colleges, churches, and women’s clubs to spread the word.

Ava Helen loudly urged the women in her audience to stand up for themselves. “Women have equal capacity with men in brain power, talents, and capabilities,” Ava Helen proclaimed in a 1964 talk. “Indeed, in the matter of courage, sensitivity, and fearlessness, they may be superior.” Ava Helen especially wanted her female colleagues to pursue careers and to advocate for equal pay. She applauded President Kennedy’s 1961 Commission on the Status of Employed Women, which revealed discrimination across virtually all work fields. Ava Helen encouraged women to pursue non-traditional careers in medicine and science. “In every field of human endeavor… writing, science, engineering, woman has shown that she has ability,” Ava Helen told her audience. She famously suggested that the first scientists were women. She eagerly cited studies showing the equal intellectual abilities of boys and girls. She celebrated the appearance of women scientists, like Rachel Carson. In a speech given at a medical conference in the 1970s, Ava Helen applauded the appearance of women-run women’s health clinics. Like her suffragette mother before her, Ava Helen actively promoted equality between men and women.


“No woman wants to be put up on a pedestal, where she can be easily ignored and neglected,” remarked Ava Helen during one of her speeches. “She wants to be taking and doing her part in the affairs of the world with her feet on the ground and sharing in and contributing to the life around her.”

Ava Helen speaking at the Quilapayun Concert in Tribute to Victor Jara, Eugene, Oregon, 1979.

Despite her earlier misgivings about a woman’s role in life, Ava Helen leapt onto the world stage and become a political player. By the late 1970s, almost half a century after she had been a starry-eyed student in Germany, Ava Helen had finally become a respected public citizen within the international peace community. During the Cold War, Ava Helen had transformed from a frustrated suburban hausfrau into a confident public speaker. She became a dynamic player in two social revolutions that dared Americans to challenge their previously accepted conceptions about the roles of scientists and women. Although Ava Helen eventually accepted her own role as a non-scientist, she encouraged other women to pursue their own scientific careers. She became a role model for other women within her own community, who were interested in pursuing lives outside of domestic circles. Although Ava Helen modestly downplayed her own abilities, her insightful speeches won the admiration of American women. When a newspaper reporter asked Ava Helen what it was like to live with a genius, a friend of the Paulings piped up, “Ask Linus. He’s been living with Ava for years.”

Ava Helen Finds Her Voice

Ava Helen Pauling, 1950.

[Part 2 of 3; “The Atomic Awakening of Ava Helen Pauling,” by Ingrid Ockert]

The Dawning of the Cold War

While Ava Helen was busy volunteering for radical women’s groups in the 1940s and 1950s, she became a participant in another revolutionary group: the Atomic Scientists’ Movement. The bombing of Japan at the end of World War II left American physicists with very mixed feelings. Initially many American physicists were simply relieved to no longer be at war. I.I. Rabi, a scientist who served as the director of the defensive radar developments at MIT and worked on the Manhattan Project, remarked that he was “frankly pleased, terrified, and to an even greater extent embarrassed when contemplating the results of [my] wartime efforts.” A survey of physicists in September 1945 revealed that 66.5% of physicists approved of the government’s decision to bomb Japan.

Gradually however, these feelings of relief turned into remorse and anxiety. After all, as historian Alice Kimball Smith noted in her study of the physicists, “Scientists are for the most part human and sensitive, and if rationality served them well, it spared very few of them, sooner or later, from feelings of direct responsibility.” Even scientists like Linus Pauling, who had nothing to do with the construction of the bomb, felt in some way accountable for the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As historian Jessica Wang explains in her journal article. “Scientists and the Problem of the Public:”

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 provided a grim counterpoint to the elation with which Manhattan Project scientists had celebrated the Trinty Test a month earlier. Even as the war ended, scientists began to imagine the terrifying possibilities of the next great war.

As American soldiers returned from the battlefront, physicists returned to their pre-war duties within research laboratories. It took months for many of these physicists to process the full implications of the Manhattan Project. Feelings of guilt, anxiety, and fear began to ferment within the minds of American physicists. “As more information began to accrue about the real-world effects of the bomb, including the new threat of widespread radiation poisoning,” historian Thomas Hager summarized in his Pauling biography Force of Nature, “a sense of guilt spread across the scientific community – especially that portion involved in designing and building new weapons.” As the radioactive fallout of Hiroshima settled across the Pacific Ocean, American scientists started to take sides in the new Cold War.

The Awakening of Atomic Activists

A small group of plucky, prominent physicists, including Eugene Rabinowitch, H.H. Goldsmith, Harold C. Urey, Leo Szilard and Katherine Way advocated for international nuclear disarmament. They organized the Federation of Atomic Scientists (FAS) in October 1945. The FAS united small pockets of concerned scientists, such as the Oak Ridge Engineers and Scientists and the Association of Los Alamos. The FAS intended to lead inquiries into the implications of atomic energy, shape national and international atomic policy, and raise national awareness of the potential dangers of nuclear energy. But members of FAS had an even larger ambition in mind. They sought to redefine scientists as “part of a larger public, within which [scientists] participated as equals, but offered their expertise for the purpose of information, consideration, and criticism.” Previously, scientists were isolated in laboratories and separated from the cultural implications of their technology. The FAS sought to forge a partnership between scientists and the general public. Scientists, they concluded, neither “could be or should be separated from the social and political ramifications of technological innovation.” And, by continuation, an informed public would be an empowered public that could wisely navigate through the emotional rhetoric that shaped atomic legislation.

The FAS facilitated the conciliation between scientists and the public through a strong public education campaign. The National Committee on Atomic Information, a subset of FAS that organized in November 1945, was the public face of the Atomic Scientists movement. The NCAI reached out to “labor movements, educational organizations, religious groups, and professional associations for cooperation and assistance in appealing to the public.” It connected local scientists at speaking engagements with youth groups, women’s clubs, and religious centers. The NCAI sponsored educational science fairs and distributed study kits, educational films, pamphlets, and moralistic plays. Atomic Information, the public mouthpiece for NCAI and FAS, was first printed in March 1945 and was sent out to 10 million addresses. It presented serious scientific articles alongside quirky cartoons and enthusiastic political commentary.

Charles Coryell and Linus Pauling, 1935.

The Paulings quickly became active participants of the Atomic Scientists Movement. Many of the scientists involved in the movement were good friends of the Paulings. Charles Coryell, one of the young men who founded FAS, was one of Linus’ former students. The Federation of Atomic Scientists recruited Linus as a high profile public speaker as it lobbied Congress for a civilian Atomic Energy Commission in the spring of 1946. That same spring, the director of the NCAI, Daniel Melcher, approached Albert Einstein with the idea of creating a fundraising society, chaired by scientific stars like Einstein, that would raise monetary support for the FAS directly from the American public. This society, the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, became incorporated in October of 1946. Linus Pauling eagerly accepted their invitation to join and raised money for the FAS’ public education campaign. The FAS’ successful public outreach campaign cultivated a national interest in the implications of atomic energy. The demand for scientists who could speak on atomic matters steadily increased.

Out of his own feelings of moral responsibility, Linus began accepting invitations for speaking engagements. Linus was a well-respected lecturer on scientific topics; his classroom lectures were engaging and humorous. But Linus’ first talks on the dangers of nuclear warfare were dry; he struggled to connect to a general audience over political and social issues. Fortunately, Ava Helen quickly understood what was going wrong. “You’re not convincing,” she confided to him after one lecture. “You give the audience the impression that you are not sure about what you are saying.” Working with organizations like the Womens International League for Peace and Freedom, the American Civil Liberties Union and Union Now had also taught Ava how to connect with ordinary citizens over political issues. Ava drew upon these skills as she helped teach Linus to establish a rapport with his audience. As biographer Thomas Hager describes,

Ava accompanied Pauling to almost all of his talks, sat in the front row of the audience, and listened carefully to his delivery. She also kept an eye on the room, saw what worked and what did not, and afterward critiqued his performance.

The Paulings also read up on the politics of atomic energy until Linus felt that he could confidently “speak on his own authority.” Under Ava’s watchful eye, Linus transformed from a college professor into a public scientist.

Ava Helen Finds Her Voice

Ava Helen Pauling speaking at Women Strike for Peace rally, San Francisco, August 1961.

But Ava Helen wasn’t going to let Linus have all of the fun. After years of working behind the scenes, Ava Helen finally began to give public speeches in 1957. Initially, Ava Helen gave speeches centering on the Paulings’ international travels. By the early 1960s, Ava Helen was regularly speaking to women’s clubs and religious groups on topics concerning peace, science, and women’s rights. Although Ava Helen didn’t receive the same high billing as Linus, she easily reached an audience that the FAS was eager to connect to: women. American women had become fierce cold warriors after World War II. As wives and mothers, they were expected to protect their own families and communities. The moral responsibilities of women grew during the 1960s to extend outside the home. Women needed to defend their community against any environmental hazards, like nuclear fallout or toxic pesticides. A 1962 poster advertising the group Women for Peace capitalized on these concerns, noting that fallout caused cancer in children and took money away from important social programs. A basic understanding of science became an integral part of a woman’s post-college education.

While she was initially booked for public events as “Mrs. Linus Pauling,” Ava Helen quickly developed her own persona as a public speaker. She spoke almost exclusively to middle class and educated women; commonly appearing at a luncheon for faculty wives or a tea for WILPF members. Ava Helen demurely called herself an “educated layman.” But this was certainly an understatement; Ava Helen had kept pace with her husband for many years. She enjoyed attending scientific conferences with her husband and learning about new scientific studies. Yet the lecture programs written for Ava Helen’s speeches only noted her background in chemistry, stressing her experience in laboratories. At first, it seems odd that Ava Helen would choose to downplay her education and highlight her practical experience. But most of the women who comprised her audience wouldn’t have had a formal scientific education. Some of them might have worked in scientific laboratories during World War II. Many had read articles about the importance of women in laboratories from popular magazine articles. By focusing on her practical experience, Ava Helen carefully aligned herself with her audience.

Rachel Carson.

Interestingly, Ava Helen’s public persona was similar to the persona of Rachel Carson, another successful popular science educator in the 1960s. Ava Helen deeply admired Rachel Carson and called her “fearless and brilliant.” Both Carson and Pauling promoted a “socially engaged understanding of natural sciences.” In David Hecht’s examination of Rachel Carson’s public image, he identifies her as one of the leading non-scientific icons of the environmental movement. Ironically, Hecht notes that Carson increased her scientific credibility among readers by portraying herself as a scientific outsider. As discussed above, Ava Helen had fashioned her self image in a similar way. In fact, both Carson and Pauling framed themselves not as scientists, but as “quiet teacher types.” Depictions of Rachel Carson in popular periodicals labeled her as “shy, courageous, … dutiful, ethical, or quietly farsighted [and] functioned as nonscientific elements in credentialing her as an authority.” Articles about Ava Helen ascribed the same feminine characteristics onto her. Journalists were intrigued by Ava Helen’s “quiet, mischievous strength.” They took great care to stress Ava Helen’s petite physical appearance, her devotion to family, and her supposed affinity for domestic tasks. They also emphasized her strong ethical feelings and earnest desire to educate other women. By stressing the femininity of their subjects, these articles made both women seem familiar, approachable, and trustworthy. Their non-scientific appeal allowed both Carson and Pauling to “bridge the relationship between science and its publics…and [show that] nonexperts could play actual roles in making science, not simply directing its use.”