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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March-April 2013

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Remembering Barry Commoner

Barry Commoner, who died in September 2012 at the age of 95, was the intellectual and actual father of this magazine. Environment started as “Nuclear Information,” a bulletin mimeographed in his office at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where I worked as the scientific administrator of his Center for the Biology of Natural Systems. It is fitting that we honor Barry's legacy by reprinting the seminal article “Baby Tooth Survey—First Results” in this issue (see page 18). While the article does not bear his name, it has Barry's fingerprints all over it, for he was the inspiration behind the famous “Baby Tooth Survey.”

The Baby Tooth Survey grew out of rising concern about above-ground nuclear weapons tests being conducted in the 1950s, including radioactive strontium-90 in the fallout. Some dentists had found that strontium-90 replaced calcium in bones and in teeth. With this link in mind, Barry began what became a scientific and political movement. (It is not clear that Barry himself thought of this idea; a significant group had formed around him, of both scientists and lay citizens. What is clear is that he saw the potential of the campaign.) He realized that baby teeth, after they fall out, would be a wonderful indicator of the geographic distribution of strontium-90. In addition, he had the imagination to see that the collection of these teeth would alert the general public to the dangers of radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing, when such information was either ignored or suppressed by weapons testers and politicians.

And with this idea, the Baby Tooth Survey was born. Soon, in almost every drugstore in the St. Louis area, orange-colored postage-paid envelopes appeared, clipped to posters that said “Give a Tooth for Science.” And soon other cities followed suit with their own surveys; Montreal, for example, had a large effort. The surveys received a great deal of media coverage; a search in the newspaper archives shows more than 40,000 articles in newspapers in such places as Steubenville, Ohio, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Denton, Texas.

The results of the study found that in the teeth collected from children born after 1963, levels of strontium-90 were 50 times higher than levels found in children born before the advent of large-scale atomic testing. It is widely thought that one reason the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 was approved by the Senate by a surprisingly large margin was due to the publicity this project generated. In the alleged words of one senator, referring to the many letters from concerned citizens he had received, “They knew how to spell strontium 90.”

Barry was an excellent scientist, winning the prestigious Newcomb Cleveland Prize in 1953 from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for “outstanding contribution to science.” Throughout his career, however, he was very sensitive to the political impact of scientific research and contentious science-based activities. As one example, the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems found that the high levels of nitrate nitrogen in Lake Decatur, Illinois—the source of drinking water for the nearby town of Decatur—which can cause “blue baby syndrome,” came from fertilizer used on nearby corn fields. Blue baby syndrome was named for the color of babies with inadequate supplies of oxygen; the nitrate radical replaces the oxygen in their blood hemoglobin. Pediatricians subsequently advised mothers to use bottled water, not tap water, for baby formula. Commoner criticized the inadequacy of nitrate-level monitoring in both river and tap water. Such monitoring by the regulatory agencies is now routine.

Barry's appearance on the cover of Time magazine in 1970 marked a turning point—Time inaugurated its environment section with that issue. But 1970 was also a transformational year for the nation, which held its first Earth Day in June, and which founded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the wake of the National Environmental Policy Act passed in late 1969. The year 1970 also marked a profound shift in Barry's own career. No longer was he merely an academic scientist, conducting environmental research. He became a public figure fighting for a better environment using the tools of a scientist. This new path ultimately led to him running for President in 1980 under the banner of the newly formed Citizen's Party.

Barry Commoner, “the Paul Revere of Ecology,” as Time dubbed him, will be remembered as one of the key leaders and instigators of the modern environmental movement. He stood for scientific integrity, for the openness and transparency of all relevant scientific information, so that honest debate could be held. He shed light where there was scientific obscurantism and political darkness. He championed the cause of what we now term sustainability science for the betterment of the planet and its peoples. The movement he helped lead was far more effective as a result of his life and work. He will be missed.

For more information on Barry's life and career, see

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