Barry Commoner, a founder of the science of ecology and of the environmental movement, died Sunday in New York at age 95.
His wife, Lisa Feiner, confirmed his death, the New York Times reported Monday.
Commoner was among a generation of scientist-activists who recognized the toxic consequences of America’s advanced technology, and one of the first to advocate the public’s right to comprehend the risks and make decisions about them.
His work on the global effects of radioactive fallout, which included documenting concentrations of strontium 90 in the baby teeth of thousands of children, contributed substantially to the adoption of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963.
From there he progressed to a range of environmental and social issues that kept him in the limelight as a speaker and an author through the 1960s and ’70s, and led to a run for president in 1980 under the Citizens Party banner. He won only about 234,000 votes as Ronald Reagan swept to victory. Commoner himself conceded that he would not have made a very good president.
Commoner believed that environmental pollution, war, and racial and sexual inequality needed to be addressed as related issues of a central problem, the capitalist “systems of production” in industry, agriculture, energy and transportation that emphasized profits and technological progress with little regard for consequences.
Born in humble circumstances in Brooklyn, he worked odd jobs to put himself through Columbia, earning honors in his major, zoology; election to Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi; and a B.A. degree in 1937, at 20. He went on to do graduate work at Harvard, where he got a Ph.D. in cellular biology. He taught for two years at Queens College and served in the Naval Air Corps in World War II, rising to lieutenant. In 1947 he joined the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis.
Besides his career as a public figure, Commoner had a reputation as a brilliant teacher and a painstaking researcher into viruses, cell metabolism and the effects of radiation on living tissue. A research team he led was the first to show that abnormal free radicals — groups of molecules with unpaired electrons — might be the earliest indicator of cancer in laboratory rats.
“He had a very strong belief that scientists had a social responsibility, that the discoveries would be used for social good, and that scientists also had an obligation to educate the public about scientific issues so that the public could make informed political decisions,” Feiner told the Associated Press.
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