Barry Commoner and the Bridge between the Lab and the Ghetto

Post by Robert Gioielli

With Barry Commoner’s death last week, the American environmental movement lost one of its most underappreciated leaders and voices. This may seem like an overstatement, considering the robust obituaries offered up in the days after his passing, but Commoner is not as well known as he should be. He is deserving of this attention not only because of a career of research, activism and advocacy that lasted for more than fifty years, but also because of his understanding of the radical implications of environmental activism, and his willingness to connect ecological thinking to the social conflicts of postwar America.

Commoner’s vision, and its importance, has been well chronicled by Michael Egan in his excellent book, Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival. Egan highlights how Commoner was one of the first to make explicit connections between civil rights and social justice, the peace movement, and environmentalism. But he did not just talk about merging social justice and environmental issues, he attempted to put it into practice, by bringing cutting edge science to some of America’s poorest and most disadvantaged citizens. He did this through an innovative and largely unknown community outreach effort in St. Louis during the early 1970s called the Environmental Field Program. The story bears telling because it highlights the importance of creating strong institutions to address environmental and social justice issues.

Commoner began his career as a botanist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri in the 1950s. Although his research on the tobacco mosaic virus secured his reputation in professional circles, it was his work with the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI) where he first gained wider notoriety. A coalition of professional scientists and concerned laypeople, the CNI was on the leading edge of informing Americans about the dangers of nuclear fallout, helping to drive public support for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which outlawed above ground tests, in 1963. By the mid-1960s, Commoner was a national voice for environmental concern, but he also wanted to improve environmental research and education. Using a major grant from the U.S. Public Health Service, in 1966 he and a cohort of colleagues from Washington University formed the Center for Biology of Natural Systems. Bringing together scientists from a variety of fields, including social scientists, the CBNS was an interdisciplinary research center that reflected Commoner’s belief that one academic discipline wasn’t enough to truly understand ecological issues.

In its early years of the CBNS, Commoner and the other senior scientists were torn between their goal of doing work that had an immediate social benefit and their understanding that basic science was often not automatically useful. In order to keep their commitment to not only “bench” science but also to provide some solutions to pressing issues, they created the Environmental Field Program (EFP) in 1969. Headed up by a young African American scientist named Wilbur Thomas, the EFP was tasked with making connections between various governmental agencies in the St. Louis region and providing them access to the expertise and knowledge of the CBNS. In its short history, the EFP worked on a number of issues, including mercury poisoning and air pollution. But its most interesting project, and the one that best represents Commoner’s larger social and ecological vision, was its work to address the epidemic of childhood lead poisoning in central St. Louis.

This epidemic was part of the fallout from the slow destruction of much of the city’s housing stock. In the decades after World War II, U.S. government housing and infrastructure programs privileged the suburban over the urban, funneling money and resources to the rapidly expanding metropolitan fringe, while starving older industrial cities like St. Louis. Business leaders and politicians responded with ambitious urban renewal projects, but they often did more harm than good, destroying viable neighborhoods and displacing the poor. By the end of the 1960s St. Louis, like scores of other older American cities, was hemorrhaging people and resources. The city lost almost thirty percent of its population between 1950 and 1970, and the municipal government was struggling to provide basic services.

Racial issues exacerbated these structural problems. African Americans continued to face serious discrimination in the housing market, with black buyers and renters shut out from much of greater St. Louis, including almost all of the newer suburban areas. One of the few places they could call home was a tightly proscribed set of neighborhoods just north of downtown. With the value of their properties already rapidly declining, landlords and property owners, many white and absentee, saw little incentive to make repairs. The result was that many black families often lived in decrepit, slum-like conditions, with broken windows, extensive water damage from plumbing problems, poor electrical wiring, and peeling plaster and paint.

Much of this chipping and peeling paint was lead based, which had been extraordinarily popular in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. Research about the dangers of lead exposure, especially to small children, finally forced paint manufacturers to phase out its production after World War II, but many older urban apartments and homes were coated with the toxic substance. Without adequate maintenance, paint chipped off onto the floor and got into the air. Children ate the chips or simply breathed in the lead dust. Lead was, and is, especially toxic for children under five years of age. Moderate quantities could poison and kill a child, while even small amounts caused significant developmental disorders.

While he was the director of the EFP, Wilbur Thomas was specifically interested in reaching out to St. Louis’s African American community to try and address the lead poisoning issue. Using the laboratories and scientific expertise of the CBNS, the EFP staff studied the rates of childhood lead poisoning and did field surveys of inner city housing. Armed with this data, they worked with activists and social workers, many of them veterans of St. Louis’s Civil Rights Movement, to push for reform. Over the next three years a coalition of residents, social workers, scientists and health professionals, including Thomas, pressured city officials, held sit-ins and marches, organized rent strikes, filed lawsuits, organized conferences, and wrote scores of newspaper articles and editorials, all with the goal of educating people about the dangers of childhood lead poisoning and pushing the city government to improve housing conditions. Some of these people were well known within St. Louis, especially Ivory Perry, a long time civil rights and housing activist who spearheaded much of the lead poisoning organizing. But Thomas and the EFP played a vital role. They provided the initial expertise and knowledge to explain what caused childhood lead poisoning and why it was so dangerous. They were the bridge between the lab and the ghetto.

Which brings us back to Commoner. He had very little direct role in lead poisoning activism in St. Louis during the early 1970s. He was quoted in the newspaper a few times, and was the keynote speaker at a community conference in 1972. Nevertheless, it is impossible to disconnect him from the anti-lead poisoning efforts. Key pieces and people in the story—the creation of the CBNS and the EFP, and the hiring of Wilbur Thomas, an African American scientist committed to social justice—were all spun out from Commoner’s larger commitment to environmental education, social justice, and the democratization of knowledge. This is his greatest legacy.

Commoner’s words and his work serve as a model for what truly engaged scholarship and advocacy should be. It is not enough to pay lip service to social justice or greater inclusion within the broader environmental movement. We have to create institutions, structures, and practices that specifically further these ends.

Robert Gioielli is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College. He can be reached at

Further Reading

Egan, Michael. Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2007.

Freund, David M. Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Moore, Kelly. Disrupting Science: Social Movements, American Scientists, and the Politics of the Military, 1945-1975. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Markowitz, Gerald E., and David Rosner. Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.

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