If there is any one man who defined the word “environmentalist,” it is the recently deceased J. Gordon Edwards. Edwards was an author, a park ranger, a legendary mountain climber, and an esteemed entomologist.
In 1962, when Rachel Carson published her breakthrough book on the environment, “Silent Spring,” Edwards was delighted. The young scientist eagerly raced through the first several chapters, but as he did, his anticipation eroded into uneasiness: “I noticed many statements that I realized were false.” Attracted by Carson’s message, Edwards tried to overlook the misstatements or to rationalize them away, but increasingly he could not. “As I neared the middle of the book,” he adds, “the feeling grew in my mind that Rachel Carson was really playing loose with the facts.”
In 1962, however, Edwards was doing fieldwork in Wyoming. He was scarcely in a position, either through prestige or geography, to challenge Carson’s book, one that Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was hailing as “the most important chronicle of the century for the human race.”
Rachel Carson, however, had little interest in that race. There is no mistaking her position on man or his attempts to assert his mastery over nature. “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance,” writes Carson, “born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.” Today, Carson’s geocentric smugness is the stuff of science fairs and after-school specials, but then it had the power to shock the system.
Carson derived much of that power from her Gothic literary flair. The title of the book derives from an opening “fable” in which a “strange blight” has crept over an imagined American town, casting its “evil spell” and spreading a “strange stillness” across the land. Throughout the book, Carson uses words like “toxins,” “contaminants,” “hazards,” “death-dealing materials,” and the inevitable “poison” where others might use “chemical” or “insecticide.” And she never lets up.
As Edwards and others have argued, millions of people might be alive today – who aren’t – if Carson had turned her talents to fiction or identified her work as such. For the one “poison” that truly provoked her literary rage was dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane or, as it is more commonly known and reviled, DDT.
A German chemist by the name of Othmar Zeidler had first composed this chemical compound in 1874, but did not suggest a use for it. In Switzerland, in 1939, Dr. Paul Muller was looking for chemicals that might kill insect pests when he came across Zeidler’s written directions for preparing DDT. Muller perfected it, applied it, and in 1948 received the Nobel Prize for his work with it.
Had Gordon Edwards been in a position to cast a vote that year on Muller’s behalf, he surely would have done so. While on duty in Italy in 1944, he and the other soldiers in his company had been plagued by body lice. This lice was spreading typhus among the troops, a disease that had killed 3 million people in Europe during and after the previous war. To check the developing epidemic, the chemists at Merck & Company in New Jersey produced the first 500 pounds of American-made DDT, rushed it to the airport, and flew it to Italy.
There, Edwards got the order to dust every soldier in his company with the DDT powder. For two weeks straight, he did just that, breathing the fog of white dust as he did so. Much to everyone’s relief, the DDT worked, and the epidemic was checked. The surgeon general estimated that the DDT had saved the lives of 5,000 soldiers. After the war, inspired by this experience, Edwards went on to get his Ph.D. in entomology from Ohio State University and eventually headed out to San Jose State University where he taught medical entomology courses for more than 30 years.
Carson’s iconic status never slowed Edwards down. In a series of articles and very public presentations, he exposed Carson and others like her who would deceive the public to advance their cause.
When Carson alludes to increased bird deaths during the DDT era, Edwards responds, “Is it possible that Carson was unaware of the great increases in mammals and game birds.” Her claim that robins were on the verge of extinction because of DDT and related chemicals he reveals to be transparently untrue. Observers, he points out, spotted 12 times more robins in the DDT era than before. As to her claim that DDT was originally tested as an “agent of death” for man, this he calls “despicable.” At the end of the day, beyond all reasonable doubt, Edwards revealed Carson’s claim that DDT is “deadly” to be “completely false.”
Not afraid to put his mouth where his moxie was, Edwards took to swallowing a tablespoon of DDT on stage before every lecture on the subject. In September 1971, Esquire magazine pictured Edwards doing just that. The accompanying text explained that Edwards had “eaten 200 times the normal human intake of DDT.” He did not even consider this gesture risky. In the one year of 1959, for instance, unprotected workmen had applied 60,000 tons of DDT to the inside walls of 100 million houses. Neither the 130,000 workmen or the 535 million people living in the sprayed houses had experienced any adverse effects.
Today, more than 40 years after Carson’s death, the struggle over DDT use continues. One Western country after another followed America’s lead and outlawed the chemical. In his bold and meticulously documented 2004 novel, “State of Fear,” Michael Crichton describes this ban as “arguably the greatest tragedy of the 20th century” and provides the mortality statistics to back up his claim.
Like Crichton, J. Gordon Edwards was not afraid to tackle the naturalist establishment. He cited the 500 million saved lives that the National Academy of Sciences attributed to DDT. He echoed the World Health Organization’s affirmation that no substance had ever proved more beneficial to man. And then he dared to question publicly why Rachel Carson and her followers chose to ignore the undeniable human benefits of DDT.
In Carson’s case, the answer is apparent on every other page of “Silent Spring.” Straightforward as always, Edwards describes the Carson philosophy as a “lack of concern for human lives.” She could vividly describe the death of a bird, notes Edwards, but nowhere in the book does she even think to describe the death of a human by an insect-borne disease.
For the record, the research activities of this DDT-eating scientist finally caught up with him. Edwards died of a heart attack while climbing Divide Mountain at Glacier National Park, where he held the unofficial title as the patron saint of climbing. He was 84 years old.
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