The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of
January 12, 2020 10:09 AM   Subscribe

In 1948, Clair Patterson was trying to determine the age of the Earth by measuring the decay of uranium into lead. In doing so, he stumbled on a problem: all of his samples and equipment were contaminated—lead was everywhere that he looked. Patterson spent decades uncovering the extent of lead pollution, collecting samples from the wilderness of Yosemite, the mountains of Japan, thousand-year-old ice below Antarctica, and the tops of volcanoes across the world. He would go on to devote his life to fighting against the oil industry to end epidemic lead poisoning. (Mental Floss, 2017)
posted by Mr. Pokeylope (32 comments total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
The effects of lead on the human brain--especially the developing one--are frightening and dramatic. The relative lack of interest in pursuing aggressive, mass-scale remediation programs in our cities (hell, across the country) is an indictment of our society and reflects how little we care about children, especially those living in urban areas and who we associate with urban areas (that is, black people). I wonder if the influx of white people into cities will result in successful remediation programs.
posted by schroedinger at 10:36 AM on January 12 [10 favorites]

I wonder if the influx of white people into cities will result in successful remediation programs.

Of course it will, when the whites flooding into those cities are gentrifying it, coming in with far more money and clout than the previous residents, and the political connections to get some people in the city to actually pay attention.

Because in the case of the flood of (mostly white) homeless people here in my West Coast city, the increase in numbers and the majority of them being white hasn't exactly flipped the script here on the homeless problem. People haven't suddenly started to care about their plight because it's poor white people. People still don't give a shit and would rather not have to see them exist than think about how badly fucked our system is. All they want is for them to "go somewhere else."

A city a half hour away from me had an incident where a white homeless man was shot dead after being confronted by a random yahoo who had decided all homeless people were pedophiles and came to harass a group of panhandlers about the idea, which resulted in him shooting and killing one of the panhandlers based on his assumption.
posted by deadaluspark at 10:55 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

This was also the subject of episode 7 of the Neil Degrasse Tyson version of Cosmos.
posted by seiryuu at 11:00 AM on January 12 [13 favorites]

Compare and contrast with Thomas Midgley Jr., perhaps the greatest poisoner of the twentieth century. He invented leaded gasoline, and then invented CFC's.
posted by Marky at 11:33 AM on January 12 [17 favorites]

Excellent article! I appreciate that it highlights the difficulty of understanding the effects of a thing when it has creeped into everything...

The stories of DDT and leaded gasoline are of fundamental importance. But I worry about what would happen if we have similar chemical problems today. (Narrator: we do.) There's enough new crazy shit in the atmosphere that it may be hard to tell the effect of, say, microplastics from the effect of new pesticides. We may see something going terribly wrong, but be unable to identify the source amongst the giant array of cross-correlations.

But, then again, both leaded gas and smoking shared a timeline. So hopefully we'll still find a way.

(meanwhile, we can try to diagnose the idiocracy. All those people to whom we say 'ok, boomer' were almost certainly subject to childhood lead poisoning.... and, indeed, there exists work suggesting a link between lead poisoning and alzheimers: lead stored in bones can stick around for decades, and animal studies show long-term alzheimers like symptoms resulting from childhood lead exposure.)
posted by kaibutsu at 11:46 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]

He sounds like a good man. The Kehoe fellow, though, was not a good 'un.

Here's the somewhat alarming The Dutch Boy's lead party : a paint book for girls and boys mentioned in the article.
posted by scruss at 11:46 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

Claire Patterson also did a lot of work in determining the age of the earth. And he and his wife Laurie worked on the Manhattan Project. And Laurie Patterson was an amazing science teacher* at La Canada High School in Southern California.

*If you asked her as question, she'd invariably reply 'what do you think?' forcing you to come up with some sort of hypothesis, before she'd guide you to coming up with the correct answer. Forty years later, I still think of her when I hear that phrase...
posted by foonly at 12:33 PM on January 12 [17 favorites]

The University of Cincinnati has a Kehoe's library and a hall named for him. They have a totally unsatisfactory defense of Kehoe at But What About Robert Kehoe?.
posted by Ickster at 12:51 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

"... in 1965, when Patterson first began sounding the alarm about lead, prominent toxicologists dismissed him as a “zealot” who had abandoned science for “rabble rousing. Edwards considers Patterson a role model. He would prefer to remain dispassionate, he says, but his experiences in D.C. and Flint taught him that neutrality carries its own risks. If, as surveys suggest, Americans are less willing to defer to the authority of scientific experts than they once were, scientists themselves are partly to blame, Edwards believes."
posted by clavdivs at 1:21 PM on January 12 [4 favorites]

This guy was a professor at Caltech the whole time I was a student there -- and yet this is the first time I think I've learned about him. This article is fantastic, thanks, and naturally makes one wonder what else the petroleum industry is working to cover up. (Spoiler alert: climate change.)
posted by Slothrup at 1:38 PM on January 12 [3 favorites]

The article is somewhat rambling and discursive, but its portrait of a dedicated scientist and humanitarian is inspiring and deeply moving. I'm glad I now know about Clair Patterson.
posted by Seaweed Shark at 1:43 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

Best of the Web.

I never heard about this guy until now, and I thought I had been paying attention since I first read Drum's article.

a) Kehoe is the US's Fritz Haber (chemical warfare, zyklon-a)
b) Do we actually need more information on the efficacy of self-regulating industry? Boeing, Ethyl, Climate change, tobacco...pretty sure we know what's up.

Lead and crime, previously, previouslier, previouslier, previouslier. There's a lot more, too, if you like going down the rabbit hole.

Kevin Drum 2013 Mother Jones article.
posted by j_curiouser at 2:07 PM on January 12 [5 favorites]

Kehoe is more like one of the US's Fritz Habers.
posted by Ickster at 2:09 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]

Also...we might need a Matt Damon or Mark Ruffalo biopic. I'd take Pattinson, he's killing it lately.
posted by j_curiouser at 2:12 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

Not saying he wasn't a bad guy, but half the protein in your body is due to him. He invented the meat you are made of.
posted by ryanrs at 2:45 PM on January 12 [3 favorites]

If you’re from the US, ryanrs . My stable isotopes class tested everyone’s hair and Europeans are made of much-cycled nitrogen.
posted by clew at 2:50 PM on January 12 [3 favorites]

N.b.: stable isotopes lab class was one of two with a passionate lecture on Patterson. Evenly balanced between `really look at your data and assumptions' and `truly socially important research is a bitter cup', with admiration of how Patterson handled both halves.
posted by clew at 2:54 PM on January 12 [3 favorites]

Kehoe is like one of the US's Fritz Habers.

Another is mentioned in passing in the article as the inventor of "Ethyl" (note the deliberate omission of "lead": Thomas Midgley
On October 30, 1924, Midgley participated in a press conference to demonstrate the apparent safety of TEL, in which he poured TEL over his hands, placed a bottle of the chemical under his nose, and inhaled its vapor for 60 seconds, declaring that he could do this every day without succumbing to any problems.[7][10] However, the State of New Jersey ordered the Bayway plant to be closed a few days later, and Jersey Standard was forbidden to manufacture TEL again without state permission. Midgley would later have to take leave of absence from work after being diagnosed with lead poisoning.[11] He was relieved of his position as vice president of GMCC in April 1925, reportedly due to his inexperience in organizational matters, but he remained an employee of General Motors.[7]


In the late 1920s, air conditioning and refrigeration systems employed compounds such as ammonia (NH3), chloromethane (CH3Cl), propane, and sulfur dioxide (SO2) as refrigerants. Though effective, these were toxic, flammable or explosive. The Frigidaire division of General Motors, at that time a leading manufacturer of such systems, sought a non-toxic, non-flammable alternative to these refrigerants.[12] Kettering, the vice president of General Motors Research Corporation at that time, assembled a team that included Midgley and Albert Leon Henne to develop such a compound.

The team soon narrowed their focus to alkyl halides (the combination of carbon chains and halogens), which were known to be highly volatile (a requirement for a refrigerant) and also chemically inert. They eventually settled on the concept of incorporating fluorine into a hydrocarbon. They rejected the assumption that such compounds would be toxic, believing that the stability of the carbon–fluorine bond would be sufficient to prevent the release of hydrogen fluoride or other potential breakdown products.[12] The team eventually synthesized dichlorodifluoromethane,[13] the first chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), which they named "Freon".[12][14] This compound is more commonly referred to today as "Freon 12", or "R12".[15]

Freon and other CFCs soon largely replaced other refrigerants, and later appeared in other applications, such as propellants in aerosol spray cans and asthma inhalers. The Society of Chemical Industry awarded Midgley the Perkin Medal in 1937 for this work.
But Midgley didn't get a lot of time to enjoy his ill-gotten distinctions.
Later life and death

In 1941, the American Chemical Society gave Midgley its highest award, the Priestley Medal.[16] This was followed by the Willard Gibbs Award in 1942. He also held two honorary degrees and was elected to the United States National Academy of Sciences. In 1944, he was elected president and chairman of the American Chemical Society.[2]

In 1940, at the age of 51, Midgley contracted poliomyelitis, which left him severely disabled. He devised an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys to lift himself out of bed. In 1944, he became entangled in the device and died of strangulation.[17][18][19]
51 is a very unusually advanced age at which to contract polio, and while childhood diseases are commonly pretty severe in adults, I wonder whether, if we could look back, we would find that children with greater lead burdens were more likely to get polio in the first place and tended to have more severe cases.
posted by jamjam at 3:03 PM on January 12 [6 favorites]

Here's what I consider a salient point about the US political system's inability to regulate new chemicals.

The advances in chemistry that pretty much defined the 19th century in my view came from the newly available borosilicate glassware that we now use for tubing, beakers, distillation setups, et cetera. Before borosilicate glass, chemists had far less leeway with heat, pressure and vibration in their labs, and that limited their discovery. Once borosilicate glass became available in the 1840s, a whole new range of work became feasible, and with it came the synthesis, first from coal tar and then from oil, of molecules that had never existed before. Which means molecules whose effect on living things were unknown. While most of those molecules do decay into natural components fast enough, others stay and cause mischief for years.

These substances at this point number in the 10s of thousands in the IUPAC registry, with more made known every day. There is no way that a legislative branch of a government could keep up with this kind of thing and regulate it sensibly, so there is no alternative except to hand the job over to a department of the civil service, staffed with scientists. The thing is, handing legislative work to a corner of the executive branch and letting them make law is not something the framers of the constitution anticipated, or could have anticipated, given that they were all dead by the 1840s. This is a humdinger of a latent ambiguity in the Constitution, one which the Trump administration will be exploiting with their new judicial appointments, who are fully intent on hamstringing the EPA and OSHA on the issue of regulating chemicals.

My only answer to that issue is to ask the Democratic Party to prepare to impeach any judge who does this, at the nearest opportunity, for the high crime of turning the Constitution into a suicide pact.
posted by ocschwar at 3:15 PM on January 12 [10 favorites]

51 is a very unusually advanced age at which to contract polio, and while childhood diseases are commonly pretty severe in adults, I wonder whether, if we could look back, we would find that children with greater lead burdens were more likely to get polio in the first place and tended to have more severe cases.

We're not going to be able to make any useful inference from medical records of that era, and inshallah, the WHO's eradication of polio will make your hypothesis moot. I agree that you're probably right. And it would be possible to test the same hypothesis with other viral diseases.
posted by ocschwar at 3:17 PM on January 12

Interesting case, less than a decade after Midgley passed: United States Armed Forces Medical Journal, Vol. 3, (September 1952), Fatal lead poisoning simulating poliomyelitis
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:15 PM on January 12 [9 favorites]

Wow. That was fast and relevant. Great synthesis.
posted by j_curiouser at 5:27 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

the relative lack of interest in pursuing aggressive, mass-scale remediation programs in our cities (hell, across the country) is an indictment of our society

In my home state, the governor asked for money to replace lead pipes and ensure better water quality. The legislature denied him, saying that would be unfair, as most of the money would go to fixing pipes in urban areas.
posted by Jpfed at 6:57 PM on January 12 [9 favorites]

Thank you, truly excellent piece. Almost at a loss for for words that we have to go through this cycle over and over, but I hope it does get made into a movie and more people learn about an unsung hero - and maybe we can wake the hell up and not have to keep repeating basically the same story again and again.

Also shocked that leaded gasoline was available as recently.
posted by blue shadows at 7:22 PM on January 12 [3 favorites]

"Also shocked that leaded gasoline was available"

Aviation Gasoline is still leaded... but they're working on it.
posted by Marky at 10:41 PM on January 12

Also shocked that leaded gasoline was available as recently.

You can still buy it, amazingly. It's like selling toxic waste.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 12:20 AM on January 13

I note that even then the corporate interests on the wrong side of history were comparing their getting caught for vitriolic malfeasance to the victims of the Salem witch trials.

My basic is rusty but lemme try:
10. Bad stuff
20. Profits
30. Get caught a little
40. Time
50. GoTo 10
posted by chasles at 5:22 AM on January 13 [2 favorites]

Interesting coda on Midgely: the replacements for Freon we use today were also invented by him, but by the time they were, Freon-12 was so dominant and cheap that the slightly more expensive version he created (that did not have the problems that James Lovelock accidentally started F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina looking into) were set aside.

(A friend of mine, for his history major a few years back, wrote a thesis on Midgely, quoting as it's title Bill Bryson who said that Midgely had "an instinct for the regrettable that was almost uncanny.")
posted by mephron at 8:19 AM on January 13 [3 favorites]

A while back I published a long-form piece about Midgley's invention of leaded gasoline, and Patterson's work to undo the damage. This post made me curious how long ago I wrote it—turns out it was just over 12 years ago. Yikes. Whoever is driving time, kindly let off the accelerator for a few moments.
posted by Hot Pastrami! at 8:27 AM on January 13 [2 favorites]

I read about Clair Patterson in Bill Bryson's epic : Short History of Everything.

That only solidified my distrust of the Chemical Industry as a whole, that started in Grad School. And I am saying this as a Chemical Engineer.
posted by indianbadger1 at 11:09 AM on January 13 [4 favorites]

> Thomas Midgley

Mention of Midgely always reminds me of my favorite Wikipedia rabbithole: List of inventors killed by their own invention.
posted by mrzarquon at 7:07 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]

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