20th Century

The optimism of the Progressive Era ends in the disaster of World War I, but public health and environmental reform is needed as much as ever.

Gifford Pinchot, who founded the Forestry Service under Teddy Roosevelt, helps form the National Coast Anti Pollution League in 1922. Its members are municipal officials from Atlantic City to Maine who are concerned about oil and sewage pollution detracting from tourism. As a result, Congress ratifies an international oil dumping treaty despite opposition by the oil industry.

“Nothing but a murderer” is the way Harvard University’s Alice Hamilton privately describes Charles Kettering of General Motors, the inventive genius behind leaded gasoline. Hamilton’s fight to point out alternatives and keep lead out of the fuel supply does not succeed;  leaded gasoline becomes the standard fuel for most of the world until finally banned internationally in 2011.

The Radium Girls are dying of radiation induced cancer, and the stalling tactics and court delays seem outrageous to crusading journalist Walter Lippmann.   Alice Hamilton works with Lippmann to bring the Radium Girls  case to the public. A settlement at least gives the Radium Girls medical care and very modest compensation for their families.

Civilian Conservation Corps is founded by FDR during the depression, showing the value of organized activism.

Synthetic rubber from Midwestern corn — and not oil industry synthetics — helps roll allies to victory over the Nazis in 1944-45.  Agricultural chemists prove that renewable systems can scale up quickly in an emergency.  Also,  the treasonable partnership between  Standard Oil (Exxon) and Nazi industries  “designed to outlast the war” is exposed by Sen. Harry Truman’s war investigating committee.  Truman finds that  Standard  (Exxon) blocked synthetic rubber technology while giving away octane boosting leaded gasoline know-how. One lesson of history that emerges from the war investigating  committees in 1942: only the government can secure the long-term national security; the oil industry, especially, needs to be kept on a tight leash.

Progress on the ethical side of life is seen in Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, published in 1948 just after his death. The book expresses an expanding sense of human responsibility, not only for other humans but also for the earth.

Deadly smog episodes in Donora Pennsylvania (1948), London (1952, 1956), New York (1953), and Los Angeles (1954) show that an air pollution crisis is underway. In 1955 the first international air pollution conference is held.

Increasing C02 buildup with unknown dangers is one surprising conclusion of Scripps Oceanographic Institute scientists working on International Geophysical Year projects 1957.


Essential Reading

Bernton, Hal, 1982, and William Kovarik and Scott Sklar, The Forbidden Fuel: Power Alcohol in the 20th Century, New York: Griffin.

Borkin, Joseph, 1978. The Crime and Punishment of I.G. Farben. New York : Free Press (Borkin was the deputy attorney general under Thurmond Arnold in charge of prosecuting the Standard / Exxon and other oil and chemical companies for treasonous connections to the Nazis at the opening of WWII. )

Goldmark, J. 1953. Impatient Crusader: Florence Kelly’s Life Story. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Kovarik, W., 1996, Henry Ford, Charles Kettering and the Fuel of the Future, paper to the Society of Automotive Historians, Dearborn, Mich., reprinted in Automotive History, spring 1998.

Kovarik, W. 1994. Charles F. Kettering and the Development of Tetraethyl Lead in the Context of Alternative Technologies. Proceedings of the Society of Automotive Engineers, Paper 943924, Baltimore, Maryland. (24 October).

Leopold, Aldo, 1948 A Sand County Almanac

Rosner, D. and Markowitz, G. 1989. Dying for Work: Workers Safety and Health in Twentieth Century America. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.

Sicherman, Barbara. 1984. Alice Hamilton: A Life in Letters. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Stevenson, William, 1976, A Man Called Intrepid, New York : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich