Depression – 1930s

London, Houses of Parliament. The Sun Shining through the Fog, Claude Monet, 1900.

1930, Dec. 1 — Meuse River Valley smog incident, Belgium, three day weather inversion in this industrial valley holds in smoke and kills 70, with 6,000 made ill.  Although this is one of the first modern smog incidents, it’s certainly not the only time that smog has been noticed, as this painting by Claude Money shows.   An official report published in January, 1931 says that only among those over 55 years old or sufferers from heart and asthmatic disorders were affected. The concentration at ground level of sulfuric-acid fumes produced by the oxidation of hydrogen sulphide from coal combustion was also a big problem, although fluoride from industries was also suspected in the deaths.

1930, March 7 — Jamaica ginger — About 80 cases of poisoning are first reported from drinking a a Prohibition-era concoction known as “Jamaica Ginger.” The number of victims will swell to over 5,000 in a few months.  Victims of  the poisoning lose the use of their hands and feet from the drink, which, it turns out, has been denatured with Tri-ortho cresyl phosphate (TOCP), an organo-phosphate that causes severe nerve damage.  Criminal charges are filed in New York by April 30 against two men, and by June, a Congressional investigation is under way.   The disaster occurs because prohibition of alcoholic beverages makes public health regulation impossible.  Memory of the disaster lives on in blues songs about “ginger Jake” and “Jake leg.”

1930, March 30—Annapolis MD Harbor Pollution committee of county and city officials draws up a joint resolution urging Congress to stop the pollution of the harbor and neighboring estuaries by building sewage plants.  (Washington Post)

1930, Feb. 3 — Washington Post reports that industries want to start logging Yellowstone Park. “Private Interests Trying to Grab Off Yellowstone Park,” by Florence C. Radcliffe.

1930 — National Institute of Health established, expanding the U.S. Public Health Service’s Hygienic Laboratory. Funding for medical research from the Federal government escalates rapidly.


1932 — Gauley River – Hawks Nest Disaster — First lawsuits filed by workers and families affected by an industrial disaster in West Virginia. An estimated 476 died (at least), while at least another 2000 were debilitated by silicosis while working for this West Virginia hydroelectric tunneling project. Most are African American and most bodies are buried without identification or even notification of relatives. The People’s Press says:

All this because a rich and powerful corporation valued dollars above lives. When the Rinehart & Dennis, Co., contractors for the New-Kanawha Power Co., started tunneling through two mountains a mile east of Gauley Bridge, on a power project to cost millions, it knew the tunnel would go through silicate rock. It knew that men working in the tunnel would breathe in the dust. It knew that without protection they would get silicosis, deadly lung disease. Behind Rinehart & Dennis was the New-Kanawha Power Co., set to build the tunnel, dissolved as soon as the tunnel was completed late in 1934.

1932 — British Medical Journal says leaded gasoline is dangerous because it will create a “slow, subtle insidious saturation of the system by infinitesimal doses of lead extending over long period of time.”


1933, March 21  — Civilian Conservation Corps formed. At the height of the Depression-era program,  2,000 camps are open, millions of trees are planted, and roads, fire towers, buildings and bridges and many other public works are built. More than 2.5 million people serve until program ends in 1942. Other federal programs, including the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Soil Conservation Service, begin during FDR presidency.

1933 — Tests by USDA and Annapolis researchers find Ethyl leaded gasoline and 20 percent ethanol blend almost exactly equal in performance. The findings are never published.

1933 — Nov 11 — First of the Dust Bowl storms begin in the Midwest.   Margaret Bourke-White writes in The Nation:

By coincidence I was in the same parts of the country where last year I photographed the drought, As short a time as eight months ago there was an attitude of false optimism. “Things will get better,” the farmers would say. “We’re not as hard hit as other states. The government will help out. This can’t go on.” But this year there is an atmosphere of utter, hopelessness. Nothing to do. No use digging out your chicken coops and pigpens after the last “duster” because the next one will be coming along soon. No use trying to keep the house clean. No use fighting off that foreclosure any longer. No use even hoping to give your cattle anything to chew on when their food crops have literally blown out of the ground. ( “Dust Changes America,” The Nation May 22 1935 )






1934 — Francis Perkins, US Secretary of Labor, establishes the Division of Labor Standards, which later becomes the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

1934, Aug. 5  — Wendell Berry born. In books like Culture and Agriculture, Berry has chronicled the decline of small farms in the United States and its spiritual and environmental impact on the nation.

1934,  April 3 — Jane Goodall born, London. In 1965, she earned her Ph.D in Ethology from Cambridge University. Soon thereafter, she returned to Tanzania to continue research and to establish the Gombe Stream Research Centre Home. Jane Goodall’s profound scientific discoveries laid the foundation for all future primate studies. The Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research was founded in 1977.

1934, March 28  — Lester Brown born; founder of Worldwatch Institute.


1935 — Congress passes Social Security Act and National Labor Relations Act.

1935 -July – Nazi Germany – Nazi government enacts Reich Nature Protection Law (Reichsnaturschutzgesetz or RNG).  For years the Nazis have claimed a link between their philosophy and environmentalism: “The influence of the metropolis has grown overwhelmingly strong. Its asphalt culture is destroying peasant thinking, the rural lifestyle and [national] strength.” The Nazi slogan — Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) — is another example of the link.

Was there a link?  Anna Bramwell, in Blood and Soil (1985), suggested there was a connection between Nazi ideology and the modern environmental movement. Similarly, Simon Shama in Landscape and Memory (1995), suggests a sinister bond between barbarism and reverence for nature.

But other historians challenge this view as a misunderstanding of modern environmentalism and an acceptance of a merely rhetorical reverence for nature on the part of the Nazis. Highly recommended: How Green Were the Nazis?: Nature, Environment, and Nation in the Third Reich by Franz-Josef Bruggemeier, Mark Cioc, Thomas Zeller.

1935 — Wilderness Society co-founded by Aldo Leopold and Arthur Carhardt.

1935 — Henry Ford sponsors conference in Dearborn, Mich. creating National Farm Chemurgic Council, dedicated to industrial use of renewable agricultural resources. George Washington Carver honored as pioneer, but as an African American, he is uncomfortable and insists on standing in the back of the room.


1936 — National Wildlife Federation formed. According to M. Clifton: Hunting writer Jay “Ding” Darling founded the National Wildlife Federation as national umbrella for 48 state hunting clubs, organized to institute the funding of wildlife conservation through the sale of hunting licenses. This was meant to shield hunting from abolition.

1936 — Alice Hamilton, tireless crusader for worker health, reaches age 65 and is forced to retire from Harvard University faculty.

1936 — US Congress passes Public Contracts Act mandating safety and health standards for any business with a federal contract.


1937,  March 18– Leaking natural gas from nearby oilfields devastates a school in New London, Texas, killing at least 295 students and teachers. One lesson learned: natural gas needs “odorants” so that people can tell when gas is leaking. Regulations requiring natural gas suppliers to add odorants are quickly adopted in the wake of the tragedy.

1937 — Atchison, Kansas become home to an experimental ethanol production plant. The ethanol, used to boost octane in gasoline (potentially replacing tetraethyl lead) is sold in Midwestern stations under the brand name Agrol with the slogan: “Try a Tankful — You’ll be Thankful.” The idea of creating new markets for farm products was widely supported in the depression years in the Midwest, despite vehement opposition by the oil industry. However, proposals for federal tax incentives to help ethanol compete were never passed by Congress, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed his opposition to the Republican-backed idea.

1937 — The term “greenhouse effect” is coined by Glen Thomas Trewartha, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin, in his book An Introduction to Weather and Climate. Greenhouse effect, he says, describes the action of short wave solar energy absorbed at the earths surface being transformed into heat while long wave is released back into space. The heat is absorbed by water vapor, CO2 and other gasses acting as an insulating blanket or a pane of glass in a greenhouse.

1937 — Another Public Health Service survey of air pollution in New York shows conditions worsening.

1937 — Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (also called the Pittman-Robertson Act) passes US Congress. The act created a federal tax on sporting arms and ammunition and earmarked the money for states to use in wildlife management and research.

1937 — The Oregon Anti-Stream Pollution League supports a pollution-abatement measure at the state legislature. The bill passes, but Governor Charles Martin vetoes it. The Izaak Walton League and the Oregon Wildlife Federation countered the governor’s veto with a ballot initiative, which passed in November 1938. (See Wikipedia entry).


1938 — George S. Callendar British Engineer published article on the greenhouse effect, The artificial Production of Carbon Dioxide and its Influence on Temperature. Using data from 200 weather stations around world between 1880 and 1934, Callendar found temperature rising. Like Arrhenius, Callendar believed beneficial to mankind, increase agriculture and stave off any ice age.

1938 — Justice Department launches successful suit against Ethyl Gasoline Co. (now New Market Corp.) for anti-competitive behavior in gasoline markets. Ethyl¹s 90% market penetration and refusal to deal with uncompliant companies are points in the lawsuit. Also in evidence: dozens of patents for alternative anti-knock compounds filed before the 1925 Surgeon General’s hearing.

1938 – June 13 — Final Congressional approval of the Federal Stream Pollution Bill, criticized by the Izaak Walton League as “a pollution bill, not an anti-pollution bill,” since it did not contain orginally proposed enforcement measures. In the end, the bill simply funded further Public Health Service investigations into stream purity, “a matter that has already been investigated to death.” The League said:

“We have not begun to fight, and we will not stop fighting until our streams are again clear. The health and outdoor enjoyment of all Americans is paramount. The opposition is guided by short-sighted greed and folly that is not even intelligent in its own interests.” (NYT Jun 21, 1938 pg. 27)


1939 — Nov. 28 —  St. Louis smog episode — Smog is so thick that lanterns are needed during daylight for a week. The smog episode sparks a crusade by the St. Louis Post Dispatch which, in 1940, is rewarded with the first Pulitzer Prize for what would later be called environmental reporting.