Brief biographies





Biographical materials from the older Environmental history timeline site featuring the seven environmentalists depicted above, and others.  The seven are: (Left to right) Rachel Carson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington Carver, John Snow, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Alice Hamilton and John Muir.  There are many others who should be here as well.

RACHEL CARSON — Author of Silent Spring (1962), Under the Sea-Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1952), The Edge of the Sea (1955)

Born: May 27, 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania Died: April 14, 1964 in Silver Spring, Maryland

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”

Rachel Louise Carson was a writer, scientist, and ecologist whose book Silent Spring called for an end to indiscriminate pesticide use and, on a broader level, a change in the way we view nature. Carson combined the insights of an observant scientist with a descriptive and gentle literary style.

Carson studied writing and marine biology at Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College) and graduated in 1929. She worked at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, and continued her education with a master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932. She was then hired by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries and wrote radio scripts during the Depression. She also wrote articles on natural history for the Baltimore Sun, although through some oversight the Sun does not claim her as an alumnae.

Carson was greatly revered by many who shared her views but she was attacked by others, especially those in agro-industry and government, who feared that her sentimentality would undermine scientific progress. The Silent Spring controversy is often mistaken as the initial cause of the environmental mass movement of the 1960s. It would be more accurate to say that the book was at the center of the early movement and expressed its ideals in both literary and scientific terms. No doubt an environmental movement would have occurred without Silent Spring, just as a Civil War would have taken place without Uncle Tom’s Cabin. However, in both cases, the book sparked the conflict.

For more information:
Linda Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (1997). Lear said of Carson: “Her witness for the beauty and integrity of life continues to inspire new generations to protect the living world and all its creatures.”

Rachel Carson website

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN Diplomat, scientist, early advocate for “public rights” and against industrial pollution

Born: January 17, 1706 in Boston, died April 17 1790 in Philadelphia

We would “deliver a great number … from being poisoned by a few …”

The first American to win international recognition as a scientist and inventor, Franklin was also a publisher and diplomat whose influence on the American Revolution and the establishment of Constitutional government in the U.S. can scarcely be exaggerated. Among his accomplishments were contributions to drafting the Declaration of Independence (1776); negotiation of an alliance with France (1778) negotiation of a peace treaty with Britain in 1783, and influence on the drafting of a permanent Constitution in 1787 and the Bill of Rights in 1788-1790. He was also a widely respected author and publisher and served as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

Franklin is important in environmental history because he argued for “public rights” and against industrial pollution in his early years in Philadelphia, and later encouraged various commissions that were attempting to deal with environmental and public health problems in the city. The early controversy of 1739 involved the disposal of rotting animal parts from slaughterhouses and tanneries which at the time were located on Dock Creek, in the heart of Philadelphia a few blocks from what is now Independence Hall and Market Street.

At the time, it was typical for tanneries and slaughterhouses to be moved to the outskirts of growing towns because a popular view was that pollution caused disease. While industries were moved in many European cities and in nearby New York, the industries of Philadelphia resisted the move. This was despite citizens complaints, which were officially noted at regular intervals beginning in 1699, according to historian Michal McMahon. In the 1730s, as Franklin was beginning to enjoy the success of his printing business on Market Street, at least eight tanneries and slaughterhouses were operating next to the creek and using it to dump their decomposing residue. The creek was literally choked with hair, horns, guts and other byproducts of those industries. The few fish that entered the creek “soon floated belly up.”

Althought little was known about disease, this kind of industrial pollution seemed to be a likely cause during the era. By 1739 large numbers of Philadelphians were petitioning the Pennsylvania General Assembly to move the tanneries and slaughterhouses which they said were creating epidemics of disease in the city. The tanners responded with proposals for self-regulation, but for the majority of citizens in Philadephia it was not enough. When petitions continued, the tanners complained that the petitioners had made “an attempt” (attack) on their liberty.

Franklin argued, in a front page article in his Gazette, for what he called “public rights.” Rather than an attack on tanneries, Franklin saw “only a modest Attempt to deliver a great Number of Tradesmen from being poisoned by a few, and restore to them the Liberty of Breathing freely in their own Houses.” Although the petitioners did not win an outright victory, dumping was curtailed.

The controversy continued over the years, and by 1747, Franklin was on a committee considering “the best method of improving the said swamp for the general use and benefit of the city.” The committee recommended that the Dock Creek area be cleaned up and restored, but by 1765 the easier course was taken and the creek was paved over. Franklin, by now, had bigger issues to deal with.

When he died in 1790, Franklin’s will included money to be spent on a new fresh water supply system for the city that would improve public health. The fact that it did not led to a series of severe epidemics in the late 1790s.

Biography of Ben Franklin
McMahon, Michal, 1992. ‘Small Matters’: Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia and the ‘Progress of Cities.’ The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 66:2. (April): 157-82.
McMahon, Michal, 1994 “Publick Service versus Mans Properties: Dock Creek and the Origins of Urban Technology in Eighteenth Century Philadelphia,” in Judith A. McGaw, ed., Early American Technology: Making & Doing Things from the Colonial Era to 1850, Chapel Hill, N.C. University of N.C. Press.


GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER — Scientist and early advocate for industrial uses for farm crops (bio-energy).

Borm: Spring 1865 in Diamond Grove, Mo., Died Jan. 5, 1943, Tuskeegee, Ala.

“It is not the style of clothes one wears, neither the kind of automobile one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank, that counts. These mean nothing. It is simply service that measures success.”

Carver earned a B.S. from the Iowa Agricultural College in 1894 and an M.S. in 1896. He became a member of the faculty of Iowa State College and then Tuskegee Institute. He was specifically interested in industrial applications from farm products — a concept that was called “chemurgy” and adopted by conservative white agrarians in the late 1920s led by Henry Ford, Wheeler McMillan and William Hale. In both eras, the concept was a reaction to hard times in rural America.

Carver was honored by Henry Ford and was seen as doing work in chemurgy before the word was coined. He developed 325 products from peanuts, 108 applications for sweet potatoes, and 75 products derived from pecans. His work in developing industrial applications from agricultural products derived 118 products, including a rubber substitute and over 500 dyes and pigments, from 28 different plants. He was also responsible for the invention in 1927 of a process for producing paints and stains from soybeans, for which three separate patents were issued.

Carver is significant in the environmental context because the idea of creating renewable and industrial scale resources from agricultural products was just emerging at a time when the oil, chemical and automotive industries said such systems did not exist or could not work. His ideas, and those of fellow scientists, pointed the way towards the development of biologically compatible paths to sustainable development.

Princeton University biography

JOHN SNOW — Physician, reformer

Born: March 15, 1813 in York, England. Died in London, 1858.

“From all that I have been able to learn of cholera, both from my own observations and the descriptions of others, I conclude that cholera invariably commences with the affection of the alimentary canal. “

During the cholera epidemics of the late 1840s and early 1850s, physician John Snow realized that cholera is transmitted through contaminated water. His essay, “On the Mode of Communication of Cholera” was first published in 1849 but did not immediately lead to reforms. A second edition of the paper described his epidemiological study of cholera cases in the Broad Street region of London in the epidemic of 1854.  Snow was popularly known at the time as the doctor who “broke” the Broad street pump handle because he was tired of waiting for reform. In fact, he convinced the local board of health to shut the pump down after presenting his evidence, which included a map showing cholera cases clustered around the Broad Street water pump. In any event, the high profile incident added to calls for sanitary reform from England’s emerging progressive movement.

Snow was the eldest son of a farmer. He was educated at a private school until being apprenticed to a Newcastle surgeon at the age of 14. During his apprentice-ship he became a vegetarian and a prohibitionist.  He was an assistant during the cholera epidemic of 1831-2 and then attended the Hunterian school of medicine in Great Windmill Street, London. By 1838 he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons and, in 1850, the Royal College of Physicians. He was also active in the Medical Society of London.

Snow was also well known as one of Queen Victoria’s physicians and as having introduced and improved anaesthetizing agents like ether and chloroform in England.

Lee, Sidney (ed.) Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 53 , Smith, Elder, & Co., 15 Waterloo Place, London, 1898.

UCLA Dept. of Epidemiology biography of John Snow


KEN SARO-WIWA — Journalist and environmental reform movement leader, Nigeria

Born: Oct. 10, 1941 in Bori, Nigeria; executed Nov. 10, 1995

Lord, take my soul, but the struggle continues. — Last words.

When, after years of writing, I decided to take the word to the streets to mobilise the Ogoni people, and empower them to protest against the devastation of their environment by Shell, and their denigration and dehumanisation by Nigeria’s military dictators, I had no doubt where it could end. This knowledge has given me strength, courage and cheer – and psychological advantage over my tormentors. (From Saro-Wiwa’s letter from prison, May, 1995).

Ken Saro-Wiwa was a Nigerian author, journalist, government official and political organizer who was brutally executed by the Nigerian dictatorship in response to a very successful campaign to challenge that government, Shell Oil Co. and the British government for the environmental damage in the Ogoni homeland where he grew up, at the mouth of the Niger River.

Angered by the environmental degradation of oil production, and outraged that so little of its benefits trickled back to the Ogoni, Mr. Saro-Wiwa in recent years had spearheaded increasingly bitter protests against Nigeria’s military rulers. He brought to the Ogoni movement the popularity of one of Africa’s best-known writers, who used satire dressed in colloquial language to highlight the political and social problems common to many of the continent’s nations. Mr. Saro-Wiwa found his biggest audience – one of the largest reached by any author, anywhere – with the television soap opera Basi and Company, which was watched by an estimated 50 million people when it was broadcast in Nigeria in the 1980s. Chronicling the capers of a gang of youths in Lagos, it sought to link their aimless, corrupt lives to a society where the lines between clean and dirty money, and between power and morality were becoming hopelessly blurred. He also enjoyed success with poetry and novels such as Sozaboy (1985), a tale of Nigeria’s 1967-69 civil war that was written largely in Pidgin English. In all, he wrote more than 50 books. (By Paul Knox, Globe and Mail, on the MOSOP Web Site).

What angered Sawo-Wiwa and others is that Shell Oil Company was able to take almost a billion barrels of oil out of Nigeria and take almost no responsibility for environmental cleanup when oil spills, gas flares, pipeline explosions and chemical dumping ruined not just the land but a way of life for the Ogoni people.

In the early 1990s they organized the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People in reaction to Shell Oil Co. drilling and extensive pollution in Niger River delta. The country’s military dictators respond with threats, intimidation and arrests.

On Jan. 4, 1993 over 300,000 Ogoni men, women, and children take to Nigeria’s streets in a massive protest. The date has been celebrated as Ogoni Day ever since. Soon after the protests, Nigerian military forces began attacking Ogoni villages. Thousands were killed, and thousands more have been made homeless. By 1994, leader Ken Sara Wiwa was arrested to face a phony charge of murder along with eight other activists. All nine were convicted and on Nov. 10, 1995, Saro-Wiwa and his fellow environmental activists were hung by the military government.


ALICE HAMILTON — Physician, reformer, founder of occupational medicine in the U.S.

Born: February 27, 1869 in New York City, died in Hadlyme, Connecticut in 1970

Publicity “may be the pebble with which David will kill Goliath.”

Alice Hamilton was the founder of occupational medicine in the U.S. and the first woman on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. She took a leading role in two major environmental controversies of the 1920s involving leaded gasoline and radium dial painters (known as the “radium girls”). A respected scientist, she worked with journalists to help them understand the nature of new industrial hazards.

Hamilton attended Fort Wayne College of Medicine in Indiana and continued at the medical department of the University of Michigan from which she received her medical degree in 1893. After interneships, she traveled to Germany and attended the universities of Munich and Leipzich for a year. Neither university had allowed female students before, so Hamilton attended lectures in bacteriology and pathology on the condition that she make herself inconspicuous. She also did research at Johns Hopkins University and worked at the Women’s Medical School of Northwestern University and the Memorial Institute for Infectious Diseases in Chicago, Illinois.

An early life-changing experience was moving into Jane Addams’s Hull House, a “settlement house” in the slums of Chicago set up to help working class people organize for reform. While at Hull House, Hamilton established medical education classes and a well-baby clinic. She also noted a connection between the typhoid fever epidemic in Chicago in 1902 and improper sewage disposal. Her reports led to and the reorganization of the Chicago Health Department.

Hamilton was also concerned about the unsafe conditions and noxious chemicals to which the immigrant poor were exposed. Of special concern was lead dust with particularly grave symptoms. At the time there were no laws regulating safety at work and employers routinely fired sick workers and replaced them with new ones. Hamilton became director of the Occupational Disease Commission when it was created by the governor of Illinois in 1910. In that position she also worked as an unpaid advisor the U.S. commissioner of labor — a position that was terminated when pro-business Republicans gained control of the White House in 1920.

In any event, by 1919 Hamilton had become an Assistant Professor of Industrial Medicine at Harvard University and was the only female member of the faculty. (She was appointed on the condition that she not join the faculty club, participate in commencement parades or ask for football tickets!).

Hamilton’s work on industrial lead poisoning showed conclusively that lead continued to accumulate in the bones. This was an early baseline that should not have been ignored by industry researchers who, in the 1930s through the 1950s, purported to show a natural “threshold” of lead tolerance in the body in support of leaded gasoline. Hamilton vehemently opposed the introduction of leaded gasoline during the 1923 – 1926 period of the controversy, at one point calling G.M. inventor Charles A. Kettering “nothing but a murderer.” She instisted that alternative anti-knock additives were available for gasoline, a point that was quite true even though Kettering denied it in a 1925 Public Health Service conference.

Hamilton was also involved in the “radium girls” controversy as an advocate for the women who were dying of cancer from their exposure to radium used to paint glow-in-the-dark dials.

Hamilton also served on the League of Nations Health Committee between 1924-1930 and investigated industrial health conditions in several other countries. She published Industrial Poisons in the United States in 1925 and Industrial Toxicology in 1934. After retirement from Harvard in 1935, she was a consultant for the Division Of Labor Standards of the U.S. Labor Department. In 1943, she published her autobiography Exploring the Dangerous Trades. From 1944 to 1949, she was president of the National Consumers League. Dr. Hamilton received many honorary degrees, distinctions and awards, including a listing in Men of Science in 1944 and the Lasker Award of the U.S. Public Health Association in 1947.

Distinguished Women of the Past and Present
George Mason University biography


JOHN MUIR — writer, conservationist

Born: April 21, 1838, Dunbar, Scotland; died 1913 in Los Angeles

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.”

“One touch of nature…makes all the world kin.”

America’s most famous and influential conservationist, John Muir was the founder of the Sierra Club and a major influence on conservation policy in the U.S. His family came to America when he was 11 and settled in Wisconsin. He was a good student was suffered an eye injury that made him temporarily blind in 1867. When he recovered he decided to turn his eyes to fields and woods. He walked from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico, then sailed the Caribbean and the West Coast of North America, landing in San Francisco in 1868.

That year he walked across the San Joaquin Valley through waist-high wildflowers and into the Sierra Nevada mountains. They should be called “not the Nevada, or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light…the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen.”He herded sheep and began writing in a spiritually inspired style about the western wilderness. One of his first efforts was an 1874 series of articles entitled “Studies in the Sierra” which attracted the attention of famous men of the time – Joseph LeConte, Asa Gray and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Muir married and had two daughters and managed a successful family fruit business. But he also travelled to Alaska, Australia, South America, Africa, Europe, China, Japan, and many times to his beloved Sierra Nevada mountains.

Muir published 300 articles and 10 major books that recounted his travels and explained his naturalist philosophy. He hosted visits of writers, activists and conservationists — including Teddy Roosevelt in 1903 — to the Sierra wilderness. Partly due to his efforts, an act of Congress created Yosemite National Park. Muir was also involved in the creation of Sequoia , Mount Rainier , Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon national parks and is often called the “Father of Our National Park System. ” In 1892, Muir and friends established the Sierra Club to, as he said, “do something for wildness and make the mountains glad.”

Muir and Gifford Pinchot represent two different approaches to wilderness and the environment. For Muir, preservation was the priority, whereas Pinchot and Roosevelt were determined to stem the tide of ruthless explioitation through a more politically adroit “wise use” approach. Despite many victories, Muir’s last and most dramatic battle was to save the Hetch-Hetchy valley of Yellowstone Park from a dam that would feed drinking water to San Francisco. Despite strong opposition to the dam, Congress approved it in 1912 and Muir found the loss very discouraging. He died the following year.

Sierra Club Biography   

Jacques Cousteau, the 20th century’s best-known advocate for marine environmental protection, was born June 11, 1910.   Cousteau was known for producing 115 documentary films and television programs about the ocean environment and adventures on the research ship the Calypso. He was also the co-inventor of the Aqua-Lung or “scuba” tank.

Cousteau’s international fame came with his role as narrator and star of the television series “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.” Among his many awards and honors were three Oscars and ten Emmy Awards for his films and television programs and the International Environmental Prize of the United Nations for 1977.

Cousteau trained as a pilot at the French naval academy but an auto accident in 1933 kept him out of the sky. Shortly afterwards, a pair of watertight goggles introduced him to the undersea world. He became obsessed with developing snorkels, body suits and other diving gear and in the early 1940s he worked with a Parisian engineer to invent a regulator for a compressed air tank to allow free movement and breathing under water. It was known as “scuba” diving (for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus).


Scuba was a great improvement over the heavy diving suits used at the time. Cousteau used scuba to help the French resistance in World War II and was awarded the Légion d’Honneur for his service. After the war, Cousteau developed scuba diving as part of a French Naval research group. He wanted, also to challenge age-old superstitions and open the underwater realm to scientific exploration.

Cousteau was initially known for his 1953 bestselling book “The Silent World.” A film by the same title won a 1957 Academy Award for best documentary. Cousteau became director of the Oceanographic Institute of Monaco and, in that position, led a successful campaign to stop nuclear waste dumping in the Mediterranean. He also set up experiments in deep undersea living on the continental shelf called Conshelf I, II and III, The experiments were documented in Cousteau’s films, as were his many oceanic adventures in a converted French minesweeper named the Calypso. Much of his environmental work was carried on by an organization he founded in 1973, the Cousteau Society.

Overall, Cousteau produced 115 films including three full-length theatrical feature films: The Silent World, World Without Sun and Voyage to the Edge of the World. He also wrote, in collaboration with various co-authors, more than 100 books including Jacques Cousteau’s Amazon Journey (1984), and Jacques Cousteau / Whales (1988); in French, Les Iles du Pacifique(1990), L’Ile des esprits (1995), Le Monde des Dauphins (1995) and the posthumously published L’homme, le pieuvre et l’orchidée (The Man, the Octopus and the Orchid).


For more about modern environmental leaders and their organizations: