In Memoriam - Theo Colborn
1929 - 2014
Theo Colborn (1929-2014) finished her Ph.D. in zoology late in life after raising
four children and working in her husband’s pharmacies. A life-long environmentalist
she brought fresh perspectives to the thorny question of why animals and human beings
around the globe were evidencing strange changes from plunging sperm counts in men,
to twisted bills and altered gender in birds, to hermaphroditism in beluga whales.
Colborn’s extensive research led her to believe that the answer to the mystery was
endocrine disruption – the shift in normal hormonal patterns in utero by even tiny
amounts of chemicals like PCBs that mimic and replace natural hormones during embryonic
and fetal development.
Colborn revolutionized and popularized our scientific and public understanding of
the adverse effects of even minute exposures to certain chemicals on both wildlife
and humans. Her most influential work was the popular 1996 book, Our Stolen Future,
written with journalist Dianne Dumanoski of the Boston Globe and Pete Myers, head
of the W. Alton Jones Foundation and a former Vice President of the National Audubon
Society. It was hailed by Vice President Al Gore as the Silent Spring of our time.
Like Rachel Carson, Theo Colborn was immediately attacked by chemical corporations,
their allies as unscientific, alarmist, and radical. These attacks ultimately proved
to no avail as Colborn, like Carson, had the facts on her side. Endocrine disruption
is now mainstream science.
Theodora Emily Decker was in Plainfield, New Jersey, graduated from Rutgers University
in 1947 with a degree in pharmacy and married her classmate, Harry Colborn. She
worked in the family pharmacy, raised four children, joined the Audubon Society
and other environmental groups, then in the 1950s, the family moved west to Colorado
for a simpler, greener lifestyle. There she became one of the leading birders and
environmentalists in the state. She fought encroaching development and water pollution
in Colorado and earned an M.A. in fresh water ecology from Western State College
of Colorado. After her husband died, Theo attended the University of Wisconsin where
she wrote a controversial dissertation on water pollution which implicated local
industry. Then at 58, she accepted a fellowship at the Office of Technology Assessment
(OTA) in Washington DC which led to her first, groundbreaking 1990 book, Great Lakes
Great Legacy? Her conclusions led to work with the World Wildlife Fund where she
continued research into the mysterious reproductive ailments of wildlife.
Colborn’s work on endocrine disruption upended conventional wisdom on toxic chemicals.
In 1992 she published Chemically-Induced Alteration in Sexual and Functional Development:
The Wildlife/Human Connection, from which her popular book, Our Stolen Future was
taken. Despite controversy, the public finally became aware that there was a worthy
successor to Rachel Carson.
Colborn was the founder of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), and like Carson
testified before Congress alerting the public to the health effects of natural gas
production, including fracking. She received numerous prestigious awards for her
efforts to protect wildlife and human health. Adding immeasurably to Rachel Carson’s
legacy, Theo Colborn died in Paonia, Colorado on December 14, 2014.
Bob Musil is President of the Rachel Carson Council and author of Rachel Carson
and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America’s Environment. (2014)
He was a friend and colleague of Theo Colborn.