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.