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Former Wash U Professor Barry Commoner Dies

The influential environmental scientist died at the age of 95.

Barry Commoner, a pioneering environmental scientist and former professor at Washington University in St. Louis died Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012, in New York. Commoner was 95 and lived in Brooklyn Heights.

The New York Times called Commoner "a founder of modern ecology and one of its most provocative thinkers and mobilizers." 

Commoner studied the impact of radioactive material following World War II, which included documenting concentrations of strontium 90 in the baby teeth of thousands of children, the Times reported.

Commoner also contributed to the adoption of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

In 1970—the first year Earth Day was celebrated in the United States—Commoner made the cover of Time magazine.

He turned to ecological studies and the environment in the 1960s. In a Last Word online video by the New York Times, Commoner shared these thoughts on environmentalism:

I don’t believe in environmentalism as the solution to anything. What I believe is that environmentalism illuminates the things that need to be done to solve all of the problems together. For example, if you’re going to revise the productive system to make cars or anything else in such a way as to suit the environmental necessities, at the same time why not see to it that women earn as much as men for the same work?

To read the full New York Times obituary and see the Last Word video conversation with Commoner, click here.

Commoner joined the faculty at Washington University in 1947, after serving in the Naval Air Corps in World War II. 

While in St. Louis, Commoner helped to organize the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information in 1958. According to the Times, Dr. Commoner told Scientific American years later that the committee’s task “was to explain to the public — first in St. Louis and then nationally — how splitting a few pounds of atoms could turn something as mild as milk into a devastating global poison.”

Commoner also was the founding director of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems in St. Louis. He moved the center to Queens College in New York in 1981.

While working at Wash U, Commoner resided in Clayton. He is survived by his second wife, two children and a grandchild. 

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