Just recently, I found out that Theo Colborn died. Theo is one of the most inspiring female scientists ever. I saw a list of her best quotes posted on Facebook, and then I saw the sad words beside them, announcing her death. Theo was so loud and alive in as a health activist, even at the end of her life when she was 87 years old.
Theo was and still is the leader of our fight against industrial chemicals, specifically endocrine disruptors. According to "A Brief Biography," written by Elizabeth Grossman, this is Theo's story:
1927- Theodora Emily Decker Colborn is born.
1947- Theo earned her Bachelor of Science degree from Rutger's University and began her professional career as a lab technician and pharmacist. .
1964- Theo and her husband sold their New Jersey pharmacies and moved to a small farm western Colorado.
1970's- Theo began learning more about the science behind the area's environmental issues.
Late 1970's- Theo and her husband separated and all she wanted to do was go back to school to study science. She started doing field work at the Rocky Mountain Biological Station, sampling water and insects for toxic elements released by mining activity.
1981- Theo completed her Master's degree in Science at Western State College, specializing in freshwater ecology. She was then accepted to the University of Wisconsin-Madison based on her impressive research examining the effects of cadmium and molybdenum on freshwater aquatic insects.
1985- Theo was awarded a Ph.D. in zoology with distributed minors in epidemiology, toxicology and water chemistry at the age of 58.
She began her work with the White House's Office of Technology Assistance as a Congressional Fellow and then as an analyst, focusing on various air pollution studies.
She then worked with World Wildlife and The Conservation Foundation researching Great Lakes contaminants and wrote a paper discussing the persistent and bio-accumulative industrial substances that had entered the Great Lakes. These chemicals were later referred to as "endocrine distruptors." Theo and her team also fought for resources to support the research of chemicals found human blood, breast milk and fat tissue linked to "changes in body functions, such as the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems."
1990's- Theo was invited to become a Senior Fellow at the W. Alton Jones Foundation, where she began thinking about bringing together scientists from different disciplines to discuss the prevalence of endocrine disrupting chemicals in the environment. She was the first one to explicitly and publicly connect chemical pollution to hormone disruption and environmental distress. She collaborated with man scientists to write a paper that described how industrial substances entered the Great Lakes and accumulated in sediment, making their way up the food chain and ultimately ending up in our bodies.
Theo's explanation of her work:
"That little grid changed the world."
Theo's research concluded that our exposures to industrial compounds begin in utero, with maternal exposure to one or more toxicants and transfer of those toxicants to the egg or fetus.
“We knew enough then to do something,”
said Colborn in December 2013.
This work inspired the 1996 book, "Our Stolen Future."
The book, co-authored with Myers and Dianne Dumanoski, describes the science behind endocrine disruption and the regulatory barriers inhibiting safety testing and adequate legislation protecting our health.
Our Stolen Future includes a foreword by Vice President Al Gore and its impact can be measured in the 1996 launch of the EPA's Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program and the Endocrine Disruptor Screening and Testing Advisory Committee.
In 2003, at age 76, Theo founded The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), a non-profit research organization devoted to “prevention driven” endocrine disruptor research. Soon after, Theo focused on the environmental health effects of the chemicals used in natural gas extraction, particularly through hydraulic fracturing.
One of my favorite Theo stories comes from my fracking hero/friend, Josh Fox, the man behind Gasland the movie, and the national movement that followed. Josh was visiting Theo recently, to discuss the endocrine-disrupting chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process, and he arrived at her house with his female colleague. As soon as Theo greeted them, she smelled the woman's hair and immediately asked what shampoo she had used. The woman replied that she had unfortunately used a popular commercial shampoo that is not natural because it was the only product available, and when Theo heard the brand, she actually refused to let the woman into her house. Theo was that serious about her work.
“One of my biggest concerns is the next generation of science,”
says Colborn, in December 2013.
At the age of 87, Theo was still actively trying to get the public to care about this issue so policymakers could properly respond. "I am thoroughly convinced this is all real," said Colborn. "The science is there. We don't need more science. We need working a different a different sphere entirely."
"My concern is that we've let this go on for so long that we're now into the fourth generation of those exposed to the post-World War II plethora of synthetic chemicals."
Theo died at the age of 87, after relying on an oxygen tank for a long time. She blamed cadmium exposure during research for her lung condition. Until the very end of her life, Theo continued to work and discuss her dreams of starting a research institute for "inner space," the study of what goes on inside the human body.
I am most moved by Theo's deep and infinite commitment to “find better, safer, more clever ways to meet basic human needs and, where possible, human desires," a necessity to preserving all life.
The book concludes, "We owe that much, and more, to our children."
Theo may be physically gone now, but she is certainly alive in the work we are all doing to fight and win against harmful and unnecessary exposures from our products and processes.
TO HONOR THEO AND OUR PROMISE TO PROTECT EACH OTHER AND THE PLANET, MAY WE ALL STRIVE FOR A "BRIEF BIO" AS MEANINGFUL AS THAT.