Better Living Through Chemistry: A Reluctant Scientific and Environmental Hero Moves On

03/16/2012 07:44 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2012
  • Steve Heilig Health care ethicist, epidemiologist, and environmentalist

When I was a kid in Southern California, I had a pal up the street whose dad taught chemistry at the local university. That's all I really knew about the man, other than that he was very tall (6'5"!). He was always welcoming at their home when we did stop in after skateboarding, but by the time we were adolescents he was becoming quite famous. Little did we -- or he -- know he would make history. For as it turned out, one evening around then he came home after work and, when his wife, Joan, asked how his research was going, replied "It's going very well. It just means, I think, the end of the world." It also earned him a Nobel Prize.

Professor F. Sherwood ("Sherry") Rowland died this week at 84.

The research he was referring to was his pioneering work showing that human use of aerosol compounds known as chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, present in spray cans and refrigerators of all kinds, was damaging to atmospheric ozone, which blocks the sun's ultraviolet rays -- and thus helped to allow life on earth to develop. His team's research had profound implications for the planet in a number of important ways, but most important, it showed we needed to do something sweeping and soon about an environmental threat.

Rowland's work, with his colleague and fellow 1995 chemistry Nobelist Mario Molina, thus also threatened some profits in the chemical industry. The scenario that unfolded was not unique -- attacks by the industry, both overt and stealth, and an unfortunate sort of shunning by some colleagues who did not want to be threatened by association. The aerosol industry even accused Rowland and Molina of "being K.G.B. agents out to destroy capitalism" -- McCarthyism lived (or rather, lives) on! Similar attacks on scientists predated Rowland -- such as the pioneering pesticide researcher and author Rachel Carson, and many who worked on showing the harms of tobacco. Rowland seems to have shrugged it off and continued his meticulous work. And of course, even before the Nobel, his colleagues came to recognize they had a true star in their midst.

Besides being a stellar scientist, Rowland was an eloquent writer, and in his Nobelist essay, he recalled his awakening to activism: "Mario and I realized that this was not just a scientific question, challenging and interesting to us, but a potentially grave environmental problem." His resultant advocacy for a ban on CFCs is a model of how good science can drive policy for the benefit of all. From their landmark 1974 paper on this topic -- "the initial reaction was absolutely nothing", he recalled -- to the 1987 international Montreal Protocol which stopped production and stockpiling of CFCs was only about 15 years -- a short span in such scenarios, where scientific and politicized controversy can delay real action for decades.

Rowland once reflected, with respect to his work and in the context of atmospheric and climate issues in general, "Is it enough for a scientist simply to publish a paper? Isn't it a responsibility of scientists, if you believe that you have found something that can affect the environment, isn't it your responsibility to actually do something about it, enough so that action actually takes place?... If not us, who? If not now, when?"

Dr. Molina this week told the New York Times that he and Dr. Rowland "were not sure we were going to be successful" in pushing for a ban on CFC's. "But we started something that was a very important precedent: people can make decisions and solve global problems."

Which, given the array of threats facing our species and planet -- climate change, overpopulation, chemical pollution, nuclear proliferation, the decline of science literacy and education, to name a few -- might be the most important lesson of our time. In the video interview below, Rowland said he was not optimistic about humans doing the right thing on climate change, but that he never gave up hope.

I have one fond memory of Rowland's sly humor. A few of the neighborhood teens were sitting in his kitchen; I had recently read about the dangers of pesticides on food and thought it would be good to ask a famous chemist about it (and maybe show off something I had read, too). "Are fruits and vegetables safe to eat now?" I asked. "Is there anything we can do to get pesticides off food?" Rowland looked at me with a shocked expression and said "You eat fruits and vegetables? What a novel idea!" -- and shot a scolding look at his son, sitting nearby. He then added, "Yes, wash them off the best you can. We're still trying to figure out how to keep them off the food in the first place."

Rowland was a scientific and environmental hero. But as the Times notes, he demurred from that label -- he just thought he was doing what he had to do, given what he'd learned. Everyone alive can thank him for that.


A 1996 video interview with Rowland: