Heroes of Science: Arthur Galston

In his early research the biologist, Arthur Galston experimented with a plant growth regulator, triiodobenzoic acid, and found that it could induce soybeans to flower and grow more rapidly. However, he also noted that if applied in excess, the compound would cause the plant to shed its leaves.

The Military-Industrial Complex of the era used Galston’s findings in the development of the powerful defoliant Agent Orange, named for the orange stripe painted around steel drums that contained it. The chemical is now known to have contained dioxins, which have proven to be associated with cancers, birth defects and learning disabilities. From 1962 to 1970, American troops released an estimated 20 million gallons of the chemical defoliant to destroy crops and expose Viet Cong positions and routes of movement during the Vietnam War.

As an activist he wrote letters, academic papers, broadcasts and seminars, thet described the environmental damage wrought by Agent Orange, noting that the spraying on riverbank mangroves in Vietnam was eliminating “one of the most important ecological niches for the completion of the life cycle of certain shellfish and migratory fish.” Galston traveled to Vietnam to monitor the impact of the chemical. In 1970, with Matthew S. Meselson of Harvard University and other scientists, Galston charged that Agent Orange also presented a potential risk to humans. The scientists lobbied the Department of Defense to conduct toxicological studies, which found that compounds in Agent Orange could be linked to birth defects in laboratory rats. The revelation led President Richard M. Nixon to order a halt to the spraying of Agent Orange.

“It was toxic at levels [in rats], which when scaled up to human level meant that the Vietnamese people who were exposed to the sprays probably were ingesting toxic quantities,” Galston was quoted as saying in a 2003 Yale Scientific article.

In the same article, he decried the use of his early research in the development of the toxic herbicide.

“I thought it was a misuse of science,” he said. “Science is meant to improve the lot of mankind, not diminish it – and its use as a military weapon I thought was ill-advised.”

In 1971, while on a visit to Vietnam to investigate the consequences of Agent Orange, Galston was invited to the People’s Republic of China, becoming one of the first two American scientists to receive such an honor. In China, he met three heads of state, including Premier Chou En-lai. Through the leader’s intervention, Galston was able to work for a summer on a Chinese agricultural commune, and wrote about the experience in a book.

Beginning in 1965, Galston lobbied both his scientific colleagues and the government to stop using Agent Orange.  Galston and U. S. geneticist Matthew S. Meselson appealed to the U. S. Department of Defense to investigate the human toxicology of Agent Orange. The research conducted by the Department of Defense led to the discovery that Agent Orange caused birth defects in laboratory rats. In 1971 this information led to U. S. President Richard M. Nixon banning the use of the substance. Galston made numerous trips to Vietnam and China, including, with Ethan Signer of MIT, as the first American scientists invited to visit the People’s Republic of China. In 1971, he met Chou En-lai, then Prime Minister, as well as King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, who then resided in Shanghai

Dr. Galston asserted that harm to trees and plant species could continue for an untold period, and perhaps for decades. He pointed out that spraying Agent Orange on riverbank mangroves in Vietnam was eliminating “one of the most important ecological niches for the completion of the life cycle of certain shellfish and migratory fish.”

A colleague, Ian Sussex, a senior research scientist at Yale, said others used Dr. Galston’s findings in the development of the more powerful defoliant, Agent Orange, named for the orange stripe painted around steel drums that contained it. The chemical, produced by Dow, Monsanto and other companies, is now known to have contained dioxins, long-lived compounds associated with cancers, birth defects and learning disabilities.

In the 1980s, Dr. Galston helped introduce popular courses in bioethics for undergraduates at Yale and in the 1990s was instrumental in founding the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at the university. He explored the risks and rewards of genetically modified plants and crops, pesticides, stem-cell research, cloning and other issues as co-editor of two textbooks, “New Dimensions in Bioethics” (2000) and “Expanding Horizons in Bioethics” (2005).

His Yale colleague, Mary Helen Goldsmith, professor emerita of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, lauded Galston for his “life-long interest in the ethical and social implications of scientific and medical research and technologies.”

The sadness is that Agent Orange is still with us, even now in such places as Brazil ranchers are using this deadly agent to clear the Amazons: Threat in the rainforests…:

Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency, the Brazilian Institute of
Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, or IBAMA, was first alerted to the use of Agent Orange in the Amazon by satellite photos, which showed thousands of trees that had turned the color of ash and lost all their leaves. IBAMA officials said it is probable that the poison was dropped on the trees from an aircraft, though they do not yet know whose aircraft. (click here to read more…)

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