Remembering an environmental science pioneer

Theo Colborn uncovered effects of chemicals, like those used in fracking, on the human body.

 

In March 2004, I found myself filing papers in the quiet home of Theo Colborn, the internationally prominent environmental scientist who, for decades, lived on and off in tiny Paonia, Colorado, also High Country News’ hometown. An island of file cabinets stood in the middle of Theo’s kitchen and, during the following months, I sorted through stacks of research articles and newspaper clips. Each one documented a report or study on endocrine disruption, linking the exposure to chemicals in the environment and consumer products to unnerving changes to the hormones, health and development of people and animals.

One afternoon, Theo opened a drawer to find a report and instead discovered a folder of poetry. "Oh! You need to have this," she said and pulled out a photocopy of a poem, attributed to Goethe, which includes the lines: "…the moment one definitely commits oneself/ then Providence moves too./ ... Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it./ Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."

Environmental scientist Theo Colborn recently died at the age of 87.

Theo, who died December 14 at age 87, lived a life rooted in commitment and boldness. After years as a small-town pharmacist and sheep farmer in western Colorado while raising her four children, she went through a divorce and decided to study watershed science and the environment. She earned her Ph.D at age 58, an unlikely third act in life. 

“So many people – sometimes much younger – were in awe of what she accomplished and to realize that she began that work at the age of 58 is so inspiring,” says Carol Kwiatkowski, executive director of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, the nonprofit research clearinghouse that grew out of Theo’s kitchen repository.

Theo’s Great Lakes doctoral research found manmade chemicals accumulating in female birds, fish and wildlife and, alarmingly, being passed along to their offspring and impacting early development. The findings introduced scientists and policymakers to the uncomfortable consequences of