Removing Lead

Clair Patterson was born in Iowa to parents who encouraged his education. He graduated from high school when he was 16. He attended Grinnell College where he got a degree in Chemistry. He and his wife Laurie then went to the University of Iowa to get his Master’s degree.

After their Masters, both Clair and Laurie went to work on the Manhattan Project. Once the war was over, Laurie supported Clair to get a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. His doctoral dissertation led to discoveries of lead contamination. Once finishing his Ph.D., he and his doctoral advisor moved to Caltech. He and Laurie reared four children.

When Dr. Patterson was attempting to determine the age of the earth, the samples he was testing were contaminated with lead. He developed the first clean room to remove all traces of lead. The result was an estimation of the earth’s age that was much older than believed at the time.

Dr. Patterson decided to pursue the contamination of lead that he encountered in the study of the earth’s age. He found that lead levels had suddenly increased. One of the main causes was the use of tetraethyl lead in gasoline to prevent knocking in engines. Other sources of lead were its use in paint.

When Dr. Patterson presented his results, he encountered pushback from other scientists whose experimental methods turned out to be flawed. When Dr. Patterson began to advocate for the removal of lead, he became the target for lobbyists hired by the petroleum companies. He was ostracized by federal research organizations which wouldn’t fund his work.

After 10 years, the federal government finally acted to moderate the removal of lead from gasoline. Lead levels in the blood of Americans dropped by 80%, but leading researchers still maintained that humans would adjust to higher levels of lead concentrations. For the rest of his life, Dr. Patterson advocated for the removal of lead exposure to all Americans.

Hidden heroes are often reviled by those whose theories they are challenging. In research communities, there is an entrenched “old guard” who feel threatened by challenges to their orthodoxy. Unfortunately, research funding decisions are often used to squelch those opposing views. One has to wonder, how many needless deaths resulted from those in power failing to recognize the dangers of lead poisoning?

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“Failure will never overtake me if my determination to succeed is strong enough.” – Og Madino (Author)

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