Home | The Call | About VAORRC | Lawsuit | Petition | Newsletters | News | Educational Materials | Links | Contact


Picture by Martha Namerow

Arthur Galston, Agent Orange Researcher,
Is Dead at 88

Published: June 23, 2008

Source: New York Times

economistJun 26th 2008
Arthur Galston, botanist, died on June 15th, aged 88
Courtesy of Elizabeth Galston

Arthur W. Galston, a Yale plant biologist who did early research that helped lead to the herbicide Agent Orange, then helped raise awareness of the military’s use of it in Vietnam in the 1960s and its devastating effects on river ecosystems, died on June 15 in Hamden, Conn. He was 88.

The cause was congestive heart failure, his family said.

In letters, academic papers, broadcasts and seminars, Dr. Galston described the environmental damage wrought by Agent Orange and traveled to South Vietnam to monitor its impact. 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.

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.”

Then, in 1970, with Matthew S. Meselson of Harvard and others, he made a case that Agent Orange 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 an immediate halt of spraying.

In later years, Dr. Galston tied his activism to his own early research. In the 1940s, at the University of Illinois, he had experimented with a plant growth regulator, triiodobenzoic acid, and found that it could induce soybeans to flower and grow more rapidly. But if applied in excess, he noted, the compound would cause the plant to catastrophically shed its leaves.

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).

In other important work in plant physiology, Dr. Galston experimented with the nutrient riboflavin and its role in enabling plants to absorb blue light, making a connection that he advanced and published in 1950 in the journal Science. He also wrote a book, “The Life of the Green Plant” (1961).

Arthur William Galston was born in Brooklyn. He graduated from Cornell and earned his doctorate in botany from Illinois in 1943.

After teaching at the California Institute of Technology, he moved to Yale in 1955 as a professor of plant physiology. At Yale, he was chairman of the department of botany in the 1960s and chairman of the department of biology in the 1980s. Dr. Galston was also a former director of the division of biological sciences at Yale. He retired in 1990 as a professor of botany emeritus.

Dr. Galston is survived by his wife of 66 years, Dale. He is also survived by a son, William, of Bethesda, Md.; a daughter, Beth, of Carlisle, Mass.; and a grandson.

In 2003, Dr. Galston reconsidered the arc of his research.

“You know,” he said, “nothing that you do in science is guaranteed to result in benefits for mankind. Any discovery, I believe, is morally neutral and it can be turned either to constructive ends or destructive ends.”

He concluded: “That’s not the fault of science.”

economist large

Arthur Galston
Jun 26th 2008

From The Economist print edition

Arthur Galston, botanist, died on June 15th, aged 88
Courtesy of Elizabeth Galston
Galston Econ

IT WAS the mangroves he noticed first, reduced to cobwebbed wraiths as far as the eye could see. The mud around them was clogged with their leaves, and the shellfish in it were dead. Then he saw the hills, once thick with teak trees, shaved bald like an old man’s skull. He could have seen worse: children with monstrous lolling heads and palsied, tiny limbs, adults with gnarled growths erupting from their bellies. But these were hidden away in the hospitals. The trees were less adept at concealment.

What had been sprayed on them was millions of gallons of a herbicide known as Agent Orange. Fixed-wing aircraft flew over the jungles of Vietnam in swarms, dumping the stuff, which then drifted over crops and into villages. The food that was destroyed might have fed 600,000 people for a year. But it was perfectly harmless to people, said America’s military men. They kept down the grass at bases with it, and the GIs hosed each other with it for fun. And there was no better strategy, at the height of the conflict in the 1960s, than to strip bare the river banks and forest trails where the Vietcong fought their war.

Arthur Galston was less sanguine. If you had asked him, on one of his visits to Vietnam in those years, whether Agent Orange was directly responsible for the sarcomas, lesions and deformities, he would have replied, like the careful scientist he was, that it was hard to make a connection solid enough to stand up in a court of law. But three things he was sure of. First, Agent Orange had caused “an ecological disaster” that might take decades to repair. Second, its use contravened the Geneva protocols against chemical and biological warfare. And third, he had a responsibility to speak, because this agent of horror was partly his child.

The birth had been accidental. As a young graduate student at the University of Illinois in 1943, he had been studying ways to make soyabeans—then a new crop plant from China—flower and set their pods earlier in the season, before the winter frosts. A mild spray with 2,3,5-triiodobenzoic acid brought them on nicely; but a stronger dose caused the plants to release ethylene, which digested the cell wall between leaf and stem and defoliated them.

Though Mr Galston soon had to go off to war himself, and then got sidetracked on the effort to find a new plant substitute for rubber, it did not occur to him that his discovery had military uses. It might, perhaps, be helpful to farmers. He was a botanist, who once spent a happy year in Stockholm isolating catalase from spinach leaves, and who patiently observed “rhythmic opening and closing in the dark in the plant Albizzia”. He believed in the inherent beauty and usefulness of science. On the other hand, he knew that any discovery was morally neutral. Society might apply it to good or evil ends.

As a plant physiologist, he was also aware that the life of plants was far from serene. They strained after light and water and struggled to cope with stress, of the sort that had made his soya seedlings drastically shed their leaves. They competed for food and saw off enemies. He watched oat seedlings warn each other of danger by releasing jasmonate acid, and tracked the dropping of poisoned leaves by the Sonoran brittlebush to ward off competition. But this did not mean, when the men from the chemical warfare unit at Fort Detrick started to exploit his findings in the 1950s, that he was happy to help wage war through and against plants.
Unanswered letters

The new potentised strain of his discovery appalled him, and the more so because it contained dioxin as a by-product of manufacture. The toxicity of dioxins was not then well understood, but Mr Galston had his fears from the beginning. From 1965 onwards, as the use of Agent Orange relentlessly increased in Vietnam, he lobbied both his scientific colleagues and the government to stop. Lyndon Johnson would not answer his letters; but Richard Nixon, faced with more suggestive statistics on the human cost from the Department of Defence, eventually agreed. In 1970 the spraying stopped. The ecological damage, and the cries for compensation from sick civilians and soldiers, continue to this day.

Mr Galston liked to call himself an accidental botanist: a Brooklyn boy, where barely a weed could poke between the bricks, who took agriculture at Cornell only because, with his father jobless in the Depression, he could go there free. He meant to be a doctor, with a sideline in playing jazz saxophone, but fell under the spell of a pipe-smoking botany teacher, and that was that.

History dictated that he also became an accidental bioethicist. For all his fine work at Caltech and Yale, his running of departments, encouragement of students and production of more than 300 papers on plant physiology, it was his sense of responsibility that most distinguished him. He once thought, he said, that the way to be a moral scientist was to avoid projects with bad applications. But he had changed his mind. The vital thing was to stay involved; to speak, write, testify, and make sure that research was turned not to evil, but to good. For more than 20 years he taught bioethics at Yale, a course he had started and which, by his last year, was one of the most popular in the college. His country forgot, but he did not, the mangrove ghosts.

Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign | info@vn-agentorange.org | P.O. Box 303, Prince Street, New York, NY 10012-0006