Ending the Use of Agent Orange
In the early 1940s, a graduate student in botany at the University of Illinois named Arthur W. Galston found that application of a synthetic chemical could hasten the flowering of plants, enabling crops to be grown in colder climates. But if the chemical was applied at higher concentrations, it was extremely toxic, causing the leaves of the plants to fall off. Galston reported the results in his 1943 thesis before moving to the California Institute of Technology and then serving in the Navy during the final years of World War II.
Following the war, Galston learned that military researchers had read his thesis and had used it, along with other research, to devise powerful herbicides that could be used in wartime. Beginning in 1962, the U.S. military sprayed more than 50,000 tons of these herbicides on forests and fields in Vietnam. By far the most widely used mixture of defoliants was known as Agent Orange, from the orange stripe around the 55-gallon drums used to store the chemicals.
Galston later wrote that the use of his research in the development of Agent Orange “provided the scientific and emotional link that compelled my involvement in opposition to the massive spraying of these compounds during the Vietnam War.” At the 1966 meeting of the American Society of Plant Physiologists, he circulated a resolution citing the possible toxic effects of defoliants on humans and animals and the long-term consequences for food production and the environment, which he sent to President Lyndon Johnson. During the next several years, as evidence for the toxic effects of Agent Orange accumulated, Galston and a growing number of other scientists continued to oppose the use of defoliants in the Vietnam War. In 1969, he and several other scientists met with President Richard Nixon’s science adviser, whom Galston had known at Caltech, and presented him with information on the harmful effects of Agent Orange. The science adviser recommended to the president that the spraying be discontinued, and the use of defoliants was phased out in 1970, five years before the end of the war. Galton later wrote, “I used to think that one could avoid involvement in the anti-social consequences of science simply by not working on any project that might be turned to evil or destructive ends. I have learned that things are not that simple…. The only recourse is for a scientist to remain involved with it to the end.”a