Charles Frederick Wurster (b: 1930) Emeritus Professor in Marine Sciences at SUNY Stony Brook, co-founder of the Environmental Defense Fund, American Environmental Scientist.
Patricia Paladines and Carl Safina created a tribute to celebrate the role of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University as an important contributor of the modern environmental movement. The tribute displays a photo of Dr. Charlie Wurster and the story of his accomplishments, the text from which is listed below.
Stony Brook University’s Dr. Charles F. (Charlie) Wurster was among a small group of local scientists and conservationists who led the battle to ban the use of the pesticide DDT in the 1960s and 70s. His involvement as an advocate for the environment was frowned upon by many of his academic colleagues who believe that scientists should stay out of advocacy. Charlie felt ethically bound to speak out about his findings.
DDT’s toxicity to beneficial insects, birds and other non-target animals has been noted as early as the 1940s and was brought to international attention by Rachel Carson in her towering 1962 book Silent Spring. Dr. Wurster first investigated the harmful effects of DDT in 1963 while at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire where he was a research associate in the Biology department. That spring the town of Hanover had sprayed their elm trees with DDT in an effort to fend off bark beetles. In the weeks that followed, many migrant birds who had arrived after the spraying were found dead. Wurster and fellow scientists at the college collected 151 bird carcasses, mostly American Robins. Analyses of their bodies revealed that DDT had caused the birds to lose control of their nerves and muscles, many dying after experiencing major convulsions. After a two-year battle led by the scientists, local spraying in Hanover was halted.
In 1965 Dr. Wurster moved to Stony Brook University. Here he met a small group of scientists and concerned citizens turned activists who had joined together to form the Brookhaven Town Natural Resources Committee; they included Dennis Puleston, Art Cooley and the University’s Robert Smolker.
The group teamed up with attorney Victor Yannacone and–in an utterly unprecedented move–went to court on behalf of the environment. The team built up a strong case against the use of DDT, showing that it was not only poisoning birds and Long Island’s crustaceans, but was also becoming less effective in its ability to control mosquito populations because the insects were becoming resistant to the chemical. After presenting their science-based evidence to the court in 1966, DDT was banned in Suffolk County. Four years later, the Governor of New York enacted a statewide ban.
In 1967 Dr. Wurster and the other group members formed the Environmental Defense Fund, a non-profit organization that now ranks as one of the top environmental groups in the world. The Environmental Defense Fund played a driving role in securing the 1972 nationwide ban on DDT and related pesticides, a result that reverberated around the world.