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Theo Colborn, 1927–2014

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For nearly 30 years TEDX's founder Dr. Theo Colborn dedicated herself to revealing the dangers of endocrine disrupting chemicals to wildlife, humans and the environment. More recently she alerted us to the threats posed by chemicals associated with oil and gas development.

Theo’s visionary leadership and passion shone most brilliantly when she made direct connections between new ideas, scientists whose work confirmed them, impacted individuals, and people in positions to change what needed changing. She will be remembered for many generations to come, generations that she worked tirelessly to protect.

Below is a memorial of stories that people submitted to TEDX after her death on December 14, 2014.  If you have a story you would like to share, please submit it at the bottom of this page.

Comments (87)

  1. Garet Lahvis:
    Jan 06, 2015 at 07:14 PM

    The second time I met Theo, we watched a building burn on Capitol Hill. That afternoon was the only time I witnessed Theo a spectator. A lifelong role model (along with a few here paying tribute to her), Theo defines for me what it means to participate in a meaningful life. Daunted as I've been by our relentless consumption and the pollution that comes with it, Theo has always burned a light of hope and change, illuminating threats to our society, showing us all, at different times, a direction forward. Thank you Theo. I hope, in my own way, I'll carry your torch.

  2. Connie Schultz:
    Jan 05, 2015 at 11:23 PM

    Although I didn't know Dr. Colborn, I didn't want to miss this opportunity to say how much I will miss her. In 2010, upon reading Dr. Colborn's book, Our Stolen Future, I was convinced of her assessment of our perilous situation and concerns for our immediate future. (My grandson is autistic.) She was certainly an example of someone who had the courage of her convictions and was able to convey complicated themes simply and persuasively. It must have been an intimidating job to spread the alarm to a world still unaware of the "stealth threat" of PPCs but she seemed undaunted. I'll miss her leadership and hope I can work as tirelessly as she did to spread the alarm so we can stop this threat and make the world a safe place for our children and grandchildren. I'm looking forward to working with TEDX and others to carry on her good work in whatever small way I can.

  3. Dusty Horwitt:
    Jan 05, 2015 at 07:36 PM

    What a loss for all of us. My deep condolences to Theo's family. I'm so glad, though, that I had the chance to know Theo and to be inspired by her. She was the main reason I became involved in studying and exposing the effects of drilling and fracking chemicals. I'm sure I'm not the only one who can make that statement. Her public list of these chemicals and their health effects was one of the first and undoubtedly the most comprehensive. She once invited me and John Amos to stay at her house in Paonia, Colorado and insisted that we accompany her in a four-seat plane so that we could see from the air how many gas wells had been drilled near Rifle. I still smile when I recall how often Theo asked the pilot "can you dip the wing again?" so that she could get better photos. I should have been terrified to be lying on my side staring straight down at the rocky terrain hundreds of feet below, but Theo's confidence and her sense of mission to illuminate the health risks of drilling to the public and to gas field workers overrode most of my fear. I almost forgot that Theo was 80 years old at the time.

    I last spoke with Theo by phone this summer and she sounded just as enthusiastic as ever. She ticked off an ambitious list of projects she was working on. It was only when I asked about her health that she told me she was very sick and running short on time. "I'm trying to cram in as much as possible," she said.

    I wasn't surprised to read that Theo was working until the day she passed away. I wish she were still here, but her legacy and spirit will live on.

    Dusty Horwitt, Senior Counsel, Partnership for Policy Integrity

  4. Tony Tweedale:
    Jan 05, 2015 at 04:59 PM

    What a mind - visionary yet scientifically critical; a natural leader for many of us. First heard of the EDC issue in the early 1990's, from a rather visionary local activist; courtesy of Theo! Even in that decade (initial focus on reproductive disruption) it was clear that ED represents all biology, and is sensitive to disruption. An un-payable debt...except that she started that full realization!

  5. David Blockstein:
    Jan 05, 2015 at 04:18 PM

    Theo's remarks on receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Council for Science and the Environment in 2007 can be found at http://ncseonline.org/sites/default/files/Colborn%20speech.pdf
    She began, "To those of you who dared to give me this award, I humbly accept it with sincere admiration of your courage -- and with deep appreciation. However, it is important that I remind you that I did not get here on my own...."
    Theo knew that she was controversial but she was a scientist, an environmentalist and a humanitarian through and through.

  6. Steve Elliott:
    Dec 31, 2014 at 04:10 PM

    I'm the editor in chief of the Embryo Project Encyclopedia, a digital and open access science outreach publication funded by the NSF and administered at Arizona State University. (http://embryo.asu.edu/) We had been in contact with Theo Colborn earlier this year as we wrote a biography of her. When the article was in the final stages of editing, we learned that she had passed. We revised the article, and we made sure to cite this page with its rich documents.

    The article has finished peer and editorial review, and we've published it, though we're still cleaning up a few typos. You can find the article here. http://embryo.asu.edu/handle/10776/8276

    I deeply regret that we weren't able to share the published article with Colborn, especially given the help that she graciously gave us. I hope that people here find the article of value. The article has a permanent url (http://embryo.asu.edu/handle/10776/8276), is published in a publication with an ISSN, and will be indexed in scholarly databases.

    Steve Elliott
    Editor in Chief
    EP Encyclopedia

  7. Tim Kubiak:
    Dec 29, 2014 at 10:59 PM

    I first met Theo in 1987, while working in Michigan. She had developed her theory of adverse hormonal changes causing reproductive and developmental problems in Great Lakes wildlife. It was her 1947 undergraduate degree in Pharmacy that pushed her towards forensic environmental toxicology after earning her Ph.D. in 1985. So by 1987, at 60 years of age, when her generational contemporaries were calling their careers over or nearly so, she was embarking on her second thematic career. The following quotation is symbolic of where she was at back then and where she would go:

    “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
    Henry David Thoreau

    Theo’s books, Great Lakes, Great Legacy? and Chemically-Induced Alterations in Sexual and Functional Development: The Wildlife/Human Connection were her early years products. The second book was written from discussions and presentations of those invitees who attended the first Wingspread meeting (Theo had integrated endocrinology, toxicology, human and wildlife expertise for that meeting). Those attendees agreed to a succinct consensus statement of what was known and what was belief and so on. It was that assembly of individuals with Theo that really made her theory much more authoritative. Subsequent Wingspread meetings (with the same multidisciplinary approach) were catalytic because Theo was integrating and synthesizing with the energy and diplomacy of a most-gifted visionary. She was accomplishing something transformational by then:

    “Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around.”
    Henry David Thoreau

    All of Theo’s efforts on her various advisory committees allowed her to articulate with greater and greater authority from her now increasingly-recognized expertise by demonstrating an acutely current understanding of the scientific literature. And she continued to publish papers that were remarkable syntheses. Authors increasingly addressed endocrine disruptor topics and sent Theo their publications. When she embarked on writing Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival? - a Scientific Detective Story with her co-authors, the message was one that would address the endocrine disruptor topic much like Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring. Many thought Theo was the second Rachel. While there is rarified “clean air” for both of them, Theo had the scientific background edge. Theo’s background was needed to address compromised life, not only acute mortality or eggshell thinning. When in Colorado, she founded TEDX. Fracking became an issue in Colorado and elsewhere. Fracking mixtures were recently shown to be endocrine disruptive. Everything Theo was about epitomized thoughtfulness, gracefulness and fearlessness to all she communicated with, including political, pseudoscience, and scientifically uninformed naysayers. She will always be remembered for the exemplary manner she conducted herself. Even those days during her second career when she would be likened to a scientific heretic, she was at her best by being the most cool-headed. If Mother Nature could say she had a grandmother at her side, Theo would be named! And I will always remember her cheery grandmother “Oh Hi” when answering the telephone. I will miss Theo but her remarkable accomplishments will live on forever. I end with one last quote summing up Theo’s second career:

    “If you can speak what you will never hear, if you can write what you will never read, you have done rare things.”
    Henry David Thoreau

  8. Kay Williams:
    Dec 26, 2014 at 02:11 AM

    I only heard about Theo Colborn this week, and only saw Gasland this week. I live in fra king central in Oklahoma where there is no resistance yet. My water from the Wellington aquifer is shrinking and contaminated with heavy metals. It's so bad even Fox News has had to report on it, although they say it's natural and/ or result of drought. Friends who live 2 km from fracking wells have lost their well. Dried up. Now they have to truck in all their water. Hard to raise five grandchildren on trucked in water. Old swimming hole gone. The chickashas threw the wells off their land. That's when they came into my county. I appreciate all dr. Colborn did to get NYS to deny the frackers. Hope it sticks.

  9. Alfonso:
    Dec 25, 2014 at 06:53 AM

    I am a patient of this endocrine disruption and for a long time I felt misunderstood -for myself first, my family and the doctors that dont consider environmet-, I didnt know whats happened with my body, what was wrong, and so I was quite nervous - by the incomprenhesion and by the action of 'crazy hormones'-. But since I red her researches and I feel confident in myself and quiet, overall because i dont face anything unknown. Now, this is part of my past, and when I can, I try to give back to society what I received from our protagonist as a present, her legacy. Finally, as you can imagine, due to she was very important at one point in my life, Theo Colborn will be always in my memories and Ill be always grateful with her.
    Alfonso


  10. Eleanora (Norrie) Robbins:
    Dec 24, 2014 at 07:45 PM

    I met Theo in the field in 1987, at Huntley Meadows wetland in Alexandria, VA. She was bird-watching. I was algae-watching. At that time, I was part of a very large group of scientists, mostly working for the Federal government, who were trying in our spare time to block a 4-lane highway being built by Fairfax County across our favorite local wetland.
    Walking along the boardwalk that day, Theo and I started talking. I am a geologist, so I was mesmerized and needed to be educated about substances in the water, substances that she was calling endocrine disruptors. She was working on a book at that time, “Great Lakes, Great Legacy.” She told me that she was working at World Wildlife Fund and hearing from scientists working in the Great Lakes—“my fish are dying,” “my amphibians are dying,” and the most shocking of all “my protozoans aren’t reproducing.” Later I started reading her seriously, particularly when I started working on Great Lakes wetlands.
    The year 1987 was crucial for saving our wetland. Our group put together an anti- EIS, called Comments of the Citizens Alliance to Save Huntley Meadows, which we submitted to the National Park Service (NPS) on Sept. 2, 1987. NPS had jurisdiction over the wetland. Theo, being one of 22 scientists, wrote a 5-page chapter about the importance of wetlands.
    We won—the County backed off, NPS ruled against the highway, and of course, we all think that Theo’s contribution was crucial. Thank you Theo. You are a hero.

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