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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. Jerry Poje:
    Dec 15, 2014 at 04:11 PM

    No one who interacted with Theo could walk away without being reminded of the wisdom and approach to truth from Socrates. She had the same burning desire to find someone wiser than herself and the skills to probe deeply and well, instructing all willing to learn.  Better yet, she knew how to attract the best into her global symposium.
     
    Theo had the same belief in the sovereignty of reason matched with a keen appreciation of political realities that helped her make the most of the moment.  She had the same ready humor, bringing joyfulness even in times that try one’s soul- and her soul was deeply tried many times.  Theo had the same sympathetic interest in all the ways and works of humankind - and, an abundant love of the wisdom and the tools of science.

    So many of us who were privileged to have many face-to-face meetings, telephone calls and public engagements at professional and community meetings, grew in the bright light of inquiry that Theo brought to our world.

    As the great poet, Mary Oliver told in her prophetic offering "In Blackwater Woods":


    Look, the trees
    are turning
    their own bodies
    into pillars

    of light,
    are giving off the rich
    fragrance of cinnamon
    and fulfillment,

    the long tapers
    of cattails
    are bursting and floating away over
    the blue shoulders

    of the ponds,
    and every pond,
    no matter what its
    name is, is

    nameless now.
    Every year
    everything
    I have ever learned

    in my lifetime
    leads back to this: the fires
    and the black river of loss
    whose other side

    is salvation,
    whose meaning
    none of us will ever know.
    To live in this world

    you must be able
    to do three things:
    to love what is mortal;
    to hold it

    against your bones knowing
    your own life depends on it;
    and, when the time comes to let it
    go,
    to let it go.

    We will miss you, Theo, but so many are so much stronger for your time with us. And that lives on.

  2. Gordon Durnil:
    Dec 15, 2014 at 04:01 PM

    So sorry to hear about Theo's passing. She was a great leader for her cause and a good friend. She taught me a lot.

    Gordon K. Durnil
    former U.S. Chair
    International Joint Commission, United States & Canada

  3. Andrew Derocher:
    Dec 15, 2014 at 04:00 PM

    I worked with Theo on a paper on polar bears - she made the project possible. More importantly, Theo ignited and encouraged our research on endocrine disruption in polar bears. Her passion, drive, and insights helped move the issue of endocrine disruption to a new level. She will be missed by many. It was a privilege to have known her.

  4. Bev Thorpe:
    Dec 15, 2014 at 03:38 PM

    When Theo first spoke about her work in the Great Lakes I knew I was witnessing a new scientific dawn. She spoke about how birds eggs were being laid, but that it was important for researchers to go back days later to see how the chicks were surviving and that's what grabbed my early attention - her story telling was wonderful - and the content disturbing. Theo inspired many years of Greenpeace toxics campaigning both in North America and internationally. We cited her work avidly. I just now read her favourite quote (thank you TEDX for posting this) and although personally very sad at this moment, this poem has made the day beautiful. RIP dear Theo.

  5. Betty Mekdeci:
    Dec 15, 2014 at 03:35 PM

    I was so sorry to hear of Theo’s death. She was truly one-of-kind and a true pioneer in science.

    I don’t know if I ever told you about the time she came to Florida with six other scientists to evaluate the concept and design of our National Birth Defect Registry. I was very concerned that seven scientists would never agree on anything much less this very different way of finding hypotheses about the link between exposures and birth defects.

    That said, I created a “talking points” agenda because I thought that might get the conversation going in the same direction at least. Theo promptly torn up all the “talking points” papers and told me to sit in the corner and be quiet. The scientists all got right down to work and miraculously agreed to support the concept of the registry if they could name it the National Birth Defect Registry and rewrite the questions we were asking. They spent several months doing this and the registry grew from 12-16 pages. When I worried about the cost of reprinting, they said that it was better to do it now than when we had 10,000 cases entered.

    There is no doubt that without Theo and the other scientists’ involvement that no one would take the National Birth Defect Registry seriously, but they do and we have been able to do some remarkable things with registry data.

    Theo will be greatly missed.

  6. Tom Lent:
    Dec 15, 2014 at 03:34 PM

    In unlocking the puzzle of endocrine disruption, Theo gave us a critical key for solving some of the most poignant mysteries and challenges of our time - specifically the rising incidences of childhood diseases that affect learning and development. As with climate change, she recognized that we are working against the clock on this insidious social plague. Let's all redouble our efforts to carry on this important work and ensure that our coming generations can grow and develop to be as brilliant and caring as Theo was.

  7. Diane Wilson:
    Dec 15, 2014 at 03:01 PM

    I am a shrimper from the Texas Gulf Coast and I heard of Theo Colborn and her work around 2001. Specifically, endocrine disrupters and phthalates. And what did that have to do with a shrimper on the Gulf Coast? Well, we have a huge PVC/Vinyl chloride facility in Calhoun County called Formosa Plastics and they discharged phthalates into Lavaca Bay. The phthalates were a catalyst that softened the hard plastic. We have a large Vietnamese population that shrimped and fished and ate the seafood out of Lavaca Bay. Around 2003, I was involved in a small pilot study that tested Vietnamese couples for phthalates and the results were significant. Much of the work that we did was based on what Theo Colorn had done. I will never forget her. Her legacy is enormous. Diane Wilson, Calhoun County Resource Watch, Seadrift, Texas

  8. Richard Liroff:
    Dec 15, 2014 at 02:13 PM

    Theo triggered a revolution in scientific awareness of global proportion. Since the 1500s, scientists have argued that the dose makes the poison. Theo’s work and that of an army of researchers working on endocrine disruptors over the last 25 years have shifted this paradigm. The growing evidence shows that even the tiniest amounts of chemicals—to which fetuses in the womb and young children can be exposed—matter. In other words, the dose and the timing make the poison. Which translates to a call to action to eliminate exposures to even small amounts of toxic chemicals in our everyday lives.
    There are many ways to measure Theo’s impact. When she joined me at World Wildlife Fund and The Conservation Foundation in 1987 to begin our work together on chemicals in the Great Lakes, she had a handful of small file holders on her office shelf—“fish”, “birds”, and so on. The current count of entries in The Endocrine Disruption Exchange database that drives TEDX’s work is north of 50,000 items. When the Wingspread Conference coined the term “endocrine disruptor” in 1991 PubMed listed no publications referring to endocrine disruptors. In 2013 alone there were 910, growing to 1116 in 2014.
    Theo won four awards named after Rachel Carson, including one awarded by Carson’s alma mater, Chatham College. But she didn’t like being compared to Carson. In a 1998 interview with PBS she said, “I don't compare myself with her at all. She was a beautiful writer. She didn't have to get a writer to translate her science to the public. She worked alone. She certainly was a pioneer. No, I think she stands alone. On her own pedestal. I should not be compared to her.”
    Theo’s dissent from the comparison with Carson, aside from reflecting her personal modesty, underscores one of her most striking traits—her uncanny ability to build bridges among scientists. Her formal academic studies were interdisciplinary and she read scientific studies of all sorts nonstop. Not only did she draw connections among scientific findings herself, but she fostered a remarkable degree of engaged, committed communication from scientists having wide disciplinary backgrounds. And as public a figure as she was, she often was more than happy to stay in the background as her scientific colleagues from around the globe published a growing array of studies and consensus statements on endocrine disruptors and immune disruption, reproductive health, and so forth.
    When the 27th International Neurotoxicology Conference gave Theo an award in 2011, it was “in gratitude, for legions of children not yet born, but because of you, shielded from harm.” Yes, Theo, thanks for this…and for so much more.

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