Heroes of hazard

Gro Harlem Brundtland 1939-

Gro Harlem Brundtland


At 41, Gro Harlem Brundtland became Norway’s youngest-ever, and first female prime minister, serving in the office for nine years in three separate terms. But her greatest impact has been international. In the mid-1980s she headed the Brundtland Commission, which developed the now almost universally recognized concept of sustainable development that led to the 1992 Earth Summit. In 1998, she became Director General of the World Health Organization where she oversaw its first-ever international treaty on tobacco control, which lays down guidelines on health warnings, bans or restricts tobacco advertising, and recommends tax increases to discourage smoking. She launched the Roll-Back Malaria campaign, which has caused the distribution of over 140 million mosquito nets in Africa alone, and halved the toll of the disease in some countries.

M.S. Swaminathan 1925-

M.S. Swaminathan

by Tpvipin/GNU FDL

‘Whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before,’ says the King of Brobdingnag in Gulliver’s Travels, ‘would deserve more of mankind than the whole race of politicians put together.’ M.S. Swaminathan, as father of India’s Green Revolution, was one of a small group of scientists who did just that in 1960s. He convinced the Indian Government to try out a hybrid high-yielding wheat developed by the Revolution’s pioneer, Norman Borlaug, and within seven years doubled the country’s harvest, averting the threat of famine. The Green Revolution, however, often benefited the more prosperous farmers at the expense of smaller, poorer ones, and Swaminathan has devoted much energy since in adapting improved crops to the needs of the disadvantaged.

Theo Colborn 1927-

Theo Colborn


Pharmacist and farmer’s widow, Theo Colborn decided to go back to college and get a PhD, aged 51, and, nine years later, ended up researching whether pollution of the US Great Lakes was giving people cancer. Her results were reassuring with respect to cancer, but her research turned up study after study showing disease, behavioural changes, reproductive fail­ure and population declines in wild species. She worked out that a range of chemicals were damaging their endro­crine systems, which govern sex and reproduction, regulate hor­mones and the immune system, and coordinate organs and tissues. Later research established that many of them – nicknamed ‘gender-benders’ – were also affecting people. Her research opened up a whole new area of concern about chemical con­tamination, and measures are now beginning to be taken to tackle it.

Paul Crutzen 1933- Sherwood Rowland 1927- Mario Molina 1943-

Mario Molina

Mario Molina - Senado de la Rep. de México

Sherwood Rowland

Sherwood Rowland - by M Pössel/ Wikimedia Comm.

Paul Crutzen

Paul Crutzen - by Crutzen/euasc2s

Saving the ozone layer – which protects all life from the deadly ultraviolet light of the sun – started with scientific courage. In the late 1960s, Crutzen, a canal engineer turned meteorologist, first worked out that humanity could damage it but at the start ‘did not dare’ to go public, finally doing so some years later. And when Rowland and Molina, scientists at the University of California, first worked out what effects the common chemicals CFCs would have on it, the results were so shocking that they thought they must have made a mistake. But all three of them were right, and their work led to the phasing out of ozone-damaging substances through the Montreal Protocol, brokered by UNEP, which – by one estimate – has prevented 2 million cancers in Western countries alone. In 1995 they were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry.

John Snow 1813-1858

John Snow


Cholera swept through British cities in the first half of the 19th century, and it was John Snow who discovered its cause and so laid the grounds for its prevention. People had believed since the Middle Ages that the cause was bad air, or ‘miasma’; Snow came to the conclusion that the disease was transmitted through contaminated water. He was able to prove it, after an outbreak killed some 600 people in Soho, London, in 1854. He narrowed down the source of the disease to a particular pump, had its handle removed, and cases of the disease immediately started to fall. It took some time for his proof to be accepted, but so lasting was his eventual achievement that a poll of British doctors in 2003 voted him the greatest physician of all time.

Fatima Jibrell 1947-

Fatima Jibrell

by Goldman Environmental Prize

Somalia has seen more than its fair share of disasters, including war and famine, but Fatima Jibrell is proof that a determined person can make a big difference, campaigning at the grassroots for peace and environmental protection. She was instrumental in forming the Women’s Coalition for Peace to counter a political crisis in the northeast pro­vince of Puntland, and successfully lobbied to save the area’s acacia trees from being felled for charcoal. The charcoal was, for a time, Somalia’s main export, but she succeeded in persuading the Puntland govern­ment to stop it being sold abroad, and has promoted solar cookers to reduce its use at home. In 2000 she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Zhang Heng 78-139 AD

Zhang Heng

by Wikimedia Commons

People have been able to detect distant earthquakes for nearly 2,000 years, thanks to Zhang Heng. Born in China’s Henan province in 78 AD, and rising to become chief astronomer at the imperial court, he invented the first seismometer. In 132 AD he produced a bronze vessel, 2 metres in diameter, with a pendulum inside, surrounded by eight dragons at different points of the compass, each holding a ball in its mouth. When an earthquake occurred one of the dragons’ mouths would open, dropping its ball into the mouth of a bronze toad opposite it, thus indicating its direction days before horsemen from the area arrived to report it, and enabling aid to be sent promptly. It was not until 1880 that a better seismometer was developed.

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