Clair Patterson: The Real Life Clark Kent

Clair Patterson: The Real Life Clark Kent

We spoke about Thomas Midgley Jr, the genius but evil inventor. He was once described as a man who "had a more adverse impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth's history".  

Thanks to his work in leaded gasoline & chlorofluorocarbons, Midgely didn't exactly leave behind... a positive legacy. 

Clair Patterson, on the other hand, did the very opposite. 

Clair Patterson was the angel to Midgley's devil. While Midgely is responsible for killing millions, Patterson is responsible for saving millions. 

After all, they say that there is no good without evil, and no light without dark - This is the story of Clair Patterson, our modern-day Clark Kent. 

 To begin, we need to go back and meet Clair Patterson in the year 1944. Mr Patterson was a young scientist who worked on the Manhatten Project. 

After the war, Patterson went back to university to get his PhD. 

At university, he was tasked with determining the age of the Earth. That's right. That was his assignment. The next time your boss hands you a project you think is hard, be grateful that you don't have to determine the AGE OF THE EARTH.

But boyyyyy, did he understand the assignment. 

The answer was in the planet's radioactive rocks. 

Quick chemistry lesson - Radioactive rocks such as Uranium degrade into multiple compounds until they finally degrade into stable lead. The rate of decay is consistent and can be measured. By measuring the ratio of Uranium to lead, in primordial rocks, Patterson was to determine the age of the Earth. 

However, as a practice run, he first tried this out on zircon rocks whose age AND Uranium to lead proportions were already known. 

This was where shit got freaky - the proportion of lead to uranium in the zircon rocks was bonkers. There was so much more lead than expected. Where the hell did all this extra lead come from? 

The answer - leaded gasoline, of course.

Patterson realised that his zircon rocks were contaminated by the vast amounts of lead in the atmosphere. This lead came from automobile emissions & had been steadily rising since the introduction of leaded gasoline. Lead was hazardous to health. 


He then set on a quest to prove this - despite the leaded gasoline companies insisting that lead was natural and harmless. 

To do so, he studied the lead content of oceans. If lead truly was a natural part of the atmosphere, it would be present equally in deep and shallow waters - after all, it took hundreds of years for deep & shallow waters to mix in the ocean. 

However, there were minuscule amounts of lead in deep waters and obscenely large amounts in the shallow waters. This implied that the lead had arrived recently. 

He then wrote a paper called "Concentrations of Common Lead in some Atlantic and Mediterranean Waters and Snow”. This paper was published in a very popular magazine called Nature. 

Obviously, this pissed off a lot of people. How dare he try to save a lot of people from poisoning. Didn't he know that it would get in the way of PROFITS? 

The Ethyl Corporation (the dudes behind the leaded gasoline) was not pleased. 

Patterson met stiff opposition & his research funding was cut. The Ethyl Corporation even tried to get him fired. 

However, Patterson found new investors. 

With their help, he continued his research in Greenland. Patterson figured that if lead accumulated in oceans, it must have also accumulated in ice. 

He was right. He discovered that there was virtually no lead in the ice sheets before the introduction of leaded gasoline. 

In 1975, Patterson and his coworker showcased how lead fumes destroyed plant & animal health. 

He also compared the bones of the 1600-year-old Peruvian Indians, to that of modern humans. Modern humans had 1000 times the amount of lead compared to them. 

Patterson looked at adverse health trends and crime rates & found a correlation between their rise & the use of leaded gasoline. 

Patterson fought this fight for 20 years until he finally won. 

He stood tall in court & testified even when things seemed hopeless. 

He won the greatest public health victory of the twentieth century. 

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