Historicizing a Scientific Interdiscipline: Swedish Mercury Science in the 1960s

It’s been awhile since I’ve discussed the history of mercury pollution on the blog. It remains one of my main research interests, although it has taken a backseat to other projects of late. I attach below a poster I presented at the American Society for Environmental History annual meeting in 2010. While the original poster is collecting dust in a corner of my study, it seemed to me that a “visual” form of research should be seen, so I share it here. As posters go, this isn’t terribly good. Too much text and fine detail. It might work better as a webpage, but not as a poster. I would discourage students from adopting this as a model for their own work.

The blue sidebar contains much of the intellectual framework for the project, which is designed as a global study of knowing and regulating mercury pollution since Minamata. The poster outlines all of this, but I was especially interested in the political activism of a young subset of of Swedish scientists who became concerned about mercury in the Swedish landscape and engaged not just their scientific expertise, but also a nascent method of science information to share their concerns with the public. Frustrated by the relative inertia exhibited by policy makers and convinced that a solution was urgently needed, these younger scientists—who had left their independent research and turned their attention to mercury problems—entered the mainstream debate and argued vociferously for more radical responses to mercury pollution.  Coming from disparate backgrounds, they came to refer to themselves (not at all self-consciously) as the “Mercury Group,” as they fostered working relationships and pushed their findings into the mainstream media.

In August 2009, I traveled to Stockholm and met with four members of the mercury group at the home of Göran Löfroth.  It was the first time that Löfroth, Hans Ackefors, Carl-Gustav Rosen, and Nils-Erik Landell had sat down together in almost forty years (though they had stayed in touch).  Over the course of a meal and a couple of hours of discussion, they reminisced on their collective efforts to effect a policy response to the mercury problem as it emerged in the 1960s. There was something very moving about the session, as these now elderly men shared their memories and reconnected after many years. In many respects, it is one of the most rewarding professional experiences I have enjoyed. The main text includes excerpts from an oral history I conducted with these four protagonists of the Swedish mercury case.