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.



The Lighter Side of the Academy

The following likely deserves a more serious investigation of the relationships between technology and society—and especially technology within the academy. Time is flying in more ways than one. A couple of weeks ago already, I was in Madison, WI, for the American Society for Environmental History annual meeting. Due to some other writing commitments, I was scrambling at the last minute to get my own presentation together (I’ll share more on that another time), which concentrated on the politics of determining environmental risk from mercury exposure on Lake St. Clair. Lake St. Clair falls on the border between the United States and Canada, so there were some interesting jurisdictional differences in the responses to mercury’s discovery in 1970.


Now, when you’re talking about environmental pollution on the Great Lakes, Lake St. Clair doesn’t spring immediately to mind. First, while it’s tucked between Lakes Huron and Erie, it’s not particularly great (relatively speaking; beyond this case study, I’ve not spent much time exploring the lake. It could be great, but it’s not Great). Fifth Beatle kind of status? Probably not even that.

But I’m getting sidetracked. I felt it might be worthwhile to have some kind of visual aid in order to help my audience situate Lake St. Clair. The last-minute nature of my preparation (and let this be a lesson that last-minute work can never replace good, diligent, and more timely preparation) meant that a slideshow was out of the question, so I elected to bring a couple of overhead transparencies. This is another feature of time flying. Every conference I can recall attending has raised the issue of access to LCD projectors and laptops and the logistical (and likely cost) problems associated with having them available in every conference room. But overheads: now there’s a simple and widely accessible technology.

No overhead projector in the room. As a result, I had some pretty useless 8×11 transparencies that were pretty small and pretty invisible. Thanks to my friend and colleague Jody Roberts at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, who sprang into action as a good session chair should, I used his iPad as backlight to show the transparencies (this in mockish play). Thanks to my friend and colleague Claire Campbell at Dalhousie University, I have a visual record of this lame attempt (mockish play here, too, I suspect).

I blame the resolution of the picture for the lack of clarity; from my angle, the maps looked great (even if St. Clair is a little less than so). Now, I could provide a more heroic account of these events if I were to twist the historical record a little. The next day, my laptop was stolen out of my hotel room (which is the primary reason I’ve been relatively quiet over the past fortnight on the blog). In that light (and in a more liberal ordering of chronological events), I could suggest that even in spite of the theft of my laptop, I was still ready for my presentation with back-up transparencies. That would be the better story. And tempting as it is to “print the legend,” the historian in me is constrained to defer to an accurate recording of events. I’m a dinosaur and not a terribly organized one at that.

Lessons (whatever they were) learned…