Clair Patterson should be better known. He (yes, he) is a hero of science. He was the first to accurately calculate the age of the Earth (at 4.55 billion years) through lead/uranium levels in meteorites. To do this he had to measure the amounts of these elements very carefully, so he created the first sterile lab in the process.

His curiosity piqued by working with lead, the man invented ice core study so he could examine atmospheric lead levels. His knowledge of lead contamination led him to campaign to ban lead in petrol and paint. Not a bad legacy for a geologist eh?

You would have thought these achievements would bring garlands and fame. But his fight to ban lead brought Patterson up against the lead industry. The influence of the Ethyl Corporation meant he couldn’t get research contracts. The United States Public Health Service, supposedly a neutral scientific body, shunned him.

The National Research Council put together a panel on atmospheric lead contamination but neglected to appoint Patterson to it, despite him being the leading expert in the field.

Years later he was finally allowed onto the panel and lobbied successfully for the changes that have since freed us from lead pollution. Patterson’s story is told in Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.

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