Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day! - Who Was the Original Founder?

Glorious sun after heavy spring rains.

First of all...Happy Earth Day. And what a year for it. Seems like everyone is back in tune with Earth Day, a revitalization if you will. But how did the Earth Day idea get started? What's its history? Who was the original founder and organizer? Who concocted this crazy idea anyway?

If you look up or "google" Earth Day you'll find several sites with historical information about Earth day. Most of the information talks about the troubled times of Vietnam and how the environment was degrading - the Litter Bug campaign was failing. In steps a Senator. The major name associated with Earth Day is Gaylord Nelson Senator from Wisconsin. Denis Hayes was in charge of the event and the rest..well.. is history...almost.

It's kind of unusual that a Senator comes up with an idea like this - a grass roots (let's have a party) and rock against the establishment sort of event. After a little digging there does indeed happen to be more to the story.

Ever hear of Morton Hilbert? Probably not. Well this is the man who actually laid the ground work, no, did the work for the first Earth Day. Gaylord was the one who "proclaimed" the day to get National attention and poor Mort never got much credit.

Morton Hilbert was an associate Professor of Environmental and Industrial Health at the University of Michigan and eventually became Chair of the Department. Here are some quotes about Morton Hilbert's involvement at the time beginning in 1968:

"Earth Day had its beginnings that year in a conference sponsored by the U.S. Public Health Service. "

"Mr. Hilbert served as a consultant at the conference in Washington, D.C., that drew 150 people to hear scientists discuss the effects of environmental degradation on human health."

"He helped several students obtain a government grant and met with them regularly for two years to establish the first Earth Day in April 1970. Former Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson sponsored the federal proclamation of the day, widely considered the beginning of the modern environmental movement."

This was 2 years before the actual 1970 Earth Day. And from his Obit:

"Materials related to Earth Day consist of newspaper articles about the event and Hilbert's involvement in establishing it and a photograph of those who participated in the founding seminar."

"In 1968, Hilbert and the U.S. Public Health Service organized an environmental conference for students to hear from scientists about the effects of environmental degradation on human health. This was the beginning of Earth Day. For the next two years, Hilbert and students worked to plan the first Earth Day. In spring 1970—supported by a federal proclamation from U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson—the first Earth Day was held."

Some of the articles (there aren't many) refer to him as Co-founder perhaps out of respect for Gaylord who really brought the idea National attention. However I think this academic who seems to have done all the ground work and had the passion deserves most the credit.

Morton Hilbert was also a Unitarian.

So the idea of Earth Day did start with a small number of people and grew 30 years later to an eye opening National event. What's that saying about never underestimate what a small group of people can do?

Thank you Morton Hilbert. We'll do our best to carry on your dreams.
Happy Earth Day. Go make him proud.


Stephanie Hilbert said...

Thank you for this wonderful tribute to my husband! This was an outstanding thanksgiving gift. We have donated most of his papers to the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. Hopefully, we will have a Wikipedia site soon, and we will be sure to link it to your page.

Thanks again!

Best Wishes & Cheers,

Stephanie M. Hilbert

Real Green Girl Activist said...

Absolutely my pleasure and an outstanding gift to receive your comment. I do hope I did this visionary husband of yours justice and should there be any inaccuracies or additions, do tell! And behind this great man was you.
Thanks so much.