Caltech Geochemist Clair Patterson Awarded Tyler Prize In Recognition Of His Work On Health Risks From Lead

In Recognition Of His Work On Health Risks From Lead Clair C. Patterson, 72, a professor of geology at the California Institute of Technology's division of geological and planetary sciences, has been awarded the 1995 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. Patterson was presented the honor--a gold medal and $150,000--on April 28 at a ceremony in Los Angeles. EMPHASIZING EDUCATION: William Wiley hopes to establish Sigma Xi as an intellectual resource for teachers and legislators at various c

May 1, 1995
Karen Young Kreeger

In Recognition Of His Work On Health Risks From Lead Clair C. Patterson, 72, a professor of geology at the California Institute of Technology's division of geological and planetary sciences, has been awarded the 1995 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. Patterson was presented the honor--a gold medal and $150,000--on April 28 at a ceremony in Los Angeles.


EMPHASIZING EDUCATION: William Wiley hopes to establish Sigma Xi as an intellectual resource for teachers and legislators at various centers.
The Tyler Prize was established in 1973 by Alice Tyler--who died last year--and her husband, John, the founder and chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based Farmers Insurance Group. John Tyler died in 1973. Since 1993, the Tyler Prize has been administered by the University of Southern California through an endowment.

The prize honors accomplishments in the fields of environmental study and protection. Patterson is being recognized for his role in exposing the ubiquity of lead from human sources in the environment and its threat to human health. "This particular award relates to the development of knowledge concerning how we humans have used engineering technology in a way that's not considerate of the natural processes that operate within the diverse biota of the Earth," he says.

He began studying lead long before he embarked on the environmental science portion of his career. In the mid-1950s at Caltech, where he began as a research fellow in 1952, Patterson and colleagues devised a method to determine the age of the Earth using measurements of lead isotopes found in pieces of iron meteorites that struck the Earth thousands of years ago. From these data he determined that the planet is approximately 4.6 billion years old, a figure that is now generally accepted by the scientific community and has stood up to the scrutiny of subsequent geochronological tests. This work was first described in the paper "Age of meteorites and the earth" (C. Patterson, Geochimica et Cosmochima Acta, 10:230-7, 1956), which has been cited in more than 160 publications.

Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Patterson continued to investigate the geochemistry of environmental lead in such mediums as seawater and the Earth's crust. It was this work that led him to question how much of the lead he was detecting was a natural, background level as opposed to coming from such sources as industrial air pollution, thus marking the beginning of his work in environmental science.

According to Patterson, the paper that "started it all" was "Contaminated and natural lead environments of man" (C. Patterson, Archives of Environmental Health, 11:344-60, 1965), which has been cited in more than 230 articles to date.

Patterson's studies have taken him all over the world. From sampling Antarctic ice to the bones of a 1,600-year-old Peruvian Indian, he has shown that significant increases in environmental lead correspond with a rise in human usage of the element.

"These discoveries will affect the health of not just thousands or millions, but hundreds of millions of people for decades to come," he maintains. In fact, studies by Patterson and his colleagues have been credited with increasing public awareness of the dangers of environmental lead and inspiring the creation of safer products, such as unleaded gasoline and lead-free paints.

In addition to the Tyler Prize, he has received many other honors, including the J. Lawrence Smith Medal for the investigation of meteoric bodies, from the National Academy of Sciences in 1975; he was named a member of the academy in 1987.

For his contributions to science and geology, Patterson has two honorary namesakes: Patterson Peak in the Queen Maude Mountains in Antarctica and Asteroid Patterson.

He received his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1950.

--Karen Young Kreeger