Norton Nelson's Legacy: The Science of Environmental Health

By Garte, Seymour; Goldstein, Bernard D. et al. | Environmental Health Perspectives, February 2006 | Go to article overview

Norton Nelson's Legacy: The Science of Environmental Health


Garte, Seymour, Goldstein, Bernard D., Lioy, Paul, Lippmann, Morton, Environmental Health Perspectives


The field of environmental health science is now a recognized and respected branch of science in American and worldwide academia. One of the pioneers who had a major role in the establishment of environmental health as a true scientific discipline was Norton Nelson, the founder and first chair of the Department and the Institute of Environmental Medicine at New York University (NYU), which now bears his name. Among his many accomplishments, he played a leading role in the formulation of legislation that created the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) (Lippmann 2001). We would like to remind readers of some of the basic principles that Nelson and other pioneers of the new discipline invoked in order to establish environmental health science as an important discipline and to overcome barriers to acceptance of the field as a true science by those in other disciplines.

By early in the second half of the twentieth century, it was apparent that the issues raised by the effects of the chemical and physical environment on human health could not be addressed by a single branch of scientific research. Instead, such issues transcend the variety of quite disparate and nonoverlapping fields, each with separate and diverse methodologies, conceptual frameworks, and scientific cultures. These included toxicology, physiology, pharmacology, industrial hygiene, occupational medicine, epidemiology, exposure assessment, radiation and health physics, analytical chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, ecology, and others that developed more recently, such as molecular biology and exposure science. The multidisciplinary nature of the issues and methodologies involved in environmental health science leads to the question of how the field and the scientists working in it can be defined. When Nelson began to organize his department at NYU, there was no clear answer to this question.

Especially after the peaking of interest in ecology and the environment that followed the first Earth Day in 1970, some colleges and universities, established "environmental studies" as an academic theme. The approach in many such programs was to combine ecology with social and political aspects of air and water pollution, as well as a sprinkling of toxicology, industrial hygiene, and statistics. Nelson's approach was different. While acknowledging that environmental health science by its nature must be an interdisciplinary field, he insisted that the practitioners of research and teaching in his department first, be highly trained in a basic science (e.g., biology, engineering), and then, as a second layer of training and expertise, acquire some significant degree of knowledge of other areas included in the realm of environmental health sciences. Nelson's mission was to assemble--first within his own institute and then throughout the country--a cadre of specialists in epidemiology, toxicology, engineering, chemistry, and so on who would interact with each other and devote their expertise to solving environmental health problems.

As far as training new scientists for careers in environmental health science is concerned, Nelson always maintained that such training programs should be based on in-depth training in one of the major environmental health science specialties with electives in the others. For Nelson, an environmental health science researcher could be, for example, a toxicologist who is familiar with the techniques and current issues in environmental epidemiology and some health physics, and could understand a seminar on exposure assessment. Nelson's own expertise in so many fields left many who knew him wondering what his original scientific training had been. In fact, his graduate degree was in biochemistry, a field in which he made significant contributions to the basic literature.

Nelson's ideal was that every environmental health scientist should be on an equal footing with his/her peers in a chosen specialty, with the difference that he/she was also knowledgeable in several other fields also related to environmental health science. …

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