In retrospect: Arthur Galston and the fight against Agent Orange

The former UI PhD student inadvertently helped create Agent Orange, then became it’s sharpest critic.

By Matt Troher, Interim Features Editor

Introduction and Early Life

In certain parts of Illinois, when the wind blows in just the right direction, the smell of soybeans becomes overwhelming. Champaign-Urbana is one of those places.

Illinois is one of the country’s foremost soybean producers, with the state’s farmers raising 672.6 million bushels of soybeans in 2021 alone. Last year’s production, equivalent to roughly 40 billion pounds, was the highest in the country. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where the crossroads of academic and agricultural research lie, drives much of the state’s research on the crop. 

On the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Dorner Drive sits a prominent yet unassuming building — the National Soybean Research Center — a testament to the college town’s support of the crop. 

Dr. Donald Ort, a professor of plant biology at the University, spoke to the region’s predisposition to soybeans, citing central Illinois’ geographical location and uniquely fertile soil.

“The reason to do soybean (research) here is it’s right where 40% of the world’s soybeans are produced,” Ort said. “One of the reasons why this particular area of Illinois, in addition to having the right geographical location, also has these incredible soils — these are some of the best soils in the world. That’s just geological record. After the glaciers (melted), most of the soil blew in from other areas.”

From the soybeans of Illinois came one of U.S. foreign policy’s most egregious offenses. Research conducted in a central Illinois lab sparked a chain reaction, affecting millions of people thousands of miles and an ocean away. 

Through research conducted by Arthur Galston, a Ph.D. student at the University from 1940 to 1943, came the invention of Agent Orange, a herbicide used during the Vietnam War which caused health problems in millions of Vietnamese in the wake of the war. 

Galston, a dedicated botanist, never intended for his research to be used this way. Toiling away in a laboratory, Galston never imagined the implications of his work extending to the antisocial and the militaristic. He tried to stop it. He succeeded, although too little too late, discovering even the most innocuous of discoveries has the potential to be used for harm.

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Arthur Galson was born in 1920 to a small Jewish family in Brooklyn, N.Y. His parents, Hyman and Freda Galston, had high hopes for the young Arthur, urging their son to become either a doctor or a lawyer. 

But the Great Depression hit hard; Hyman had lost his job, and Arthur’s sisters quit schooling to support the family.

“I knew there was no way on God’s green earth that I could get the support to go to college and medical school,” Galston said in a 2002 interview. 

Toward the end of the depression, Arthur struck a compromise. He learned that tuition at Cornell’s veterinary school was free for residents of New York state. Although he was not overjoyed by the prospect of studying veterinary medicine, he applied, looking for a way to a prosperous life. He was accepted and started at Cornell in 1938.

Cornell’s veterinary medicine students were initially enrolled for a year of pre-vet study, fed through Cornell’s agricultural college. During his year of pre-vet courses, Galston became enamored with Dr. Loren Petry, a botany professor. 

Petry, a Quaker who would run evening discussions in the Cornell student union, was everything a young Galston wanted to be. He decided to pursue botany, maintaining enrollment in Cornell’s agricultural college and graduating with a bachelor’s of science in botany in 1940. Throughout his career, Galston was known to keep a framed photograph of Petry in his offices.

A successful student during his undergraduate years, Galston applied to a variety of schools for postgraduate study in botany. The University of Illinois was the only one to offer him a teaching assistantship, which was how he planned to pay for graduate school. He accepted, boarded a Greyhound bus and made his way to Champaign.

He arrived at Illinois in the fall of 1940, where he worked alongside his advisors: Dr. Harry Fuller, a plant physiologist, and Dr. Otto Tippo, a botanist. His research focused on finding a chemical means to make soybeans flower and fruit faster, culminating in his dissertation entitled “Physiology of flowering, with special reference to floral initiation in soybeans.”

Throughout his research, Galston discovered that a molecular compound called 2,3,5-triiodobenzoic acid (commonly known as TIBA) speeds up the flowering of soybeans. Galston also discovered that an over-application of TIBA would kill the soybean.

Due to the ongoing World War, graduate students at land-grant universities earned their degrees in an expedited process, with some segments of academia contributing increasing amounts of resources to military use. Dr. Fuller, one of Galston’s advisors, was sent to South America for war-related research and was unavailable during much of Galston’s time at Illinois. Galston received his master’s in ’42 and his Ph.D. in botany in ’43.

As Galston was finishing up his degree from Illinois and his mentor was off in South America for wartime research, the U.S. Military was developing a program to study and develop synthetic rubber.

Natural rubber derives from Hevea Brasiliensis (commonly known as the rubber tree), which is most commonly found in Malaysia, at the time occupied by the British. Furthermore, most of British-occupied Malaysia’s rubber plantations were captured by the Japanese Imperial Army, leading to a rubber shortage for the Allied Powers. Rubber, essential to modern warfare, quickly became a military priority.

Dr. James Bonner, a biologist at the California Institute of Technology, was tapped by the military to lead the artificial rubber research program. Dr. Herbert Carter, a biochemist at Illinois, happened to know both Bonner and Galston and recommended Galston to the program. Galston was accepted and spent a year working with Bonner at Caltech.

Galston and Bonner’s research in this area was largely left unapplied; the pair focused on deriving alternative rubber from guayule, a type of woody shrub, while the military preferred petroleum-based rubber. Still, this was the beginning of Galston’s long and tumultuous professional relationship with the U.S. Military.

In July of 1944, Galston was drafted into the U.S. Navy as an enlisted man. He served as a Natural Resources Officer, stationed in Okinawa, until his honorable discharge in 1946. Galston returned to civilian life, serving as an instructor at Yale for a year until he was offered a position as a senior research fellow at Caltech.

While back at Caltech, Galston made his mark in the botanical field, identifying riboflavin as a photoreceptor involving the bending of plants toward light, overturning a commonly held belief in the field that carotene was responsible for this phenomenon. This reversal of previously-held scientific belief established Galston’s name in the field, yet it would remain only the second most important discovery of his career.

TIBA, the chemical his dissertation research centered on, would go on to have impacts far beyond what Galston imagined from his lab in central Illinois.

Agent Orange

Scorched-earth strategies have been practiced by militaries since antiquity, aiming to destroy anything that can be useful to enemy combatants — mostly food stores and agricultural sites. 

Around 370 B.C., the Greek general Xenophon recorded that Armenian troops burnt crops and destroyed food stores to gain a military advantage. As warfare developed in the later half of the 20th century, scorched-earth took to the skies as herbicidal warfare was introduced to the battlefield.

The British army experimented in using chemical defoliants during the Malayan Emergency — a guerilla conflict fought between pro-independence Malayans and the British military — when attempting to remove foliage from ambush sites. Surrounding the period of British use, conversations arose in the British parliament regarding whether herbicidal warfare violated the Geneva Convention. Nevertheless, the U.S. considered British precedent as rule and decided using chemical defoliants was a legal warfare tactic.

In 1943, when Galston was working at Caltech on rubber research, he was also contracted by the U.S. Military to extend his doctoral research and study the effects of 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid and 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, respectively) on cereal grains and broadleaf crops.

The U.S. Military developed the idea of using aerial applications of herbicides to destroy enemy crops and disrupt their food supply from these studies, although Galston was left in the dark as to the potential applications of his research.

While Galston was deployed in Okinawa, the U.S. Military continued research where he left off. In 1945, the U.S. Army ran tests of various mixtures of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D at Bushnell Army Airfield in Florida. With Galston back to civilian life at Yale and Caltech, the U.S. Military committed to a full-scale production of the mixture of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D most efficient at defoiling, with the intent to use the mixture in Japan had the war continued into the following year.

The mixture, equal parts 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, had a distinctive orange hue from which it would derive its common name — Agent Orange.

In the years following World War II, the U.S. Military conducted field trials at British stations in British-occupied India and Australia to document the chemical’s effects in tropical conditions, laying the groundwork for what was to come.

By the onset of the Korean War, the U.S. Military was prepared to use the chemical compound but didn’t receive approval from Eisenhower nor Truman. John F. Kennedy, however, approved use in Vietnam.

Inspired by the British, the U.S. Military decided to use herbicidal warfare in part of their campaign during the Vietnam War. Dubbed “Operation Ranch Hand,” the U.S. Military deployed roughly 19 million gallons of herbicide in rural South Vietnam to deprive the Viet Cong of both food and foliage cover. 

Of the 19 million gallons of herbicide deployed, roughly 11 million gallons were Agent Orange. Over 6 million acres of Vietnamese crops were sprayed with herbicides throughout the operation.

Bioethics

In 1955, Galston took a full professorship at Yale — partly to be closer to his family, who still lived in Brooklyn. While Galston was at Yale studying auxin physiology and photobiology, the Vietnam War escalated from a foreign conflict to an American-involved proxy war, with Galston’s research playing a major role in the war’s development.

During his first few years at Yale, Galston slowly became aware of the research conducted by the military which was based on his dissertation on TIBA. He was immediately concerned about the applications of his research, and these concerns only grew over the course of the war. Galston knew there was a lack of research into the side-effects that exposure to Agent Orange could cause in humans and feared what the herbicide’s liberal application in Vietnam could cause.

By the mid-1960s, with Operation Ranch Hand in full effect, Galston could not stand by and watch and began lobbying to end the use of Agent Orange. He publicly noted that the Geneva Protocol of 1925 stated: “The use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gasses, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world.” 

Although the U.S. participated in the writing of the protocol, the U.S. never ratified it, rendering his argument void. However, Galston also argued that the use of Agent Orange violated the United Nations Resolution of December 5, 1966, which the nation did ratify. 

At the 1966 annual meeting of the American Society of Plant Physiologists, Galston proposed that the society send a formal letter of inquiry to President Lyndon B. Johnson. The society voted the proposal down. 

Galston, who held some sway with the society after serving as their president in 1962, was indignant at the group’s disinterest in submitting a formal inquiry. Galston later found that Robert Bandurski, the society’s president at the time of the meeting, held a research contract with Fort Derrick (the military’s center of the U.S. biological weapons program) to study defoliation.

Galston broke rank with the society and gathered a group of roughly a dozen colleagues to send the letter independently. Galston, co-signed by his colleagues, wrote: “The undersigned plant physiologists wish to make known to you their serious misgivings concerning the alleged use of chemical herbicides for the destruction of food crops and for defoliation operations in Vietnam … The toxicology of some herbicides is such that one cannot assert that there are no deleterious effects on human and domestic animal populations. It is safe to say that massive use of chemical herbicides can upset the ecology of an entire region, and in the absence of more definite information, such an upset could be catastrophic.”

In September of 1966, Galston received a response from Dixon Donnelley, the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, which read: “Chemical herbicides are being used in Vietnam to clear jungle growth and to reduce the hazards of ambush by Viet Cong forces. The chemicals are used extensively in most countries by both the Free World and the Communist Bloc for selective control of undesirable vegetation. They are not harmful to people, animals, soil or water.”

Galston, disappointed with Donnelley’s response, was not convinced of his claims. He was familiar with these chemicals and believed their over-application would lead to harmful side effects.

In 1970, along with Matthew Meselson, a molecular biologist at Harvard University, Galston successfully lobbied the Department of Defense to research the toxicology of Agent Orange — eight years after the U.S. Military began using the chemical in Vietnam.

The Department of Defense was slow to release their findings. Yet, according to the New York Times, the resulting research found a causal link between Agent Orange and birth defects in lab rats. Then-President Richard Nixon banned use of Agent Orange in 1971, four years before the end of the war and nine years after the toxic chemical had first been dropped in Vietnam. 

Galston’s scientific career had a fraught relationship with public and foreign policy — his research led to the development of a uniquely harmful chemical weapon, yet his advocacy led to the cessation of that weapon’s use. According to Dr. Ort, the desire to influence policy through science is nearly universal yet seldom actualized.

“I think, the positive aspects of Galston’s career, it’s an aspiration for many of us,” Ort said. “When we do science and we understand things, we would like to influence public policy. It’s more aspirational than reality. Part of academic research is having science influence policy, but it doesn’t happen all that often.”

Roughly 4.9 million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange throughout the duration of the war. 

The International Red Cross estimates that roughly 1 million Vietnamese people became disabled or suffered long-term health consequences due to Agent Orange. The United States disputes this figure.

Prevailing research led by Dr. Nguyen Viet Nhan, a Vietnamese researcher, asserts that children born in areas where Agent Orange was deployed have been affected by health problems, including mental disabilities, cleft palate, neural tube defects, spina bifida hernias and extra fingers and toes. Additional research by American biologist Joe Thorton asserts that high levels of dioxin — a toxic chemical pollutant — were found in the breastmilk of South Vietnamese women and in the blood of U.S. veterans.

Roughly 12,000 square miles of Vietnam were sprayed with Agent Orange during the course of the war — 17.8% of the nation’s total forested area. Residual dioxins from Agent Orange made reforestation nearly impossible, as the loss of tree cover led to large amounts of erosion. Aggressive invasive species, such as bamboo, only made reforestation more difficult. 

Dioxins remain in Vietnemese soil to this day, with Agent Orange’s societal and ecological impact still being felt.

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Galston did not cease advocating for bioethics after Nixion’s decision. In 1971, Galston, along with Dr. Ethan Singer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was invited to China on a historic visit. The two became the first American scientists to visit China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, signifying that Galston’s outspoken criticism of the war extended beyond the American scientific community.

Galston taught bioethics at Yale from 1977 until his retirement in 2004, where he served as the chair of the former botany and biology departments. The 2003–2004 section of his introduction to bioethics class attracted 460 students, one of the university’s largest classes according to the Yale Daily News.

Biology, ethics and politics coalesced when Galston became affiliated with the Yale Institution for Social and Policy Studies, where he helped found the interdisciplinary center for bioethics.

Dr. Scott Holley, a professor at Yale and the chair of Yale’s molecular, cellular and developmental biology department, noted that the impact of Galston’s career extended far beyond what is typical for a scientist in the field.

“It’s rare that scientists end up in that position where you make a discovery in a lab that ends up having such a broad impact,” Holley said. “Normally, we’re making small discoveries that cumulatively, with other small discoveries, build up over time to advance our understanding of biology. It’s rare that you get something that has such a massive effect.”

Holley also noted that most scientists never imagine for their work to be used in manners they don’t approve of and that Galston’s position throughout his career was a unique one.

“For him to all of the sudden find his work was being used in a way he didn’t approve — it’s hard for me to think about how that would affect me as a scientist if I were in his shoes,” Holley said.

Galston saw it as his duty to both science and mankind to follow the story of his research through to its end. To Galston, science and social responsibility were not two mutually exclusive topics. The two were intertwined with each other, and it was the duty of the scientist to see their work — and all its applications — through to the end.

“In my view, the only recourse for a scientist concerned about the social consequences of his work is to remain involved with it to the end,” he wrote in “Science and Social Responsibility”, an essay published in 1972. “Science is now too potent in transforming our world to permit random fallout of the social consequences of scientific discoveries … As a plant physiologist involved in early work on this type of compound, I felt compelled to involve myself in the continuing investigation and occasional agitation on this question.”

 

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