Environmental Conflict in History
By Mark Neuzil, Ph.D., St. Thomas University and Bill Kovarik,
Ph.D., Radford University. See updated original source: click here.
Note: Concern for the environment is not a recent
phenomena. This timeline is designed to show the many events that occured
before1962 publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
For more information, write to Bill Kovarik at: email@example.com
- Dust and wood smoke create a visible pall over large pre-industrial towns
and cities. Thermal inversions and dry, windless weather often create what
Romans called "heavy heaven." Odors from garbage, sewage and industries such
as smelting or tanning also fouls air.
- Mohenjo Darro civilization in India, 2500 B.C., had universal sewer
system. Some cities, especially in Babylonia and Israel, have strict rules
about sanitation. Others, such as Greek and Roman classical cities, use
streets for sewers and occasionally build sewer mains.
- Roman Senate, 80 A.D., passes law to protect water stored during dry
periods for street and sewer cleaning. Aqueducts built because springs and
- Hillsides in China and Peru are terraced to prevent soil erosion in
- 1306 -- Edward I forbids coal burning when English Parliament in session.
- 1300s -- First English game laws written.
- 1640 -- Izaak Walton writes The Compleat Angler.
- 1661 -- John Evelyn writes "Fumifugium, or the Inconvenience of the Aer
and Smoake of London Dissipated" to propose remedies for London's air
- 1663 -- Paris becomes first European city with extensive sewer system.
- 1681 -- William Penn requires Pennsylvania settlers to preserve one acre
of trees for every five acres cleared.
- 1739-- Benjamin Franklin and neighbors petition Pennsylvania Assembly to
stop waste dumping and remove tanneries from Philadelphia's commercial
district. Foul smell, lower property values, disease and interference with
fire fighting are cited. Franklin wins symbolic battle but dumping goes on.
- 1741 -- Foundling Hospital of London established. Other children's
hospitals in Germany and France built, showing concern for infant mortality.
By 1800, infant mortality in one London hospital dropped from 66 per thousand
to 13 per thousand
- 1748-1762 -- Jared Eliot, clergyman and physician, writes Essays on Field
Husbandry in New England, promoting soil conservation.
- 1750s -- Gin Lane by William Hogarth spurs social reform in England;
newspaper editorials help reformers.
- 1751 -- Gin Acts give magistrates control over licensing pubs in Britain.
- 1762-1769 -- Philadelphia committee led by Benjamin Franklin attempts to
regulate waste disposal and water pollution.
- 1775 -- English scientist Percival Pott finds that coal is causing an
unusually high incidence of cancer among chimney sweeps.
- 1767 -- English physician George Baker (with help from Benjamin Franklin)
traces notorious "Devonshire colic" to lead poisoning from cider mills built
with lead linings.
- 1777 -- John Howard, sheriff of Bedfordshire, writes State of the Prisons
, an early example of "... An aroused public opinion [that] could be employed
as a lever to compel reform."
- 1779 -- Johann Peter Frank (1745-1821), writes A Complete System of
Medical Policy in Germany advocating governmental responsibility for clean
water, sewage systems, garbage disposal, food inspection and other health
measures under an authoritative "medical police."
- 1789 -- Benjamin Franklin leaves money in a widely publicized codicil to
his will to build fresh water pipeline to Philadelphia due to the link between
bad water and disease. Within a few years, one quarter of the population of
the town dies in a yellow fever epidemic.
- 1791 -- The New York state assembly closes the hunting season on the heath
hen. The species is extinct by the early 1900s.
- 1799 -- Manhattan Company formed to build water line. Company survives as
Chase Manhattan Bank.
- 1800s -- First modern municipal sewers built in London, but water supply
still frequently contaminated.
- 1803 -- Louisiana Purchase.
- 1804 -- First Health Inspector in U.S. appointed in New York.
- 1817-- U.S. Secretary of Navy authorized to reserve lands producing
hardwoods for constructing naval ships.
- 1818 -- Massachusetts bans the hunting of robins and horned larks, both
- 1819 -- British Parliamentary committee concerned that steam engines and
furnaces "could work in a manner less prejudicial to public health." Although
alternatives were found, nothing was done.
- 1820 -- Reformer and Parliamentarian Jeremy Bentham writes The
Constitutional Code, including proposals for reforming London medical
assistance system and water, sewer and public works districts. Many find his
proposals for social engineering distastefully autocratic.
- 1823 -- James Fenimore Cooper writes The Pioneers, which contains the idea
that humans should "govern the resources of nature by certain principles in
order to conserve them."
- 1827 --; French scientist J.B. Fourier outlines atmospheric process by
which earth's temperature is altered, using a hothouse analogy.
- 1832 -- Arkansas Hot Springs established as a national reservation,
setting a precedent for Yellowstone and eventually, a national park system.
- 1834 -- New York bans the use of batteries (scatter guns the size of
cannons) in duck hunting, but ban is repealed the following year.
- 1835 -- Ralph Waldo Emerson writes the essay Nature.
- 1837 -- Benjamin McCready writes pioneering essay on occupational medicine
and conditions of New York city slums.
- 1842 -- Edwin Chadwick writes The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring
Population of Great Britain. Report is first scientific inquiry, about
infectious disease, child mortality and the link to polluted water supplies
and lack of sanitation.
- 1842 -- English engineers lay out sewer system in Hamburg, Germany, and
English system of house by house sewer lines adopted elsewhere in Europe.
- 1843 -- Royal Commission inquiries begin, dreadful working conditions,
child labor, public health problems exposed.
- 1845 -- Massachusetts Sanitary Commission formed; survey of Boston slums
shows high infant and maternal mortality rates as well as many communicable
diseases. A second report in 1850 confirms findings. In 1869 a the first state
board of health is established.
- 1845 -- Death of Johnny Appleseed, who planted apple trees across Ohio and
Indiana for nearly 50 years.
- 1848 -- Public Health Act is passed by a reluctant Parliament fearful of
spread of cholera. National Board of Health and local boards to regulate water
supply, sewerage, offensive trades. Smoke abatement becomes a political
responsibility of the health department.
- 1850 -- U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service founded; among the first
attempts to regulate technology on behalf of public safety.
- 1852 -- Mother of the Forest giant sequoia tree chopped down in Calaveras
Grove of Big Trees in what would become Yellowstone National Park.
- 1854 -- Henry David Thoreau writes Walden.
- 1854 -- John Snow, London doctor, maps spread of cholera in Broad Street
neighborhood, traces cases to a contaminated drinking water pump. Snow's
epidemiological studies support "contagionist" views, partly supplanting
"sanitarian" views about public health.
- 1855 -- First comprehensive city sewer plan in U.S. in Chicago. By 1905,
all U.S. towns with population over 4,000 have city sewers. Baltimore sewer
system, begun 1915, last city to build comprehensive system.
- 1857 -- State of Vermont commissions study on depleted fish populations in
Connecticut River. George Perkins Marsh gets the job.
- 1858 -- The "Great Stink" of sewage in the Thames spurs work of British
Royal Commission on Sewage Disposal.
- 1861 -- Civil War tax imposed on alcohol-based camphene lamp fuel, vastly
increasing demand for new fuel from petroleum called "sun fuel" or "kerosene."
- 1863 -- George Perkins Marsh writes Man and Nature: The Earth as Modified
by Human Action, with emphasis on forest preservation and soil and water
- 1863 -- Air pollution from British chemical industry spurs feeble Alkali
Act, allowing government agents to question industry and suggest improvements;
no actual regulations over air pollution until act is revised in 1906.
- 1864 -- Federal government grants state of California land for Yosemite
- 1866 -- Founding of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to
- 1867 -- Pennsylvania legislature rejects bill to regulate water pollution,
despite heavy industrial pollution in Delaware River.
- 1869 -- Massachusetts State Board of Health formed. Ellen Swallow
Richards, public health crusader, takes thousands of water and food samples
for the Board of Health.
- 1860s - 1880s -- French scientist Louis Pasteur's germ theory of disease
revolutionizes concepts of public health, making it possible to isolate and
treat specific diseases.
- 1870 -- First coal mine safety laws passed in Pennsylvania following a
fire that suffocated 179 men.
- 1871 -- U.S. Fish Commission formed to study decline of coastal fisheries.
- 1872 -- American Public Health Association formed.
- 1872 -- President Grant signs Yellowstone National Park bill.
- 1873 -- London fog kills 1,150. Similar incidents in 1880, 1882, 1891 and
- 1873 -- Henry Winchester invents the repeating rifle.
- 1874 -- German graduate student Othmar Zeider discovers chemical formula
- 1875 -- British Publish Health Act consolidates authority to deal with
pollution, occupational disease, and other problems.
- 1876 -- American Forestry Association campaigns to cut timber on
government reserves, American Association for the Advancement of Science calls
for federal legislation to protect timberlands. • British River Pollution
Control Act makes it illegal to dump sewage into a stream.
- 1877 -- Massachusetts passes the first factory inspection law, with 22
states following over the next 20 years.
- 1878 -- Iowa enacts first state bag limit law, limiting hunters to 25
prairie chickens and other game birds per day.
- 1880s -- First U.S. municipal smoke abatement laws aimed at reducing black
smoke and ash from factories, railroads and ships. Regulation under local
boards of health.
- 1882 -- Massachusetts passes first pure food laws, inspired by
investigations of Ellen Swallow Richards.
- 1885 -- U.S. Biological Survey created out of concern over depletion of
buffalo and passenger pigeon.
- 1885 -- Bureau of Labor Statistics established in Department of Labor.
- 1886 -- First Audubon societies formed by George Bird Grinnell.
- 1886 -- Major water rights court ruling in case of Lux and Miller holdings
The Progressive Era
- 1890 -- General Federation of Women's Clubs founded; conservation and
"ecology" among top priorities.
- 1890 -- Yosemite National Park formed; surrounds small California state
park. Two other California national parks created.
- 1891 -- Forest protection bill passes Congress. Thirteen million acres are
set aside by 1893.
- 1892 -- Sierra Club founded.
- 1896 -- George Washington Carver joins Tuskegee Institute, begins research
on industrial uses for farm crops. (See 1935, Henry Ford. )
- 1899 -- Refuse Act prevents certain discharge into streams and places
Corps of Engineers in charge of permits and regulation.
- 1900 -- Lacey Act regulates interstate traffic in wild game, brings
importation of birds and mammals under federal control.
- 1900 -- Wild buffalo population drops to fewer than 40 animals.
- 1900 -- Automobile is welcomed as bringing relief from pollution. New York
City, with 120,000 horses, scrapes up 2.4 million pounds of manure every day.
- 1903 -- President Theodore Roosevelt creates first national wildlife
refuge, on Pelican Island, Florida. In all, by 1909 the Roosevelt
administration creates 42 million acres of national forests, 51 national
wildlife refuges and 18 areas of "special interest," including the Grand
- 1905 -- National Audubon Society organized.
- 1905 -- U.S. Forest Service created.
- 1906 -- Food and Drug Administration founded.
- 1906 --Yosemite Valley comes under federal control after 42 years as a
- 1906 -- 100,000 acres of Alaskan coal land withdrawn from public use; sold
- 1906 -- Tax lifted on alcohol fuel to allow competition with petroleum.
- 1907 --USDA Animal Health and Plant Health Inspection Service founded.
- 1907 -- Smoke Prevention Association of America founded in Chicago.
- 1908 -- White House conference of governors on conservation policy held.
- 1908 --Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius argues that the greenhouse effect
from coal and petroleum use is warming the globe.
- 1909 -- Glasgow, Scotland, winter inversions and smoke accumulations kill
over 1,000. Preparing a report about the incidents, Dr. Harold Antoine Des
Voeux coins term "smog" as a contraction for smoke-fog.
- 1909 -- National Conservation Commission suggests "broad plans... be
adopted providing for a system of waterway improvement."
- 1909 --Charles Van Hise writes The Conservation of Natural Resources.
- 1909 --U.S.-Canada boundary pollution commission established.
- 1909 --Louis Glavis blows whistle on Alaskan coal deal.
- 1909 -- Bureau of Mines founded to promote safety and welfare of miners.
Bureau and the Public Health Service begin studies of lung diseases.
- 1912 -- Bureau of Mines begins first smoke control study.
- 1912 -- Federal Water and Sanitation Investigation Station established in
- 1912 -- National Waterways Commission report recommends waterway
- 1912 -- National Audubon Society begins campaign to boycott hat makers
using endangered tropical bird feathers.
- 1913 -- Migratory Bird Act to regulate hunting runs into controversy;
spring hunting and marketing of hunted birds prohibited; treaty with Canada in
1918 solidifies regulations. Act also prohibits importation of wild bird
feathers for women's fashion into the U.S.
- 1913 -- William T. Hornaday, head of New York Zoological Society, writes
Our Vanishing Wildlife, Its Extermination and Preservation. By 1914,
establishes Permanent Wildlife Protection Fund with grants from Andrew
Carnegie, Henry Ford and George Eastman.
- 1913 -- Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite National Park approved by Congress.
- 1913 -- Weeks-McLean Act gives Secretary of Agriculture power to regulate
- 1914 -- Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Mines, Public Health Service begin
pollution surveys of streams and harbors. Reports filed by early 1920s show an
accumulation of heavy damage from oil dumping, mine runoff, untreated sewage
and industrial waste.
- 1916 -- National Park Service created by Congress.
- 1917 -- Corps of Engineers removed lock gates in old canal in Virginia's
Dismal Swamp, allowing salt water into North Carolina's Currituck Sound, a
major waterfowl estuary. After a fight with the Corps of Engineers,
environmental activists finally persuade Congress in 1930 to restore the gates
and preserve the sound.
- 1920 -- Mineral Leasing Act opens up rich deposits on federal lands for
token rental fees.
- 1920 -- Water Power Act authorizes federal hydroelectric projects.
- 1921 -- General Motors researchers discover tetraethyl lead as an
anti-knock gasoline additive. Despite warnings about its danger, the new
gasoline goes on sale without safety tests within 14 months.
- 1922 -- National Coast Anti Pollution League formed in New Jersey to stop
- 1922 -- Amelia Maggia, first "Radium Girl" victim of U.S. Radium
Corporation, radiation poisoning, dies.
- 1923 -- Izaak Walton League founded, fights Mississippi valley dredging
project with Washington, D.C., lobbying effort.
- 1924 -- Oil Pollution Act passed, prohibiting discharge from any vessel
within the three-mile limit, except by accident.
- 1924 -- Five refinery workers die "violently insane" at Standard Oil
refinery making tetraethyl lead gasoline additive in grossly unsafe
conditions. News surfaces that seven other workers died previously at G.M. and
- 1924 -- Teapot Dome oil leasing scandal breaks out.
- 1925 -- Five more workers die making tetraethyl lead for Ethyl leaded
gasoline in a New Jersey DuPont plant. In May, Surgeon General conference on
leaded gasoline. But the investigation of alternatives is sidetracked and a
hasty report recommends further study.
- 1926 -- First large scale survey of air pollution in U.S., in Salt Lake
- 1926 -- Surgeon General's committee of experts reluctantly permit Ethyl
leaded gasoline back on the fuel market. Recommended further research is never
funded. Public Health experts cry foul, but leaded gasoline stays on the
market until 1986.
- 1927 -- River and Harbor Act gives Corps of Engineers task of surveying
and planning navigation system for inland waters. Previously federal money had
been spent primarily on harbor improvements.
- 1927 -- Five New Jersey women, dying from radium poisoning, file first
lawsuits against U.S. Radium Corp.
- 1928 -- Radium lawsuits settled out of court.
- 1928 -- PHS begins checking air pollution in eastern US cities, reporting
sunlight cut by 20 to 50 percent in New York city.
- 1929 -- Over 100 wildlife sanctuaries consolidated under federal
protection by Norbeck-Anderson Act.
Depression and World War II era
- 1930 -- Meuse River Valley killer smog incident, Belgium, three day
inversion kills 63, with 6,000 made ill.
- 1933 -- Civilian Conservation Corps formed; 2,000 camps opened, trees
planted, roads, fire towers, buildings and bridges constructed. More than 2.5
million people serve until program ends in 1942. Other federal programs,
including the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Soil Conservation Service,
begin during FDR presidency.
- 1935 -- Wilderness Society co-founded by Aldo Leopold and Arthur Carhardt.
- 1935 -- Henry Ford sponsors conference in Dearborn, Mich. creating
National Farm Chemurgic Council, dedicated to industrial use of renewable
agricultural resources. George Washington Carver honored as pioneer, but as an
African American, he is uncomfortable and insists on standing in the back of
- 1936 -- National Wildlife Federation formed.
- 1937 -- Another survey of air pollution in New York shows conditions
- 1937 -- Pittman-Robertson Act passes Congress, provides excise tax on
sporting arms and ammunition for wildlife projects.
- 1939 -- St. Louis smog episode spurs serious smoke abatement campaign,
switch from soft coal to hard coal and fuel oil.
- 1941 -- St. Louis adopts first strict smoke control ordinance in U.S.
- 1941 -- "Action Club" formed to combat pollution from paper mills near
- 1942 -- Controversy over dam that would inundate Cook Forest, a state park
with the last of Pennsylvania's virgin forests.
Post World War II era
- 1945 -- Corps of Engineers abandons Potomac River Project dam after a
storm of controversy and protests from Izaak Walton League, National Parks
Association, garden clubs and others.
- 1945 -- Truman Proclamation on the Continental Shelf clears way for oil
- 1947 -- Los Angeles Air Pollution Control District formed; first air
pollution control bureau in the nation.
- 1947 -- Defenders of Wildlife founded.
- 1948 -- Federal Water Pollution Control Act; beginning of active House and
Senate Public Works Committee interest in water pollution.
- 1948 -- 20 dead, 600 hospitalized in Donora, Pennsylvania smog attack.
- 1948 -- 600 deaths in London due to killer fog.
- 1948 -- Aldo Leopold writes A Sand County Almanac.
- 1949 -- Canadian complaints about Detroit pollution launch PHS study of
Detroit-Windsor area under 1909 boundary treaty.
- 1949 -- First national conference on air pollution sponsored by PHS.
- 1949 -- Izaak Walton League writes "Crisis Spots in Conservation,"
identifying specific water projects to be opposed.
- 1950 -- Poza Rica killer smog incident leaves 22 dead, hundreds
hospitalized in Mexico.
- 1950 -- Truman says government and industry should join forces in a battle
against death-dealing smog.
- 1951 -- The Nature Conservancy formed.
- 1952 -- Three to four thousand untimely deaths attributed to London
- 1952 -- Dingell-Johnson Act, an excise tax on fishing tackle, implemented.
- 1953 -- New York smog incident kills between 170 and 260 in November.
- 1954 -- Heavy smog conditions shut down industry and schools in Los
Angeles for most of October.
- 1955 -- Congress passes Air Pollution Research Act.
- 1955 -- International Air Pollution Congress held in New York City.
- 1956 -- Congress passes Water Pollution Control Act.
- 1956 -- Another killer smog in London; 1,000 die.
- 1956 -- Echo Park dam proposal defeated in Congress.
- 1956 -- Protesters picket Fermi nuclear power plant near Detroit.
- 1958 -- First PHS National Conference on Air Pollution.
- 1959 -- California becomes first to impose automotive emissions standards,
requiring "blow-by" valve to recycle crankcase emissions. Automakers combine
to fight mandatory use of $7 device, a fight which leads to an anti-trust suit
by the U.S. Justice Dept.
- 1960 -- Schenk Act funds two-year PHS study on air pollution from cars. •
Clean Water Act passes Congress.
- 1961 -- International Clean Air Congress held in London.
- 1961 -- World Wildlife Fund founded.
- 1962 -- Another London smog; 750 die.
- 1962 --Rachel Carson writes Silent Spring.