In memoriam: Arthur Galston, plant biologist, fought use of Agent Orange

Arthur Galston, a noted plant physiologist and bioethicist who was known for helping bring a halt to the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, died on June 15.
Arthur Galston portrait
Arthur Galston

Arthur Galston, a noted plant physiologist and bioethicist who was also known for helping bring a halt to the use of the herbicide Agent Orange in Vietnam, died on June 15 in Hamden, Connecticut, where he lived with his wife, Dale. He was 88 years old.

Galston's research focused on plant photobiology, hormones, protoplasts and polyamines. His major research contribution, he believed, was to suggest and obtain evidence, in 1950, that riboflavin - rather than carotene as previously believed - was the photoreceptor for phototropism. He also discovered the kind of pigment that causes plants to bend in the light. His work led to more than 320 papers in refereed journals, as well as more than 50 articles on public affairs. He also authored textbooks on plant physiology and edited anthologies of papers in bioethics.

A graduate of Cornell University, Galston earned his doctorate in botany from the University of Illinois in 1943. He was an associate professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he worked closely with Nobel Prize winner George Beadle on defense-related research until he joined the Navy. Stationed at Okinawa, he served as a natural resources officer. He taught at Yale for a year before returning to Caltech, moving back to Yale in 1955.

In his early research, Galston experimented with a plant growth regulator, triiodobenzoic acid, and found that it could induce soybeans to flower and grow more rapidly. However, he also noted that if applied in excess, the compound would cause the plant to shed its leaves.

Others used Galston's findings in the development of the powerful defoliant Agent Orange, named for the orange stripe painted around steel drums that contained it. The chemical is now known to have contained dioxins, which have proven to be associated with cancers, birth defects and learning disabilities. From 1962 to 1970, American troops released an estimated 20 million gallons of the chemical defoliant to destroy crops and expose Viet Cong positions and routes of movement during the Vietnam War.

In letters, academic papers, broadcasts and seminars, Galston described the environmental damage wrought by Agent Orange, noting that the spraying on riverbank mangroves in Vietnam was eliminating “one of the most important ecological niches for the completion of the life cycle of certain shellfish and migratory fish.” Galston traveled to Vietnam to monitor the impact of the chemical. In 1970, with Matthew S. Meselson of Harvard University and other scientists, Galston charged that Agent Orange also presented a potential risk to humans. The scientists lobbied the Department of Defense to conduct toxicological studies, which found that compounds in Agent Orange could be linked to birth defects in laboratory rats. The revelation led President Richard M. Nixon to order a halt to the spraying of Agent Orange.

“It was toxic at levels [in rats], which when scaled up to human level meant that the Vietnamese people who were exposed to the sprays probably were ingesting toxic quantities,” Galston was quoted as saying in a 2003 Yale Scientific article.

In the same article, he decried the use of his early research in the development of the toxic herbicide.

“I thought it was a misuse of science,” he said. “Science is meant to improve the lot of mankind, not diminish it - and its use as a military weapon I thought was ill-advised.”

In 1971, while on a visit to Vietnam to investigate the consequences of Agent Orange, Galston was invited to the People's Republic of China, becoming one of the first two American scientists to receive such an honor. In China, he met three heads of state, including Premier Chou En-lai. Through the leader's intervention, Galston was able to work for a summer on a Chinese agricultural commune, and wrote about the experience in a book.

During his Yale career, Galston served in several administrative positions. He chaired the former Departments of Botany and Biology and was director of the Division of Biological Sciences. He also chaired the University's Course of Study Committee and the Committee on Teaching and Learning. He mentored 24 Ph.D. students and 67 postdoctoral fellows from 16 countries, and in 1994 received the William Clyde DeVane Medal for lifelong teaching and scholarship. At the time of his death, he was the Eaton Professor Emeritus in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology and professor emeritus in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

Arthur Galston delivering a lecture

After his retirement, Galston was associated with the Institution for Social & Policy Studies (ISPS), serving on its Executive Committee for the Interdisciplinary Bioethics Project. He helped found Yale's Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics. He taught a new introductory course in Yale College in 2003-2004 that attracted more than 460 students, making it one of the largest courses in Yale College. For more than a decade, he taught college seminars in bioethics. He also organized a series on bioethics at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale that brought to campus experts on a wide variety of ethical issues.

As the editor of two textbooks, “New Dimensions in Bioethics” and “Expanding Horizons in Bioethics,” Galston explored such topics as the risks and rewards of genetically modified plants and crops, pesticides, stem-cell research, cloning and other issues.

His Yale colleague, Mary Helen Goldsmith, professor emerita of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, lauded Galston for his “life-long interest in the ethical and social implications of scientific and medical research and technologies.”

“He was a leading voice on bioethics on this campus,” says Carol Pollard, associate director of bioethics at ISPS. “He was my friend, mentor, teacher. He will be sorely missed.”

Galston served as president of both the Botanical Society of America and the American Society of Plant Physiologists. He received numerous academic honors, including Guggenheim, Fulbright and Senior National Science Foundation Fellowships, and honorary degrees from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Iona College. In 2004 he received the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Alumni Achievement Award from the University of Illinois.This past spring, ISPS and the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology established an annual Arthur W. Galston Lecture in the scientist's honor.

In addition to his wife, Galston is survived by his children, William of Bethesda, Maryland, and Beth of Carslisle, Massachusetts; and his grandson Ezra of New York.

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