One of the great environmental heroes of our time, Charles F. (Charlie) Wurster, died on July 6, 2023. An environmental scientist and co-founder of the Environmental Defense Fund, Wurster was Emeritus Professor of Environmental Toxicology in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) at Stony Brook University.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Wurster, a world-class birder, was concerned with the effects of the pesticide DDT on birds. He was among a small group of local scientists and conservationists who led the battle to ban its use.
Wurster first investigated the harmful effects of DDT in 1963 while a postdoctoral fellow at Dartmouth College. He gathered robins that had fallen from elm trees on campus, which had been sprayed with DDT to kill Dutch elm disease. In his biochemistry lab, he found that the robins’ bodies contained DDT. The spraying of DDT to control mosquitos and other disease-carrying organisms led to extremely negative effects on non-target organisms, including threatening the bald eagle and other significant raptors.
In 1965, Wurster became an assistant professor of biological sciences at Stony Brook’s newly opened Marine Sciences Research Center. He gathered 11 colleagues from the university and Brookhaven National Laboratory, and in 1967, the group incorporated as a nongovernmental organization in New York State and called it the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a non-profit organization that now ranks as one of the top environmental groups in the world.
EDF rapidly grew into a national organization, spreading into new areas, including litigating against the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers’ plan to build a cross-Florida sea level shipping canal (1969), removing lead from gasoline and paint (1970-1987) and eliminating polystyrene from fast-food packaging.
Today EDF has 12 offices throughout the U.S. and in China, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Indonesia and Mexico and has three million members and an annual budget of about $300 million. It focuses on environmental justice, protecting oceans and fisheries, sustainable energy and climate change.
In 2009, Wurster was awarded an honorary degree from Stony Brook University for his contributions to environmental science and advocacy. His leadership and determination helped put Stony Brook at the forefront of environmental science, education and advocacy.
Read a Tribute to Charles Wurster, written in 2019 by adjunct instructor Patricia Paladines and Carl Safina, the Carl Safina Endowed Research Chair for Nature and Humanity at SoMAS.