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Oral history interview with Theo Colborn

  • 2009-Aug-07 – 2009-Aug-08

Oral history interview with Theo Colborn

  • 2009-Aug-07 – 2009-Aug-08

Theo Colborn was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1927. The area was rural, and she lived on a farm until she was five years old. Her father worked as a traveling cookie salesman. The family moved to East Orange, New Jersey, and Colborn attended the East Orange school system, which she believes was excellent. Her fifth-grade teacher, Sue Garris, taught the students all about the outdoors and was an early inspiration for Colborn. The family loved music and often harmonized together. In high school, Colborn and a female friend signed up to take the scientific course and were the only females in the science classes. After she graduated from high school, she planned to attend Rutgers College of Pharmacy, but she did not know if she could afford it. She briefly worked at a pharmaceutical company until she received a call that she had been offered a full scholarship to attend the College of Pharmacy. After Colborn earned her degree, she began working at a local pharmacy where she met her husband, Harry Colborn. They married and began working together as pharmacists, eventually owning three drugstores. After fifteen years of working together, they decided to go back to school at Colorado University in the College of Pharmacy. By then, they had started a family so the kids came along with them. Harry completed one semester before he decided he wanted to start a farm to raise beef, so the family moved. Later Colborn and her husband divorced, and she decided to pursue a degree at Western State University, desiring to become an expert in Western water quality. She spent her summers at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, including sitting in on a course taught by Paul R. Ehlrich and John P. Holdren. Stanley I. Dodson then invited Colborn to do a PhD with him at the University of Wisconsin. She talks about her graduate school experience, noting it was different being an older student.

Near the end of her PhD program, a fellow student encouraged her to submit an application to the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a position she received. At OTA, Colborn caught “Potomac Fever” and began working on a study looking at the safety measures of chemical manufacturers. She also began studying ozone, which prompted her to consider air pollution. After her time at OTA, she was invited to write a report on the health of the Great Lakes for the Conservation Foundation. When funding from the foundation ended, Colborn received support from Environment Canada and Health Canada. She continued to receive grants for her work and began planning a meeting discussing topics she had covered in her research. She wrote a technical book and worked with Dianne Dumanoski to translate that book into a popular press book. She concludes the first interview session by reflecting on science and policy and the importance of scientists speaking out.

During the second interview session, Colborn goes into detail about her work. The International Joint Commission gave her a grant to work on a paper on the epidemiology of bald eagles in the Great Lakes. She planned a Wingspread Conference in the nineties and discusses the documented endocrine-disrupting human disorders that have been discovered since then. Colborn talks about the public reception of her work, including the popular press book, Our Stolen Future. While the book had some positive reception in the United States, it was better received in Japan where most people could recognize Colborn’s name. Since the book did not have the impact she wanted, she believes the next strategy is getting through the medical sciences. She hopes the US will devote more time and money to inner-space research. She talks about EDSTAC and moving the work from committees to an independent, international organization called EDICOR. When that organization took a nosedive, she founded The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX). Colborn came back to Colorado, hired some employees, and kept writing technical papers to get the message out. She sees a future goal of working toward convincing people that inner-space research is necessary. Colborn ends the interview by reflecting on self-sufficiency, the need to stop buying products full of chemicals, and science and politics. She hopes to make a movie about endocrine disruption to reach a larger audience and appreciates the opportunities she has had to speak to many people.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 121 pages
  • 5h 3m 7s
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute

About the Interviewers

Jody A. Roberts served as the Director of the Institute for Research at the Science History Institute. He received his PhD and MS in Science and Technology Studies from Virginia Tech and holds a BS in chemistry from Saint Vincent College. His research focuses on the intersections of regulation, innovation, environmental issues, and emerging technologies within the chemical sciences.

Elizabeth A. McDonnell assisted in conducting this oral history interview, but no additional information about their career history is on file.

Institutional location

Oral history number 0832

Related Items

Interviewee biographical information

  • March 28, 1927
  • Plainfield, New Jersey, United States
  • December 14, 2014
  • Paonia, Colorado, United States


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1947 Rutgers University. College of Pharmacy BSc
1981 Western State College of Colorado MA Science (fresh water ecology)
1985 University of Wisconsin--Madison PhD Zoology (distributed minors in epidemiology, toxicology, and water chemistry)

Professional Experience

Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory

  • 1979 to 1980 Summer Field Research

United States. Congress. Office of Technology Assessment

  • 1985 to 1986 Analyst
  • 1986 to 1987 Congressional Fellow

Conservation Foundation

  • 1987 to 1988 Associate

Environmental Health Analyst

  • 1987 to 1990 Consultant

World Wildlife Fund

  • 1988 to 1993 Senior Fellow
  • 1993 to 2003 Senior Scientist and Director, Wildlife and Contaminants Program

W. Alton Jones Foundation

  • 1990 to 1993 Senior Fellow

The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX)

  • 2003 to 2014 Founder/President

University of Florida

  • 2004 to 2007 Professor, Department of Zoology
  • 2008 to 2009 Professor Emeritus, Department of Zoology


Year(s) Award
1985 United States Congressional Fellowship, Office of Technology Assessment
1991 The National Water Alliance Award for Excellence in Protecting the Nation’s Aquatic Resources
1993 to 1996 Pew Scholars Award in Environment and Conservation
1994 National Conservation Achievement Award in Science, National Wildlife Federation
1997 Women Leadership in the Environment Award, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
1997 Rachel Carson Leadership Award, Chatham College
1997 “Change Makers Award,” State of the World Forum, Mikhail Gorbachev
1998 A Century of Conservation, 100 Champions of Conservation, Audubon Magazine
1999 Norwegian International Rachel Carson Prize
2000 International Blue Planet Prize, Asahi Glass Foundation, Japan
2003 Rachel Carson Award, Society of Toxicology and Environmental Chemistry
2004 Rachel Carson Award, The Center for Science in the Public Interest
2006 Dragonfly Award, Beyond Pesticides
2007 A Woman on the Forefront: Leadership and Integrity in Science (Award)
2007 University of California San Francisco Medical School/Collaborative for Health and the Environment Summit
2007 Lifetime Achievement Award, National Council on Science and the Environment
2007 TIME Global Environmental Heroes Award
2008 The Swedish Goteborg Prize for the Environment and Sustainability

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PDF — 944 KB

The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

Complete Interview Audio File Web-quality download

2 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads