Digital Collections

Oral history interview with Penelope A. Fenner-Crisp

  • 2012-Apr-03 – 2012-Apr-04

Penelope Fenner-Crisp grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one of two children. Her father changed jobs frequently; her mother was a housewife until Fenner-Crisp was nearly through high school. The family all read a great deal, and Fenner-Crisp loved science from third grade on. At the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Fenner-Crisp majored in zoology and minored in chemistry. While in college Fenner-Crisp worked at Marquette University’s Medical School, working first on mosquitos and malaria in Harry Beckman’s lab. She later switched to work on blood pressure in James Hilton’s lab and moved to Galveston, Texas, as a graduate student in his lab. In Galveston, she married, had her first child, and finished her dissertation research. When her husband finished his Ph.D. and accepted a position at Georgetown Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, the family moved to Northern Virginia. Four years after their second child was born, Fenner-Crisp began (and finished) a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in her husband’s laboratory. When the family went to Birmingham, England, for her husband’s sabbatical, Fenner-Crisp worked on cardiac function in John Coote’s lab. Back at Georgetown University she worked in Frank Standaert’s lab for eighteen months and spent a few months working on a toxicology report for the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). All this experience made her realize that she did not want to teach or to do research in a lab.

Finding another career option at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Fenner-Crisp began by writing health advisories for neurotoxic pesticides in drinking water. She helped organize Women in Science and Engineering (WISE). Tired of the Office of Drinking Water and wanting to help make policy, she became deputy director and then director of the Health and Environmental Review Division of the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxic Substances. From there Fenner-Crisp went to the Office of Pesticide Programs, where she had the most fun.

Next Fenner-Crisp began work on the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), dealing again with neurotoxins as well as other classes of pesticides. She found that she liked working in the data-rich environment of pesticide regulation. An NAS study on pesticides in the diets of infants and children in the twenty most commonly consumed foods concluded that no carcinogens should be approved. Congress mandated an almost immediate establishment of EDSTAC (Endocrine Disruptor Screening and Testing Advisory Committee), so the EPA had to find scientists and design tests. Fenner-Crisp set up the office in which the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program would reside, but refused to run it, instead of going back to Pesticides for her last few years at the EPA; there she finished the FQPA-mandated science policy on the child-specific additional 10x safety factor, and, feeling a sense of “completion” and believing that the “fun stuff” was done, she retired.

After leaving the EPA Fenner-Crisp was director of the Risk Science Institute (RSI) at the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) for four years, working on many projects designed to improve general principles and practices of risk assessment.

Fenner-Crisp is skeptical about absolute claims on either side of a scientific argument; she talks about voluntary versus involuntary risk and personal responsibility. She explains animal welfare issues and their value in translating study results for their prediction of the impact on human health of exposure to chemicals. She talks about personalities, rivalries, and competition, within and between shifting departments, populations, and administrations. She promotes government career choices for chemists and scientists in other disciplines. She discusses publishing, women in science, and professional societies. Regarding pesticides, she advises the public to “be aware but don’t be afraid.” Officially retired, she nevertheless continues to participate in the activities of several science-based non-profit organizations such as GreenBlue and Piedmont Master Gardeners.

Access this interview

By request 1 PDF Transcript File and 3 Audio Recording Files

Fill out a brief form to receive immediate access to these files.

If you have any questions about transcripts, recordings, or usage permissions, contact the Center for Oral History at

PDF — 256 KB