Bioethicist Spotlight

Arthur Galston

Dr. Galson was born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, NY. He was a student at Cornell’s Agricultural College and earned a B.S. in Biology in 1940.

He was later the chairman Yale’s botany department and performed groundbreaking botany research.  Galston also taught bioethics to Yale undergraduates from 1977 to 2004. In his research he discovered that the chemical agent called 2,3,5-triiodobenzoic acid (TIBA) at high concentrations would destroy the leaves (defoliate) of soybeans.

In 1951, scientists studying biological warfare at Fort Detrick (the location of the U.S. biological defense and weapon program) began to study defoliants based upon Galston’s previous discoveries with TIBA. They eventually produced the toxic defoliant Agent Orange. This agent was later used by the British Air  used by the British Air Force during the Malayan Emergency (1948 – 1960) and by the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. 

Galston was deeply affected by this development of his research. He expressed,

“‘[A researcher’s] responsibility to society does not cease with publication …[r]ather, if his discovery is translated into some impact on the world outside the laboratory, he will, in most instances, want to follow through to see that it is used for constructive rather than anti-human purposes.”

Beginning in 1965, Galston lobbied to the government and his scientific colleagues to cease the usage of Agent Orange. He spoke of the harmful impact of Agent Orange on the environment, and warned of the likelihood that it is harmful not only plants but also to animals and humans. Galston visited Vietnam and was able to see the environmental damage in Vietnam first-hand.

This dilemma caused Galston to see himself and other scientists as not only researchers but also advocates. In essence he expresses the dual identity of a researcher as also an advocate with the ethical imperative of responsible implementation of research findings and breakthroughs.

Later, research conducted by the Department of Defense on Agent Orange led to the discovery that it caused birth defects in laboratory rats. In 1971 this information led U.S. President Richard M. Nixon to ban the use of the substance. 

Galson died in 2008, yet his legacy of bioethical inquiry remains.

“Obituaries: Arthur W. Galson” ASPB News35 (5): 41. 2008.
 Pearce, Jeremy (2008-06-23). “Arthur Galson, Agent Orange Researcher, Is Dead at 88”. New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-12.
Schneider, Brandon (Winter 2003). “Agent Orange: a deadly member of the rainbow.” Yale Scientific.  77 (2). Archived from 2009-01-25. Retrieved 2008-07-12.


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