This is a text-only descriptive version of the Get the Lead Out comic featured in the Summer 2019 issue of the Grinnell Magazine.
Text by Michele Regenold ’89
Illustrations by Kevin Cannon ’02
A lean, older man with white hair and black-frame glasses leans against his desk in an office cluttered with beakers, test tubes, maps, and books. He’s reading a book titled “Pb.”
“Clair ‘Pat’ Patterson ’43 was a scientist’s scientist. He cared about basic research, knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Although he may be best known for being the first to accurately date the Earth, his discoveries about how lead was polluting air and water and poisoning plants, animals, and human beings defined his career.”
A map of 1920s Iowa shows the capitol building in Des Moines and a farmhouse, barn, and silo to represent Mitchellville.
“Pat grew up in Mitchellville, Iowa, a small town east of Des Moines.”
Pat as an older man says, “It may have been small, but Mitchellville was paradise for a science-lover like me.”
Nighttime in the woods. Four boys have tents set up around a campfire.
“Pat enjoyed camping in the woods near the Skunk River with his buddies.”
Young Pat says, “Woo!”
An animal skull, leg bones, rib bones, etc. lay scattered on the ground.
“He’d find animal bones and take them home to reassemble them and see what kind of animal it was.”
Young Pat says, “Hmm, looks like a raccoon.”
Young Pat is a workbench, pouring liquid from a test tube into a beaker.
“Pat set up his own workshop in the basement, where he taught himself chemistry using his uncle’s college lab workbook.
Older Pat, holding a box with a beaker on the cover, says, “When I was a young teen, my mother gave me a chemistry set.”
Pat is in an old-timey classroom, seated at the back, waving his hand at the teacher, who’s standing in front of the class.
“In his small school, being outspoken and different was okay.”
Science teacher says, “Electricity is a fluid.”
Pat says, “No …”
Close-up of Pat.
Pat says, “… electricity is made of electrons.”
A map of the Grinnell College campus circa 1939 fills the top third of the page. The map is filled with red brick buildings—some of which no longer exist—trees, and a set of railroad tracks.
“Pat studied chemistry at Grinnell, where he was mentored by Professor Leo P. Sherman, who encouraged Pat to pursue his own ideas.
“Woo!” exclaims Pat from inside the center building.
Close-up of older Pat. He says, “I loved the fact that you could go in the laboratory and work your heart out. You could do anything you wanted to do.”
Pat making a mess at his lab table filled with beakers while other students are neater.
Pat says, “At Grinnell, my intellect was totally engaged.”
Exterior close-up of a window with flames and smoke shooting out and glass breaking.
“In his third year he blew up one of the organic chemistry labs doing experiments.”
Older Pat with his hands up in a “who me?” gesture. “I would go beyond what I was supposed to be doing.”
Close-up of a young woman, Laurie McCleary ’43, who is reading a chemistry book. In the background behind her, Pat is waving and a thought balloon shows a heart.
“Pat met his wife Lorna McCleary ’43 at Grinnell. She also studied chemistry.”
Older Pat looks fondly at Laurie in the previous panel. “She got honors and I only got superiors, because I was the renegade again. I developed top-notch creative and critical thinking skills, but I didn’t always do the homework.”
A small map shows Iowa City and the University of Iowa’s Old Capitol building in the bottom left corner and the city of Chicago in the upper right corner. A 1930’s-style car drives the route between the two places.
“While Laurie worked, Pat earned a master’s in physical chemistry at the University of Iowa in nine months, finishing in 1944.”
“They married and then went to the University of Chicago to work on the Manhattan Project.
From inside the car, Pat and Laurie say, “Manhattan Project, here we come.”
Panel 4 stretches across the page. A long line of men waits to speak to two soldiers seated at a desk. Pat is at the front of the line.
“Pat tried to enlist.”
One of the soldiers says, “Sorry, buddy. You’re too valuable elsewhere.”
Close-up of older Pat. “Laurie and I were sent to Oak Ridge Laboratory in Tennessee to work on atomic fuel.”
A large, upside-down, U-shaped machine sits atop a heavy wooden table. Pat stands on some scaffolding to work on it.
“At Oak Ridge, Pat learned mass spectrometry techniques that he used for most of his career.”
A guy leaning on a radio set smiles at Pat and says, “Hey, Pat, listen to this!”
Radio announcer says, “… Japan has surrendered …”
Pat and Laurie, arm in arm, are back on the campus of the University of Chicago. Confetti flies through the air. They shout, “The war is over!”
Close-up of older Pat. “I learned things at Oak Ridge that made me want to study some of this important stuff. So after the war, Laurie and I returned to the University of Chicago so I could work on my Ph.D. while Laurie worked.
In an office at the University of Chicago, a man in a shirt and tie has his arm draped over Pat’s shoulders as they talk.
The man is Pat’s faculty adviser, Harrison Brown. “Pat, I’ll get an iron meteorite for you.”
A chunk of the meteorite is next to a small scale, which is next to a victory cup with the initials C.P.
Harrison Brown says, “We’ll get the lead out of the meteorite. You measure its isotopic composition and stick it into the equation. You’ll be famous, because you will have measured the age of the earth.
Close-up on Pat, thinking hard, still in Brown’s office.
Pat says, “Good, I will do that.:
Brown say, “It will be duck soup*, Patterson!”
Older Pat holds a piece of ore in his palm. “I set up many different tests to check out sources of lead over the course of several years. Using a mass spectrometer, I worked with a gram amount of ore and a milligram of lead.”
Close-up of Pat staring at an open textbook with notes scattered on the desk.
“Pat already knew the age of the ore from classical tests, but his experimental results didn’t fit the calculations.”
Pat says, “There was more lead than there should be. But where did it come from?”
Older Pat is agitated. “It took me years and years to work out where the lead was coming from. Lead was in everything—in people’s hair, and on their skin, and clothes. It was contamination of every conceivable source that people had never thought about before.”
Pat is dressed in a white, hazmat-like suit from head to toe inside a shiny, clean lab.
“In the process of discovering this contamination, Pat learned to analyze lead in the most minute quantities.”
Pat says, “Another consequence of this discovery—I developed an ultra-clean lab to eliminate lead contamination in my experiments.”
Pat and Laurie drive a convertible from Chicago to the coast of California.
Pat says, “I finished my Ph.D. in 1951 and followed Harrison, my adviser, to the California Institute of Technology.”
Laurie says, “Good-bye, Chicago. Hello, Caltech!”
Pat kneels on top of the Earth and draws the numbers 4.55.
“In 1953 at Caltech, Pat dated the earth at 4.55 billion years. No one could replicate his work for years because their measurements were contaminated by lead.”
With his back toward the viewer, Pat gazes across the ocean to the setting sun. He’s in ankle-deep water, his pants rolled up, his tie swinging in the breeze.
He says, “I wanted better data on modern terrestrial lead. Sediments in the oceans were the key to figuring out what was happening in the past.”
He thinks, “But how to pay for my research?”
Pat is standing in front of Harrison Brown’s desk in his office at Caltech.
Pat says, “I want to measure the age of sediments.”
Brown says, “Oh, heck, the oil companies should be interested in this.”
Pat says, “Why?”
Close-up of Brown holding a map of oil fields.
Brown says, “Because the isotopic composition of lead is a tracer that helps identify the stage, or the age, to characterize the type of sediment. So it could help identify oil deposits and reservoirs.”
Older Pat gazing at Brown in the previous panel. “Harrison got money from them every year, huge amounts, to fund the operation of my laboratory, which had nothing whatsoever to do with oil in any way, shape, or form.”
Pat on a ship in the ocean. “But I was able to study lead in ocean sediments.”
Close-up of Pat holding two clear bottles of sediment. “We found from measuring the lead in these sediments how much lead had been passing through the oceans and depositing in these sediments.”
Pat on the ship. The ocean is colored in different shades to indicate the lead levels in the water were higher at the top than at the bottom.
Pat says, “We found a huge increase in the upper portions of the oceans, which decreased to lower concentrations with depth.”
Pat leans over the ship railing to gaze at the water. “Why? Why should the lead levels be so high near the surface?”
Close-up of Pat looking startled as he realizes the answer.
Older Pat holds an old-fashioned circle life-preserver with the letters “SOS” on it. “The amount of lead equaled what was being produced from gasoline. And the oil companies were funding my work.”
The ship in silhouette on the ocean as Pat says, “We’re in serious trouble.”
Close-up of Pat typing on an old-fashioned (non-electric) typewriter.
“Pat didn’t let the source of his funding keep him from sharing his research.”
Older Pat holds up a piece of paper and say, “In “Contaminated and Natural Lead Environments of Man,” I argue that adding tetra-ethyl lead to gasoline for decades (to reduce engine knock) had caused dangerous levels of lead contamination in the environment.
A quote from the article: “It is virtually certain that all toxicologically significant amounts of lead in air originate from industry because the difference between existing concentrations and inferred natural concentrations of lead in the air is extreme and contributions from natural sources are known reasonably well.”
Close-up of older Pat. “Wham! Oil companies not only stopped funding me, they tried to get the Atomic Energy Commission to stop giving me some money.”
Pat gazes at a globe on his desk. “I needed money, a lot of money, because since I got this idea about lead coming from gasoline, I wanted to look at the record. Where do you see that record?”
Close-up of the globe showing northern Canada, Greenland, and the Arctic Ocean.
Pat says from off-screen, “You see it in the snow that never melts in the polar regions!”
Silhouette image of Pat shaking hands with another scientist.
“Pat teamed up with professors at other universities who were good at securing research money. They wrote the proposals and he did the science.”
Cutaway image showing the North Pole with a deep shaft in the snow. The snow is layered and labeled from top to bottom, 1900s, 1800s, 1700s, 1600s, 1500s. One man is on the bottom of the shaft, another at the top, stacking huge cubes of snow, and Pat is leaning over the shaft, supervising.
“The Arctic. Pat and his students dug shafts 200–300 meters deep to go back in time.”
Pat says, “Wearing special suits to keep from contaminating the samples, we dug up two-foot cubes of snow, melted them in large plastic containers, and hauled 100 gallons of water back to my lab at Caltech.”
Close-up of older Pat. “I discovered a 200- to 300-fold increase in lead from the 1700s to the present. But the amounts of lead were so infinitesimally small, that no one else could verify it for many years.
Pat is writing a letter on his typewriter. He says, “My science got entangled with social problems.”
The letter begins, “Att: Senator Edmund Muskie, chair, Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution, Washington, D.C. Dear Senator Muskie, I hope you will consider the importance of the geochemical point of view.
Senator Edmund Muskie (D-Maine) types a letter to Pat.
Muskie’s letter begins, “Att: Dr. Clair Patterson, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California. Dear Dr. Patterson, I’d like to hear more about your work on the natural level of lead in the environment. Will you testify before my subcommittee June 15, 1966?”
Close-up of older Pat, arms raised over his head, looking alarmed. “All along my main question was what is the natural level of lead?”
A rock is next to an ear of corn, which is next to a stick figure of a human with an arrow between them, pointing right.
“Pat studied the ratio of lead to calcium in a chain from rocks to food to people. He projected that lead was 100 times higher in people than it should be.”
A pristine mountaintop against a blue sky.
“Next he turned to the amount of lead in remote areas.”
In the foreground, heavy traffic spews exhaust, and in the background, factory smokestacks spit out black smoke.
“A picture emerged that confirmed and clearly showed that Earth’s entire biosphere was heavily contaminated with industrial lead, emitted into the atmosphere from smelters and from automobile exhaust.”
Close-up of a Greek coin showing the profile of man wearing a laurel crown.
“Pat also investigated the production of lead during the Greek and Roman empires and estimated how much had been mined. Lead production began in earnest when the Greeks wanted silver to make coins.”
In the foreground, a slave from ancient times leans over his knees, obviously in pain, while others in the background emerge from a mine.
“The Greeks and Romans knew about lead poisoning, but it was the slaves who were significantly affected because they were the ones doing the mining.”
Older Pat says, “That proves for 2,000 years we have been unable to understand the evil that we are doing to ourselves and the biosphere.”
A beautiful crowd of diverse human faces.
“After spending many years examining lead in the environment, Pat turned his attention to lead in human beings.”
Close-up of human teeth, rib bones, and femurs.
“Using bodies in a medical repository, Pat sampled tooth enamel, rib bones, and femurs.”
A panoramic scene of cliff dwellings in the desert Southwest.
“Then he located ancient human bodies from the Southwest United States, in areas where lead glazes had not been used.”
Older Pat holds a bar graph with a sharp, upward trend. “I discovered that the lead level in contemporary bodies was 1,000 times that of the ancient remains!”
A tall stack of reports, with one falling off, pages open.
“The evidence was mounting that the level of natural lead in human beings was orders of magnitude lower than the oil and gas industry had claimed.”
Side view of a bridge full of traffic, spitting out a thick, black cloud of fumes.
“Pat discovered that the world had been poisoning itself with lead since Greek and Roman times, but that since the creation of leaded gasoline, the poisoning had ramped up exponentially.”
Industrial stacks spewing foul smoke.
“The Clean Air Act of 1970, shepherded by Sen. Muskie, and subsequent regulations phasing out leaded gasoline were steps in the right direction.”
Close-up of older Pat. “But I wasn’t done.”
An open can of albacore tuna.
“Pat turned his attention to food.”
Older Pat says, “The unusual sensitivity of tuna muscle to lead pollution can be used as a monitor that can reveal the true magnitude of lead contamination in Americans.”
Close-up of the interior of a tuna can and the seam of lead solder.
“Overall the lead contamination in canned tuna is about 10,000-fold above natural levels. About 99.5 percent of this contamination originates from lead solder.”
A woman at a podium full of microphones in front of a giant tuna sign with flashbulbs going off in the audience.
“Unlike the oil and gas industry, the food industry voluntarily made changes to remove lead from cans.”
Older Pat eats from a can of tuna while gazing at the reader.
He says, “The people in the lead industries thought because they had all this power they could stop or effectively inhibit the actions of a single person who wasn’t very powerful. They thought that that’s the way they could solve their problem. What they didn’t understand was that you can’t get rid of, or win in the face of, developing knowledge. If you work long and hard … if you keep adhering to the development of scientific knowledge concerning this matter, you’ll win.”
Thanks to Pat’s confident pursuit of ideas and knowledge, his contributions to the common good will be felt for generations.