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Finding Rats in the Barry Commoner Papers

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Commoner reading with feet up on office desk
Barry Commoner at work, ca. 1963. Box 526, Folder 11, Barry Commoner Papers. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Barry Commoner was a scientist, not a rat catcher. But in 1968, a study found that around 70 percent of the rat bites reported in St. Louis came from the same corridor, a roughly two-mile strip of predominately Black neighborhoods stretching from downtown to the city’s western border.[1] That year Commoner, the founder of the science information movement and a leading figure in American environmentalism, accepted an appointment to the St. Louis Rat Control Committee.

Commoner had a national reputation, one built on the way he blended environmentalism with a broader platform of political concerns. His biographer Michael Egan writes that he encouraged a form of environmental protest that fostered a “radical overhaul of how democracy and the governance of production in the United States worked.”[2] Yet Commoner and his Center for the Biology of Natural Systems (CBNS), then based at Washington University, were also creatures of St. Louis.

So in the late 1960s, Commoner and the CBNS became involved in an ambitious, federally funded effort to understand the ecology of the sewer rat, and then kill it. The failure of “Project Rat Countdown” at a moment of heightened political radicalism helps us understand how the rat-human relationship can highlight histories of economic injustice, and the surprising way rat control helped form the grammar of the early environmental justice movement. Commoner only has a cameo in this story; the communities and activists of St. Louis are the stars. However, with a major reprocessing of the Barry Commoner Papers and an accompanying finding aid now complete, their stories now emerge with far greater clarity. Since it’s so much easier for researchers to search this collection, I decided to go looking for rats.

Nature’s Laboratories

Rats came to America as settlers. The black rat accompanied the Spanish military in the sixteenth century and the Norway rat stowed away with traders and colonists a century later. Black rats are climbers, nesting in trees, roofs, and attics. Norway rats prefer underground burrows, crawl spaces, basements, and sewers. Both thrive in the in-between places of human civilization, their capacity to invade our psychology stemming in part, Jonathan Burt writes, from their ability to profit from our most problematic activities, including war, imperialism, and human displacement.[3]

In midcentury St. Louis, urban renewal was displacing entire neighborhoods. Garbage was piling up, made worse by both a nationwide spike in the production of packaging and disposable goods and the negligence of absentee landlords in the predominately African American neighborhoods north of Delmar Boulevard. Down below, the city’s sewer system, whose warren of pipes combined both waste and storm water, was underfunded, overwhelmed, and discharging untreated sewage into the Mississippi.[4] All offered plenty of food and harborage to the city’s vast population of rats.

Sewer mainline under construction with laborers and heavy machinery
Sewer work on the River des Peres, 1930. The river is the backbone of the city’s sewer system, carrying both storm and waste water. Here it is being channelized and redirected underground. Lemen Streets and Sewers Collection, Rare Books and Manuscripts, St. Louis Public Library.

Rat Countdown aimed to reduce infestations rapidly while centering the “people aspect” of rat control. It stemmed, in part, from President Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to organize a national war on rats, uniting three major strains of his Great Society ambitions: fighting poverty, eliminating racial inequality, and reforming environmental policy.[5] In St. Louis, it was piloted as a partnership between the Department of Health, the Model City Agency, and the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems. The city hoped to expand municipal rat control efforts. The CBNS wanted to enact ecological principles, including a sharp reduction in the use of poisons, in service of the city’s poorest and most rat-weary residents. “The whole idea,” according to CBNS administrator Alan McGowan, was to “develop ways of doing basic research in an area with social relevance,” and with immediately apparent benefits.[6]

The Center hired a vertebrate ecologist, Kyle Barbehenn, whose expertise in rats had been forged in America’s overseas territories. Barbehenn would run Rat Countdown’s research component, coming to St. Louis directly from the Philippines. He had worked there, as he had for more than a decade in Guam, Hawai’i, and the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, investigating rodent ecology, advising on rat control efforts, and dutifully forwarding his rodent specimens to the Smithsonian.[7]

Cover of publication picturing large rat and urban block, with sticker showing Barbehenn's ownership of book
A federal rat control publication, 1968. Box 466, Folder 3, Barry Commoner Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Beginning in 1968, Barbehenn and his assistant Ralph Criscione researched the population dynamics of St. Louis’s sewer rats. They made three important preliminary findings. First, sewer rat populations appeared to be self-sustaining and distinct, interacting only minimally with surface rat populations. This meant sewer rats should pose a minimal threat to humans, who were at far greater risk from rats living in their own homes. Second, the city’s sewers didn’t provide a stable habitat with a fixed rat population, but a seasonal population that declined in the winter. This suggested anticoagulant poisons applied seasonally, when the rats were at a low ebb, might be most effective. And third, worries over expensive garbage disposals drawing sewer rats to the city’s richest neighborhoods were unfounded.[8] Rats still stayed put in the city’s poorest, most segregated, most disinvested areas.

In interviews and reports from Rat Countdown, Barbehenn insisted that, “city rats are really just a symptom of what’s wrong with society,” and argued that research like his could generate “scientific evidence of the need for massive repair of the urban environment” and become a “powerful force for creative change.” Times had clearly changed from the earliest days of rat ecology research, when Johns Hopkins rat ecologists roamed freely over 1940s-era Baltimore, experimenting as they pleased. “The residents of the lower socio-economic areas,” Barbehenn mused, “now resent university people coming in and exploiting them by taking out information and not putting anything back into the system.”[9] He spoke from experience. Black St. Louisans were resisting his own work on the very same grounds.

“Who suffers the most?”

St. Louis has a long history of radical political organizing. Activism during the Black freedom struggle tended toward economic issues: jobs, housing, and an equitable social wage, with Black women often on the leading edge.[10] In 1970, the city spawned the short-lived Metropolitan Black Survival Committee, among the nation’s first Black activist groups dedicated specifically to environmental issues. The committee’s leader, social worker Freddie Mae Brown, urgently emphasized the disparate impact of issues like lead poisoning, air pollution, and highway construction on African Americans. “People talk about dirty air,” she told a reporter, “but who suffers the most from it? . . .  Where do the garbage and abandoned cars pile up? Right here on our streets, because the city doesn’t pick them up.”[11]

Black Survival’s co-organizer Wilbur L. Thomas was also coordinator for the CBNS Environmental Field Program. He had come to the Center from Vashon High School, where he began teaching science shortly after the city ejected the school from its longtime home in Mill Creek Valley amid a systematic dismantling of the neighborhood. In 1970, Thomas argued that African Americans were both disproportionately exposed to environmental health hazards like rat infestations and the least equipped to survive them, given an “existing basic political, economical, and social system” that was unresponsive to their needs and was itself “primarily responsible” for urban decay. “Black folks,” Thomas insisted, “encounter another set of environmental hazards in addition to the universal burden on all, and hence receive a double dose of ecological backfires.”[12]

Light outline map of St. Louis districts
Map showing Countdown target areas on a gridded map of St. Louis. Edwin J. Heidig, “Initial Technical Evaluation: Rat Control Program, St. Louis, Missouri.” Box 466, Folder 3, Barry Commoner Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

When residents of the city’s Murphy-Blair area threatened to block Rat Countdown in 1969, it was Thomas who began negotiations. The sticking point was access to the new jobs that the Rat Countdown project created. As historian Rob Gioielli notes, it was a demand Black St. Louisans frequently made of social and public health projects in their neighborhoods at the time.[13] But residents may also have been wary of the victim-blaming that had inflected rat control efforts of the past, as when health commissioner J. Earl Smith had, in 1955, justified the city’s near-abandonment of rat control in Mill Creek Valley by commenting, “a rat doesn’t go anywhere unless he’s invited.”[14]

Their protest created enough pressure to stall Rat Countdown’s formal launch. Thomas settled the dispute by developing a “plan of cooperative action,” promising to hire local residents for survey and rat control operations. But when neither the city nor the neighborhood would (or could) produce sufficient funding, Rat Countdown was left critically understaffed. While several other city beautification projects did help reduce food and harborage for the city’s rats, some with enthusiastic community support, by 1970, Rat Countdown was already being declared a public failure. Participants in the CBNS Rat Ecology and Control Project for Youth castigated Rat Countdown for its ineffectiveness and “chronic fear… of working with neighborhood people.” To drive the point home, the group followed housing activists nationwide in escorting a captured, caged rat into City Hall as aldermen “looked on in amazement,” leveraging the rat’s grotesque visibility in defense of the city’s often-invisible urban poor.[15]

Barbehenn had his own thoughts on Rat Countdown’s failure. Certainly he must have been miffed that his planned house-to-house survey was never completed, leaving the city ignorant of the ecology of the very rats he believed were most threatening to humans. Barbehenn and St. Louis University’s Bruce Sommer, interviewed for a 1973 article, also blamed an overreliance on poisons and officials unable to imagine inner city residents “adaptable to improving sanitary habits.” But they especially blamed politics. Federal rat control programs had been conceived nationally, they said, in response to the “ghetto riots of the 1960s,” as “a sop, a deterrent to future violence.” Poisoning had limited effectiveness for citywide rat control, but a pile of dead rats had an immediate impact.[16]

What attracted the attention of such a diverse group of actors to rat control issues in 1960s and 1970s St. Louis was also what made the problem so difficult to solve. Urban rat infestations are as much a problem in their own right as they are symptomatic of longstanding systemic issues of segregation, disinvestment, and poverty. As a result, as Dawn Biehler suggests, following the stories of those infestations can be revealing in unexpected ways, leading to broader histories of environmentalism, human health, and environmental injustice.[17]

The Barry Commoner Papers at the Library of Congress now offer researchers this and more—not only a window into the life and work of a still-overlooked figure, one who Ralph Nader once called “the greatest environmentalist of the 20th century,” but an entrée into the many lives with which that work intersected, from the neighborhoods of St. Louis to the world beyond.[18]

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[1] Andrew Hurley, “Floods, Rats, and Toxic Waste: Allocating Environmental Hazards Since World War II,” in Common Fields: An Environmental History of St. Louis (Saint Louis: Missouri Historical Press, 1997), 252.

[2] Michael Egan, Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2007), 8.

[3] Jonathan Burt, Rat (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), 13, 30, 32, 34, 36.

[4] Katherine T. Corbett, “Draining the Metropolis: The Politics of Sewers in Nineteenth-Century St. Louis,” in Common Fields: An Environmental History of St. Louis. (St. Louis, Missouri: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1997), 115, 123-124.

[5] U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Proceedings of Rat Control Project Conference: Airlie House, Warrenton, Virginia, June 9-11, 1970 (Washington, D.C., 1970), 3; Malcolm McLaughlin. “The Pied Piper of the Ghetto: Lyndon Johnson, Environmental Justice, and the Politics of Rat Control,” Journal of Urban History 37, no. 4 (2011): 543

[6] “Grant to Washington U. for Study of Rat Behavior,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 26, 1968; “Rat Research in St. Louis: An Annual Report to the Ford Foundation,” 1969, 3. Box 466, Folder 3, Barry Commoner Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (hereafter cited as LOC Commoner Papers); Jerome P. Curry, “Research to Aid City’s War on Rats,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. January 25, 1970.

[7] Sheldon Novick to Senior Fellows, August 16, 1968. CBNS Correspondence, 1968. Box 380, Folder 4, LOC Commoner Papers; Alan McGowan to Task Force Chairmen and Senior Fellows, April 20, 1972. Box 382, Folder 2, LOC Commoner Papers.

[8] “Rat Ecology Field Study Aims at New Understanding of Old Urban Problem,” CBNS Notes 2, no. 6 (November-December 1969), 4-6. Box 466, Folder 3, LOC Commoner Papers; “Progress Report, May 1969 through April 1970. Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, April 1, 1970,” II-48, II-53. Box 390, Folder 3, LOC Commoner Papers.

[9] “Rat Ecology Field Study Aims at New Understanding of Old Urban Problem,” CBNS Notes 2, no. 6 (November-December 1969), 9. Box 466, Folder 3, LOC Commoner Papers.

[10] Walter Johnson, The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States. (New York: Basic Books), 4-5.

[11] Robert Adams, “‘Black Survival’ Group Pushes Pollution Fight,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 26, 1970; Robert L. Joiner, “Black Group Seeks Pollution Study Funds,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 2, 1970; Rob Gioielli, “Black Survival: Mainstream Environmentalism’s Missed Opportunities,”, April 22, 2019; Wilbur L. Thomas, “The Real Issue of Black Survival in Our Polluted Cities,” February 20, 1970, 3, 6, 9. Box 332, Folder 6, LOC Commoner Papers.

[12] “Wilbur L. Thomas Jr.; Teacher, Health Care Administrator Here,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 16, 1995; “A History of Vashon High School,” Saint Louis Public Schools. Accessed January 8, 2022.

[13] Robert Gioielli, email message to author, January 2, 2022.

[14] “Offers Group $20,000 for Rat Control Work,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 2, 1969; Barry Commoner to Wilbur L. Thomas, n.d. Box 466, Folder 3, LOC Commoner Papers; “Progress Report, May 1969 through April 1970. Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, April 1, 1970,” II-54. Box 390, Folder 3, LOC Commoner Papers; Andrew Hurley, “Floods, Rats, and Toxic Waste: Allocating Environmental Hazards Since World War II,” In Common Fields: An Environmental History of St. Louis (Saint Louis: Missouri Historical Press, 1997), 251.

[15] “Progress Report, May 1969 through April 1970. Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, April 1, 1970,” II-54. Box 390, Folder 3, LOC Commoner Papers; Dickson Terry, “Sweeping Changes Sought in Looks of City’s Alleys,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch Everyday Magazine, August 28, 1969; “$750,000 Sought for Rat Control,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 3, 1970; “Caged Rat Used to Show Plight of City Dwellers,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 14, 1970;  Mandi Isaacs Jackson, “Harlem’s Rent Strike and Rat War: Representation, Housing Access and Tenant Resistance in New York, 1958-1964,” American Studies 47, no. 1 (Spring 2006), 66.

[16] Paul Wagman, “Laxity by City Workers: A Chain of Problems,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 3, 1973; Jerome P. Curry, “Research to Aid City’s War on Rats,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 25, 1970.

[17] Dawn Day Biehler, Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches & Rats. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013), 9.

[18] Ralph Nader, “The Greatest Environmentalist of the 20th Century,” In the Public Interest, October 9, 2012.

Comments (2)

  1. What an illuminating article and archival treasure for understanding a powerful time in science and public health. Thank you!

  2. Fascinating – thanks. I spent a lot of time in college following Commoner and I’m thrilled that his papers are at the Library. I would note that the nearest Popeyes to the Library just closed for good after a viral video of a swarm of rats in the store – one of the few remaining original “restaurants” in the now-gentrified Barracks Row area, and one of the few almost exclusively patronized by Black customers. So little has changed….

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