Eville Gorham’s research ended up changing the world. His discovery of the radioactive fallout lurking in moss and lichens led to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. His discovery of acid rain soaking remote bogs led to cleaner power plants, to the Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990.
The longtime University of Minnesota professor liked to say that it started with luck. “I just find things that are interesting and decide: Here’s a fascinating puzzle,” he once said. “Let’s get some data and see what it all means.”
But it was no accident that Gorham made two major scientific breakthroughs, said Prof. Clarence Lehman, a colleague in the U’s College of Biological Sciences. “Everyone had the same data he had. He saw what it meant.”
An ecologist and environmentalist who fought for the health of lakes and bogs, Gorham died Jan. 14. The “grandfather of acid rain research” was 94.
“Eville was among the generation of scientists whose work made them realize that the world was a smaller place — that we were not just victims of the forces of nature but were beginning to alter those forces around the globe,” Lehman said. “So he gave part of his attention as a citizen to sounding the alarm.”
Born in 1925, Gorham grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he dreamed of becoming an archaeologist. Bookish and curious, he experienced during field trips the joy of turning over stones to find salamanders. In college, he became captivated by field biology. “I began to see there were lots of questions in nature that you could wander around and think about,” he said during an interview with Lehman in 2009.
After earning his Ph.D. at University College London, he and his wife, Ada, lived in a small stone laborer’s cottage so he could study the woodlands and wetlands of England’s Lake District. “I never set out to save the environment,” he said. Indeed, his work on radioactive fallout was sparked by a friendship with the local medical officer, who fretted about the effects of a fire at a nearby plutonium plant.
Gorham agreed to look into it. He found radiation — lots of it — in sphagnum moss near the plant, but also far from it, suggesting a global source: fallout from nuclear bombs.
Nature, arguably the world’s most prestigious scientific journal, published his findings as its lead article.
He also showed that air pollution was drifting to rural areas, loading bogs with sulfuric acid. During the 1970s and ’80s, Gorham helped shape public debates around acid rain, testifying before Congress. He was one of four scientists appointed to the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality.
By then, Gorham was well into his 36-year career at the U. He expected to study the state’s famous lakes but ended up focusing on the waterlogged peatlands of northern Minnesota.
Gorham opposed a proposal to strip-mine vast portions of the peatlands, calling it “the last real wilderness in Minnesota.” In 2005, he received the international Society of Wetland Ecologists’ lifetime achievement award.
A bird-watcher and whistler, Gorham would take his four children on nature walks, helping them identify wildflowers, said daughter Jocelyn Gorham of Beldenville, Wis. He’d collect seed heads, strewing or gently pressing them into their lawn. Decades later, “the whole yard was filled with wildflowers,” she said. Bleeding hearts and milkweed, scilla and Virginia bluebells.
Long after his retirement in 1998, he continued mentoring students, researching and writing. He penned poetry, too. With Lehman, Gorham was working on a paper that summarized the daunting challenge humanity faces in fixing its role on the planet.
“There is reason for hope,” he wrote in the paper’s closing paragraph. “It may seem unimaginable that we can learn to manage consciously the entire planetary ecosystem. We should, however, remember that throughout our relatively short history, the unimaginable repeatedly has morphed into the commonplace.”
Gorham’s survivors also include his daughters Kerstin of St. Paul and Vivien of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia; his son, Jamie of Minneapolis; and five grandchildren. A remembrance of his life will be 2 p.m. Feb. 23 at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, 900 Mount Curve Av.