America's First Bioethicist: Aldo Leopold

Lessons Learned: Looking Back to Go Forward

A series of articles exploring historical events that provide an important lesson for ensuring a more sustainable and healthy environment. Originally published as a bulletin feature for the newsletter of CHE-WA (Collaborative on Health and the Environment, Washington State chapter); produced by Steven G. Gilbert.


 "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." - Aldo Leopold, 1949, A Sand County Almanac


Aldo Leopold (January 11, 1887 - April 21, 1948) was arguably the United States’ first bioethicist. He wrote A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949, and was influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and the wilderness preservation movement. Leopold is considered to be the father of wildlife management in the United States and was a lifelong fisherman and hunter.

The above quote by Leopold, although originally written to address ecological and land ethics, also speaks to child health. Exposing children to lead, mercury, PCBs, PBDEs, alcohol, and many other agents robs them of their integrity, stability, and beauty, and it is wrong. It is essential to develop and articulate our own system of ethics and values as we work to address modern challenges posed by the development and use of toxic agents, many of which did not exist before the chemical revolution. Leopold’s ethical views helped precipitate the development of the precautionary principle, which is increasingly recognized as a foundation for decision making to protect human heath and the environment. Children have a right to develop in an environment in which they can reach and maintain their full potential, free from hazardous chemicals, and as adults we have a responsibility to provide them with a healthy, nurturing environment.