Aurora , Theron Randolph and Birth of Enironmental Health in 1951
Extracted and Edited from Plastic: Making of Synthetic Century by Stephen Fenichell
Just as Aurora may have been the quintessential steel fabricating city of the industrial era of the 20 th century, it also was the ‘canary in the coal mine’ to warn of the limits of the synthetics decades after steel. That clarion call began on a late spring afternoon in 1951 when tornados were predicted to hit northern Illinois. A young Harvard trained and Northwestern Medical faculty allergist wasn’t surprised that all but one patient in his experimental allergy clinic in Aurora had cancelled.
Dr. Theron Randolph met a desperate patient who in this height of pollen season had been forced to retire from a job she loved because she suffered so from headaches, nausea, dizziness and blackouts and fatigue while on the road as a cosmetics saleswoman. As punishment for seeking treatment, she had been repeatedly classified as hypochondriacal or neurotic by conventional physicians. Randolph believed in her illness, and with the whole afternoon to her condition, persistent questioning elicited from her an intriguing thread: fossil fuel. At her job, and on the road, this woman was routinely exposed to a seemingly endless roster of petroleum by-products.
For the next decade Randolph continued development of findings from this Aurora based environmental isolation unit he had established after breaking with immunological and medical establishments. In 1962 Aurora’s great manufacturing firms and steel fabricators were reaching what in retrospect would be their peak. Also, in 1962 Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring achieved best seller status. And Theron Randolph published his landmark study, Human Ecology and Susceptibility to the Chemical Environment. in which he argued that countless illness and allergies suffered by thousands of people are the result of exposure to everyday and often common place chemical poisons, the vast majority petroleum derivatives, synthetics.
Carson may have saved a lot of robins from DDT, while she helped launch us all on the path of ecology. But Randolph and Aurora were the canaries in the coal mine, which launched the world of environmental health. Doesn’t that sound like the founding of the Chicago Branch Railroad in Aurora a century before? That 1854 launch led to the CB&Q, which became the catalyst for Aurora’s great manufacturing era of the 20 th century and it thrives today as the great Burlington Santa Fe. Where have Randolph’s Aurora work and other Aurora milestones over the last 50 years led?
Even though much of this website covers aspects of the story of Aurora manufacturers, Randolph’s Aurora milestone is a story yet to be told and appreciated in Aurora. How many other tales like those of Dr. Randolph need to be told to bridge Aurora from our manufacturing triumphs more than a half century ago? These will explain the trials of decline and subsequent recovery and triumph, which we see reflected today as we look around and observe many aspects of Aurora bigger and better than ever? Since our work on a time in Aurora, which climaxed decades ago, is largely finished, we welcome any thoughts you have on adding to and updating the tales that explain how we are entering the 21 st century filled with satisfaction of the past and optimism to face the challenges and opportunities of the years ahead.