Dr Marc Lappe - A man of deep integrity - obituary (18/5/2005)

Dr Marc Lappe, 1943-2005
A man of deep integrity
By Anthony Lappe
Guerilla Network News, 17 May 2005

GNN's editor remembers his father - a scientist who stood up for the planet's most vulnerable

"Three interrelated issues mark our times: We have altered the planet with our chemicals; we are transforming agriculture with bioengineering; and we are contemplating the recreation of humankind through genetic technologies. All three compel us to reexamine how we use scientific knowledge: will our new technologies be greeted with ‘hurrahs’ or a whisper of despair from the species that we have decimated, crops that are gene-contaminated and people who, though yet to be created, may yet curse us for our technological prowess?" – Marc Lappe

My father, Dr. Marc Lappe, an author, educator and prominent toxicologist and medical ethicist, died Saturday. He was 62. Marc was a lifelong teacher, known for instilling in his students a love of learning and an appreciation for ethics. Everyone who met him was struck by his warm spirit, unforgettable stories, and limitless generosity.

Marc was a leading figure in the movement to integrate ethics and public policy, especially as it related to toxics and genetics. He authored or edited fourteen books, many of which predicted public health and environmental problems long before their appearance. Germs That Won't Die (Anchor/Doubleday, 1982) warned of public health threat of antibiotic resistance. Against the Grain (Common Courage, 1998) accurately predicted that many claims by manufacturers of genetically modified foods would prove false. He held a PhD in experimental pathology from the University of Pennsylvania and was a frequent source for the news media, appearing on 60 Minutes, The Today Show, and Dateline NBC. He was a key expert witness in numerous high-profile lawsuits, including Anderson et al v. W. R. Grace & Co., popularized in the best-selling book and Hollywood film A Civil Action. Between 1984 and 1998, he worked extensively as a consultant on the high stakes litigation that had erupted over silicone-gel breast implants. Most recently, he was the director of the Gualala, California-based non-profit Center for Ethics and Toxics (CETOS), a national leader in environmental public policy, which works directly with California municipalities with concerns about contaminants in their water supplies.

His career was marked by a commitment to standing up to powerful corporate interests and a concern for populations most vulnerable to toxic contamination of their ground, water and air. He was a natural teacher, gifted in explaining complicated ethical and scientific concepts to lay audiences. In late 1960s, he began teaching as a volunteer professor in the politically-charged "free university" movement in Philadelphia and Berkeley while in his early 20s. He later held posts at UC Berkeley, Sarah Lawrence College, University of Illinois at Chicago School of Medicine (where he was a tenured professor), and the College of Marin. In 1999, he co-founded an experimental charter grammar, middle and high school on the redwood coast of California’s Mendocino County.

Early years

Marc Alan Lappe was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1943. His father Paul, the son of a Jewish Russian émigré, entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at age sixteen. His mother Jeanette taught in the Newark public schools. As an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, Marc did cancer research at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. At age 25, he was granted the first PhD in experimental pathology awarded to a candidate without a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

While working on his PhD, Marc met my mother Frances Moore. She was a social worker in West Philadelphia, and he was teaching a class called "Biology for Poets" at the free university. They married in 1967. In 1971, I was born, and my mother published the classic Diet for a Small Planet.

My sister Anna, a bestselling author and co-founder of the Small Planet Institute, was born in 1973.

In 1971, Marc was named as of the original fellows of the Hastings Center, the nation's top bioethics think tank, where he began examining the ethical implications of the looming genetic revolution long before they reached the popular consciousness.

My father's ethics were shaped by his longtime interest in Eastern philosophy, particularly Zen Buddhism. He was a proponent of the precautionary principle, the ethical theory that if consequences of an action, especially concerning technology, are uncertain but are known to have a high risk, it is best to not carry out the action.

In 1976, he published Of All Things Most Yielding (Friends of the Earth/McGraw Hill) with his friend, Sierra Club founder David Brower, which combined photographs of Glen Canyon, now flooded by the Colorado River, and classic Chinese poetry selected by my father.

Taking a stand

In 1978, he was named by California Governor Jerry Brown as chief of the state's Office of Health, Law, and Values, and then as head of the state’s Hazard Evaluation System. When California’s citrus crops were plagued by an outbreak of the Medfly, Marc refused to sign onto the spraying of Malathion, an insecticide with known toxicity to humans. The state sprayed; my father stepped down.

Beginning in the 1980s, he began working independently with plaintiff lawyers on high-profile legal battles over environmental contamination and drug and medical device failures. Cases he consulted on included the infamous Love Canal, New York toxic waste disaster; Agent Orange; pesticide exposure among farm workers and neurological problems connected to the malaria drug Lariam. He played a pivotal role in the contentious silicone-gel breast implant litigation, which pitted tens of thousands of women who claimed to have been sickened by their implants against Dow Corning Corp. and other makers of the devices. He discovered Dow Corning had covered up their own early studies that found silicone was not the inert substance they later claimed when the implants began leaking and rupturing. Dow Corning sent a private detective to the small northern California town of Gualala where my father lived to investigate his non-profit organization in an effort to discredit his testimony. He worked on 30 silicone implant cases, each one the defendant either settled or paid out a jury award, one totaled $20 million. In 1998, Dow Corning settled a class action suit for $3.2 billion. The company was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In a bit of dark irony, last month, a Food and Drug Administration panel voted to allow a limited number of silicone-gel implants back on the market.

Marc's work on breast implant litigation earned him a spot on the Food and Drug Administration's panel on medical devices and plastic surgery. He also was asked to testify in front of numerous congressional panels on genetics, ethics and biotechnology.

In 1988, he became a tenured professor of Health Policy and Ethics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

He served on the board of the March of Dimes, where he was a strong advocate for acknowledging the connection between the environment, toxics and birth defects. He served on the March of Dimes National Foundation’s Bioethics Committee since its inception in 1975.

Ahead of his time

Many of his theories about environmental pollution – initially controversial – later became accepted by the wider scientific community. As early as the 1970s, he promoted the importance of an eco-system level approach to setting limits for toxins in the environment. He argued that minimum allowed concentrations of toxic substances needed to account for their reactions with other substances in the real world. He was an early proponent of the importance of the immune system in fighting cancer and other diseases. He also aruged that long-term exposure to low levels of carcinogenic compounds may be more dangerous than a single high dosage – today an increasingly accepted tenet of environmental science.

In 1977, he married Nichol Lovera. They had three children, Matthew, who holds a MS from Stanford University; Martine, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of California, San Francisco; and Gina, a junior in high school who is a champion horseback rider.

Nichol died in 1996.

In 1992, Marc founded the Center for Ethics and Toxics (CETOS) in the small redwood coast town of Gualala, California. CETOS is dedicated helping communities fight toxic contamination of their environment. Since its inception the center has developed guidelines and strategies to reduce toxic exposures in numerous areas, including a 1996-7 campaign to prevent roadside spraying with herbicides in Mendocino County, Ca. and a testing regiment to monitor pesticides in the drinking water of the small town of Fort Bragg, California. The organization also played in an active role in the ongoing battles over logging on the Pacific coast. CETOS worked as a consultant to the Forest Stewardship Council which regulates the conditions for ecologically sound and sustainable logging practices. In 2004, CETOS played a leading role in the passage of Measure H, which banned raising genetically altered crops and animals in Mendocino County, the first such ban in the nation. The organization continues to educate the public toxic chemicals and environmental health and to research environmental contamination.

In 1998, Marc and his partner Britt Bailey authored Against the Grain, which examined the implications of the rapid transformation of the food supply to include genetically modified organisms. In particular, they questioned the toxicological concerns around Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, used with Roundup Ready GM seeds. Monsanto, the largest supplier of genetically modified seeds, threatened to sue if the book was published. Their first publisher pulled out of their contract. My father persisted, finding a publisher, Common Courage, with the guts to go forward. Against the Grain was released in 1998. Monsanto has since failed to take any legal action. A documentary by the same name is available from the Video Project.

Building a community

In 1997, Marc married lifelong friend Jacqueline Durbin, an intensive care nurse and yoga instructor.

In 1998, Marc and Jacqueline founded the Pacific Community Charter School with other parents in Point Arena, California to provide an alternative educational environment for local students. Despite his heavy workload, Marc devoted time to teach science at the charter high school. He was known as a life-transforming teacher who instilled in his students a love of learning and an appreciation for the importance of ethical thinking.

Marc was also an award-winning poet who wrote emotionally intense poems that explored family, science, philosophy and nature.

More recently, my father helped my co-author Stephen Marshall and me with our book, True Lies. He provided invaluable insight on our investigations into depleted uranium, the anthrax vaccine and the military’s use of Lariam.

He died at his home in his sleep. The cause was cancer.

The planet will miss him deeply.

He is survived by his father Paul, brother cardiologist Don of Salt Lake City and wife Jacqueline, and children Anthony, 33; Anna, 31; Matt, 25; Martine, 22; Gina, 17; and step-children, Danielle Spoor, 16; and Sasha Spoor, 29.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Center for Ethics and Toxics through cetos.org.


Back to the Archive