Conservation Award

The Delaware Audubon Conservation Award
Dr. Albert Matlack Earns 2003 Conservation Award


Image: Dr. MatlackDr. Albert S. Matlack, a longtime president of the Society of Natural History of Delaware, was the 2003 recipient of Delaware Audubon's Conservation Award. The award was presented at Delaware Audubon's annual dinner Thursday, May 1, 2003.

As the Society of Natural History's president, he organized monthly trips to educate the public about environmental issues. He arranged trips to explore such phenomena as superfund sites, invasive plant species in Delaware, landscaping with native plants, the advantages of cluster housing, sustainable sources of energy, the pitfalls of beach replenishment and visits to the varied habitats of Delaware.

To many people, the words "green" and "chemistry" would seem to be at odds with each other. Dr. Matlack not only found nothing contradictory in the terms, but was one of a growing number of green chemistry's formidable and vocal proponents.

He was an adjunct professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Delaware. He was also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the American Chemical Society. Originally from Virginia, he moved to Delaware after graduate school.

Reflecting on a lifetime of work and service which includes more than 130 U.S. and foreign patents, Dr. Matlack regarded the publication of Introduction to Green Chemistry as his greatest achievement. He wrote the textbook for his students at the University of Delaware.

Green chemistry had its start in 1990 with the passing of the Pollution Prevention Act. The American Chemical Society website calls this, "the first environmental law to focus on preventing pollution at the source rather than dealing with remediation or capture of pollutants at the end-of-the-pipe."

Rachel Carson had already awoken the public in the 1960s, but her vindication in scientific circles was long in coming. "They called her all sorts of names," Dr. Matlack replied when asked about Carson's book Silent Spring. "Then they decided she was right!"

Introduction to Green Chemistry states, "In the glorious days of the 1950s and 1960s chemists envisioned chemistry as a solution to a host of society's needs." Dr. Matlack felt their scientific work was "done innocently, for the betterment of society, but they didn't realize [the harm of] DDT and such things as egg-shell thinning and the resistance of insecticides." Today, he said, "Many people are looking for ways to reduce toxicity, reduce hazardous waste, and do so with a minimum of energy." He said the biggest challenge is "getting people to use this information after it is found."

His facility with facts and figures did not preclude his having an artist's appreciation for the beauties of nature and a preservationist's heart. Dr. Matlack advocated the idea of "collecting by camera," especially in the botanical realm, since "few wildflower fields remain" – a practical solution in lieu of physical specimens.

This sensitivity to nature was an awareness he had since his early years as a Boy Scout. Through scouting, he was inspired by the outdoors and saw "the need for conservation in action." His concern only deepened over a lifetime of watching urban sprawl.

The blending of science and nature has been a tradition in the Matlack family. Dr. Matlack's father, also a chemist, had an extensive personal library of chemistry, gardening, and natural history books. That intellectual environment provided the perfect medium in which to nurture the budding Boy-Scout-cum-scientist, and also explains the following: Dr. Matlack had two sons. One is a plant ecologist and the other a cell biologist.

Dr. Matlack passed away in 2013, but thanks to his efforts, and those of others, the next generation of peacemakers has arisen in what Rachel Carson called "man's war against nature."