Russell Peterson ’39, PhD’47

2006 Distinguished Alumni Award Honoree

Russell Peterson has been a rebel all of his life. As a chemist at DuPont in the 1940s and 1950s, he was instrumental in the development of Dacron. His career at the company, however, stalled when he suggested promoting five black employees. Although his suggestion was not popular at the time, DuPont later changed its policies regarding minorities.

As governor of Delaware from 1969 to 1973, he was a leader of the early environmental movement. He successfully blocked an attempt by 13 major oil and transportation companies and several Delaware businesses to convert the state’s unspoiled coastal zone into a multibillion-dollar network of refineries and petrochemical complexes. By a single vote, legislation was passed prohibiting any new heavy industry in the area. In 1971, Peterson was named the World Wildlife Fund’s Conservationist of the Year for his environmental efforts.

As the founding chair of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, he was the first to call for regulations outlawing the use of ozone-depleting CFC’s (chlorofluorocarbons) and successfully maneuvered such initiatives through a tangle of political opposition. Peterson forged a new vision for the National Audubon Society by expanding its scope to encompass a broader array of environmental concerns.

Today, the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge on the edge of Wilmington, Delaware, is home to 143 species of birds and 55 fishes.