“A Double Dose of Ecological Backfires”: Rat Control, Barry Commoner, and Early Environmental Justice in St. Louis

by Josh Levy

In 1968 the St. Louis Health Division determined that around 70 percent of the rat bites reported in the city came from the same corridor, a roughly two-mile strip of predominately Black neighborhoods stretching west from downtown, between Delmar Boulevard and Natural Bridge Road.[1] The same year Barry Commoner, founder of the science information movement and a leading figure in American environmentalism, accepted an appointment to the St. Louis Rat Control Committee.

Commoner was nationally known as a scientist and activist, one whose reputation was built on his interlacing of environmentalism with a broader platform of social justice concerns and his insistence that an informed public evaluate the risks inherent to America’s technological revolution. Michael Egan writes that Commoner advocated a form of environmental protest that fostered a “radical overhaul of how democracy and the governance of production in the United States worked.”[2] But he was no rat catcher.

Yet, for four decades Commoner and his Center for the Biology of Natural Systems (CBNS), then based at Washington University, were also creatures of St. Louis. And by the late 1960s, both had become enmeshed in an ambitious, federally-funded effort to understand the ecology of the sewer rat, and then to kill it.

The city called the operation “Project Rat Countdown.” Its failure at a moment of heightened political radicalism is revealing, not only of the ability of the rat-human relationship to draw out histories of ecological injustice, but also in demonstrating the early vocabulary of the environmental justice movement. With a major reprocessing of the Barry Commoner Papers at the Library of Congress now complete, researchers have a new window into the life and career of a still-underappreciated figure, and into the environmental history of St. Louis at a moment of critical change.

Barry Commoner at work. Box 526, folder 11, Barry Commoner Papers. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Nature’s Laboratories

Rats came to America as settlers, the black rat accompanying the Spanish military in the sixteenth century and the Norway rat stowed away with traders and colonists a century later. Black rats are climbers, nesting in trees, roofs, and attics. Norway rats prefer underground burrows, crawl spaces, basements, and sewers. Both thrive in the interstices of human civilization, their capacity to invade human psychology stemming in part, Jonathan Burt writes, from their ability to profit from our most problematic activities: war, imperialism, and human displacement.[3]

In mid-century St. Louis urban renewal, “black removal by white approval” as one housing rights activist glossed it, was rapidly displacing entire neighborhoods.[4] Meanwhile, the city’s garbage was piling up, exacerbated both by a nationwide spike in the production of packaging and disposable goods and the absentee landlords in the predominately African American neighborhoods north of Delmar Boulevard. A 1969 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article described the city’s 600 miles of alleys as “the world’s longest trash dump.”[5] Down below, the once-progressive St. Louis sewer system, whose warren of pipes combined both waste and storm water, was underfunded, overwhelmed, and discharging untreated sewage into the Mississippi.[6] All offered ample food and harborage to the city’s vast population of rats.

In stepped Project Rat Countdown. While St. Louis had maintained an organized rat control program since the 1940s, Rat Countdown piloted a new, federally-funded initiative to rapidly reduce infestations while centering the “people aspect” of rat control. It stemmed, in part, from Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to organize a national war on rats, uniting three major strains of his Great Society ambitions: fighting poverty, eliminating racial inequality, and reforming environmental policy.[7] Legislation finally passed Congress in 1967. A year later, the St. Louis Department of Health and its Model City Agency were partnering with the CBNS, the former aiming to expand municipal rat control efforts and the latter hoping to enact its ecological principles, including a sharp reduction in the use of poisons, in service of the city’s poorest and most rat-weary residents. “The whole idea,” according to CBNS administrator Alan McGowan, was to “develop ways of doing basic research in an area with social relevance” and with immediately apparent benefits.[8]

American cities had actually been taking an ecological approach to rat control for longer than one might expect, given the popular impact of books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring or Commoner’s own four laws of ecology: everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch. But ecologically-based rat control had been pioneered in Baltimore as early as the 1940s, in opposition to what Dawn Biehler has called the “pro-pesticide zeitgeist” of the postwar era. Researchers at Johns Hopkins had discovered that poisoning campaigns often failed at eradication. Rat populations seemingly devastated by such campaigns quickly bounced back, and rats generally remained within a territory no larger than a single city block.[9]

“Control of Domestic Rats and Mice,” Center for Disease Control/U.S. Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare, 1968. Barry Commoner Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Those insights suggested a nonchemical approach that foregrounded housing and community cleanliness, putting safe and healthy living spaces for humans first. But in the Baltimore of the 1940s, the research also had the effect of atomizing the city, reducing it to a gridded map of researchable space. The result was a kind of tunnel vision, with Baltimore’s rat catchers focusing on outdoor rats to the exclusion of those indoors, oversimplifying the complexity of rat territories caught up in an urban renewal-driven upheaval, and failing to leverage community engagement in support of their work.[10]

Walter Johnson has called St. Louis the “morning star of US imperialism,” a city built around indigenous removals and Indian wars with an economy undergirded by military contracting well into the twentieth century.[11] Perhaps coincidentally, when the CBNS went looking for a researcher for Rat Countdown, it found a vertebrate ecologist whose expertise in rats had been forged in the spaces of America’s overseas empire. Kyle Barbehenn, who in 1968 accepted an appointment as a CBNS Visiting Fellow specializing in urban ecology, ran Rat Countdown’s research component. He came to St. Louis directly from the Philippines. He had worked there as he did for over a decade in Guam, Hawai’i, and the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands: investigating rodent ecology, advising on rat control efforts, and dutifully forwarding his rodent specimens to the Smithsonian.[12]

One of the overseas initiatives Barbehenn had joined, the Pacific Island Rat Ecology Project (shorthanded PIRATE), aimed at a “basic fundamental study of the ecology of Pacific Island rats” with a view toward preventing economic damage in America’s Micronesian possessions. The project’s principal investigator, Tracy I. Storer, had proclaimed the Pacific Islands “nature’s laboratories for certain kinds of basic research.” But after three years of work largely centered on the island of Pohnpei, Barbehenn had struggled to articulate a usable analysis of rat population dynamics, calling for new studies on a “simple” high island, as though such a place existed. Instead Pohnpei, with its layered colonial pasts, intricate indigenous agroforests, three different species of rats, and typhoons throwing experiments into chaos, might have suggested the pitfalls of rodent ecology research that sidelined the human politics of infestations.[13]

Sewer work on the River Des Peres, 1930. The river is the backbone of the city’s sewer system, carrying both storm and waste water. Here it is being channelized and redirected underground. Lemen Streets and Sewers Collection, Rare Books and Manuscripts, St. Louis Public Library

In St. Louis, starting in 1968, Barbehenn and his assistant Ralph Criscione again researched rat population dynamics, this time of the city’s sewer rats. They made some preliminary findings. First, that sewer rat populations appeared to be self-sustaining and distinct, interacting only minimally with surface rat populations. This meant sewer rats should pose a minimal threat to humans, who were at far greater risk from rats living in their own homes. Second, that the city’s sewers didn’t provide a stable habitat with a fixed rat population, as Barbehenn had assumed, but a seasonal population that declined in the winter. This suggested anticoagulant poisons applied seasonally, when the rats were at a low ebb, might be most effective. And third, that worries over expensive garbage disposals drawing sewer rats to the city’s richest neighborhoods were unfounded.[14] Rats still stuck to the city’s poorest, most segregated, most disinvested areas.

In interviews and reports from Rat Countdown, Barbehenn appears much more attuned to the politics of rat control than he had been in Micronesia. In 1969 he asserted that “city rats are really just a symptom of what’s wrong with society” and argued that research like his could generate “scientific evidence of the need for massive repair of the urban environment” and become a “powerful force for creative change.” But times had clearly changed from the days when the Johns Hopkins rat ecologists roamed freely over Baltimore, experimenting as they pleased. “The residents of the lower socio-economic areas,” Barbehenn mused, “now resent university people coming in and exploiting them by taking out information and not putting anything back into the system.”[15] He spoke from experience. Black St. Louisans had been resisting his own work on the very same grounds.

Map showing Countdown target areas on a gridded map of St. Louis. Edwin J. Heidig, “Initial Technical Evaluation: Rat Control Program, St. Louis, Missouri.” Box 466, Folder 3. Barry Commoner Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“Who suffers the most?”

St. Louis has a long history of radical political organizing, from the waves of radicalized immigrants displaced by Europe’s 1848 revolutions to protests following the shooting of Michael Brown. Activism during the civil rights era and Black freedom struggle tended toward economic issues: jobs, housing, and an equitable social wage, with Black women often on the leading edge.[16] In 1970 the city spawned the short-lived Metropolitan Black Survival Committee, among the nation’s first Black activist groups dedicated specifically to environmental issues. Its leader, social worker Freddie Mae Brown, urgently emphasized the disparate impact of issues like lead poisoning, air pollution, and highway construction on African Americans. “People talk about dirty air,” Brown told a reporter, “but who suffers the most from it?…Where do the garbage and abandoned cars pile up? Right here on our streets, because the city doesn’t pick them up.”[17]

Black Survival’s co-organizer, Wilbur L. Thomas, also served as coordinator for the CBNS Environmental Field Program. He had come to the Center from Vashon High School, where he began teaching science shortly after the city ejected the school from its longtime home in Mill Creek Valley, amid a systematic dismantling of the neighborhood. In 1970 Thomas argued that African Americans were both disproportionately exposed to environmental health hazards like lead poisoning, pollution, and rat infestations and the least equipped to survive them, given an “existing basic political, economical, and social system” that was unresponsive to their needs and itself “primarily responsible” for urban decay. “Black folks,” Thomas insisted, “encounter another set of environmental hazards in addition to the universal burden on all, and hence receive a double dose of ecological backfires.”[18]

When residents of the Murphy-Blair area threatened to block Rat Countdown in 1969, demanding a “representative organization” be subcontracted to hire community members for education and public relations work, it was Thomas who started negotiations. The sticking point was, of course, access to jobs. As Rob Gioielli notes, it was a demand the city’s Black residents frequently made of social and public health projects in their neighborhoods at the time.[19] But residents may also have been wary of the victim-blaming that inflected rat control efforts of the past, as when health commissioner J. Earl Smith justified the city’s near-abandonment of rat control in Mill Creek Valley in 1955 by commenting, “a rat doesn’t go anywhere unless he’s invited.”[20]

“A Caged Rat.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. August 15, 1970.

In any case, the protest created enough pressure to stall Rat Countdown’s formal launch. Thomas settled the dispute by developing a “plan of cooperative action,” promising to hire local residents for survey and rat control operations. But when neither the city nor the neighborhood would (or could) produce sufficient funding, the program was left critically understaffed. While several other city beautification projects, some with substantial community support, did help reduce food and harborage for the city’s rats, by the summer of 1970 Rat Countdown was already being declared a public failure. Participants in the Center’s Rat Ecology and Control Project for Youth, a cooperative summer program with St. Louis University, castigated the project for its ineffectiveness and “chronic fear…of working with neighborhood people.” To drive the point home, the group mimicked housing activists nationally by escorting a captured, caged rat into the City Hall as aldermen “looked on in amazement,” leveraging the rat’s grotesque visibility in defense of the city’s often-invisible urban poor.[21]

Looking back, Barbehenn had his own thoughts on Countdown’s failure. Interviewed in 1973 along with St. Louis University’s Bruce Sommer, the two blamed an overreliance on poisons and city officials unable to imagine inner city residents “adaptable to improving sanitary habits.” Barbehenn was surely also miffed that his planned house-to-house survey was never completed, leaving the city unnecessarily ignorant of the ecology of the very house rats that were most threatening to humans. But Sommer and Barbehenn particularly blamed politics. They argued that federal rat control programs had been conceived, nationally, in response to the “ghetto riots of the 1960s,” that they were “a sop, a deterrent to future violence.” Poisoning had limited efficacy in terms of citywide rat control, but a pile of dead rats had an immediate impact. As the project dragged on, as it did for more than a decade, Barbehenn and Sommer saw city workers growing disillusioned, employing ineffective strategies in dead-end jobs to tackle a seemingly insurmountable problem.[22]

What attracted the attention of such a diverse group of actors to rat control issues in 1960s and 1970s St. Louis was also what made the problem so intractable. Urban rat infestations are as much a problem in their own right as they are symptomatic of systemic issues: of segregation, disinvestment, and poverty. As Dawn Biehler suggests, these stories of urban pests can broaden our understanding of environmentalism, human health, and environmental injustice.[23] The Commoner Papers at the Library of Congress offer researchers this and more: not only a window into Barry Commoner’s life and work, but into the environmental history of St. Louis and the intellectual forebears of the environmental justice movement.

Josh Levy is the historian of science and technology at the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, and has taught courses in Pacific history, environmental history, and the history of technology. He holds an MTS in religious studies from Harvard Divinity School and a PhD in American history from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The opinions expressed in this post are his, and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Library of Congress.

Featured image (at top): An assistant with the Pacific Island Rat Ecology Project measuring and weighing recently killed rats in a laboratory. Strecker, Robert L., et. al., Pacific Island Rat Ecology: Report of a Study Made on Ponape and Adjacent Islands, 1955-1958, (Honolulu: Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 1962), 93.

[1] Andrew Hurley. “Floods, Rats, and Toxic Waste: Allocating Environmental Hazards Since World War II.” In Common Fields: An Environmental History of St. Louis. (Saint Louis: Missouri Historical Press, 1997), 252.

[2] Michael Egan. Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2007), 8.

[3] Jonathan Burt. Rat. (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), 13, 30, 32, 34, 36.

[4] Walter Johnson. The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States. (New York: Basic Books, 2020), 309.

[5] Malcolm McLaughlin. “The Pied Piper of the Ghetto: Lyndon Johnson, Environmental Justice, and the Politics of Rat Control.” Journal of Urban History 37, no. 4 (2011), 546; Dickson Terry. “Sweeping Changes Sought in Looks of City’s Alleys.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch Everyday Magazine, August 28, 1969.

[6] Katherine T. Corbett “Draining the Metropolis: The Politics of Sewers in Nineteenth-Century St. Louis” in Common Fields: An Environmental History of St. Louis. (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1997), 115, 123-124.

[7] U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Proceedings of Rat Control Project Conference: Airlie House, Warrenton, Virginia, June 9-11, 1970. (Washington, DC, 1970), 3; Malcolm McLaughlin. “The Pied Piper of the Ghetto: Lyndon Johnson, Environmental Justice, and the Politics of Rat Control.” Journal of Urban History 37, no. 4 (2011): 543

[8] “Grant to Washington U. for Study of Rat Behavior.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Nov. 26, 1968; “Rat Research in St. Louis: An Annual Report to the Ford Foundation,” 1969, 3. Box 466, Folder 3. Barry Commoner Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC; Jerome P. Curry. “Research to Aid City’s War on Rats.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Jan. 25, 1970.

[9] Dawn Day Biehler. Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, & Rats. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013), 112, 128.

[10] Biehler, Pests in the City, 132-135.

[11] Johnson, Broken Heart, 5-6.

[12] Sheldon Novick to Senior Fellows, August 16, 1968. Box 380, Folder 4. LOC Commoner Papers; Alan McGowan to Task Force Chairmen and Senior Fellows, April 20, 1972. Box 382, Folder 2. LOC Commoner Papers.

[13] Robert L. Strecker, Joe T. Marshall Jr., William B. Jackson, Kyle R. Barbehenn, and David H. Johnson. Pacific Island Rat Ecology: Report of a Study Made on Ponape and Adjacent Islands, 1955-1958. (Honolulu, Hawaii: Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 1962), 1, 3, 18, 227.

[14] “Rat Ecology Field Study Aims at New Understanding of Old Urban Problem.” CBNS Notes 2, no. 6 (Nov.-Dec. 1969), 4-6. Box 466, Folder 3. LOC Commoner Papers; “Progress Report, May 1969 through April 1970. Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, April 1, 1970,” II-48, II-53. Box 390, Folder 3, LOC Commoner Papers.

[15] “Rat Ecology Field Study Aims at New Understanding of Old Urban Problem.” CBNS Notes 2, no. 6 (Nov.-Dec. 1969), 9. Box 466, Folder 3. LOC Commoner Papers.

[16] Johnson, Broken Heart, 4-5.

[17] Robert Adams. “‘Black Survival’ Group Pushes Pollution Fight.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Apr. 26, 1970; Robert L. Joiner. “Black Group Seeks Pollution Study Funds.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Sept. 2, 1970; Rob Gioielli. “Black Survival: Mainstream Environmentalism’s Missed Opportunities.” Enviro-History.com, Apr. 22, 2019. http://enviro-history.com/black-survival.html; Wilbur L. Thomas. “The Real Issue of Black Survival in Our Polluted Cities,” Feb. 20, 1970, 3, 6, 9. Box 332, Folder 6. LOC Commoner Papers.

[18] “Wilbur L. Thomas Jr.; Teacher, Health Care Administrator Here.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Feb.16, 1995; “A History of Vashon High School,” Saint Louis Public Schools. Accessed Jan. 8, 2022.  https://www.slps.org/domain/2956.

[19] Robert Gioielli, email message to author, Jan. 2, 2022.

[20] “Offers Group $20,000 for Rat Control Work.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. July 2, 1969; Barry Commoner to Wilbur L. Thomas, n.d. Box 466, Folder 3. LOC Commoner Papers; “Progress Report, May 1969 through April 1970. Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, April 1, 1970,” II-54. Box 390, Folder 3. LOC Commoner Papers; Andrew Hurley. “Floods, Rats, and Toxic Waste: Allocating Environmental Hazards Since World War II.” In Common Fields: An Environmental History of St. Louis. (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Press, 1997), 251.

[21] “Progress Report, May 1969 through April 1970. Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, April 1, 1970,” II-54. Box 390, Folder 3. LOC Commoner Papers; Dickson Terry. “Sweeping Changes Sought in Looks of City’s Alleys.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch Everyday Magazine, Aug. 28, 1969; “$750,000 Sought for Rat Control.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Jan. 3, 1970; “Caged Rat Used to Show Plight of City Dwellers.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Aug. 14, 1970;  Mandi Isaacs Jackson. “Harlem’s Rent Strike and Rat War: Representation, Housing Access and Tenant Resistance in New York, 1958-1964.” American Studies 47, no. 1 (Spring 2006), 66.

[22] Paul Wagman. “Laxity by City Workers: A Chain of Problems.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Dec. 3, 1973; Jerome P. Curry. “Research to Aid City’s War on Rats.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Jan. 25, 1970.

[23] Biehler, Pests in the City, 9.

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