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About Dennis Puleston
Dennis Puleston Celebration Transcript Lindblad Newsletter article New York Times Obit

New York Times
June 16, 2001

Dennis Puleston, 95, Environmental Leader Is Dead


Dennis Puleston, a naturalist, boat designer and yachtsman who, as founding chairman of the Environmental Defense Fund, played a leading role in getting the insecticide DDT banned in the United States and many other countries, died June 8 at his home in Brookhaven, N.Y. He was 95.

Mr. Puleston was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Harry S. Truman in 1948 for his work during the World War II in designing the DUKW amphibious landing craft, commonly known as the Duck, which was used in military campaigns like the Normandy landing.

After joining the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., in 1948, Mr. Puleston, a keen ornithologist most of his life, began to study a large breeding colony of ospreys - birds of prey that live off fish and are sometimes called fish hawks - on the privately owned Gardiners Island, off eastern Long Island.

By the early 1960's he had concluded that these ospreys were dying out as a result of the dichloro-diphenyl-trichlorethane, or DDT, being sprayed in the area to keep down mosquitoes; it weakened the shells of the birds' eggs so much that they could not protect the live chicks inside.

In 1966, four years after the publication of Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring," about the damage caused by chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides like DDT, Mr. Puleston and several colleagues won a lawsuit against the Suffolk County Mosquito Control Department and secured a yearlong ban on DDT spraying.

Inundated by requests for help in similar struggles from across the country, Mr. Puleston and his colleagues set up the Environmental Defense Fund in 1967 to raise money and campaign for better environmental protection.

He became the first chairman, a post he held until 1972.

In 1970, New York banned most uses of DDT and in 1972 a nationwide ban was instituted; many other countries followed suit.

Today, Environmental Defense, as Mr. Puleston's organization is called, is one of the leading environmental lobbying groups in the United States, with about 300,000 members and an annual budget of about $40 million.

Born near London on Dec. 30, 1905, Mr. Puleston grew up in the fishing village of Leigh-on-Sea on the Thames estuary in Essex, where he acquired a love of boats and a taste for adventure. He also became an avid naturalist and a skilled painter of birds.

After studying biology and naval architecture at London University, he set out across the Atlantic in 1931 with a friend in a small sailing boat on what was to become a six-year odyssey down the eastern seaboard of the United States, around the Caribbean and across the South Pacific, with interludes teaching sailing at Rye, N.Y., and running a coconut plantation on Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands.

In 1937, Mr. Puleston reached China just as the Sino-Japanese War was beginning. He managed to escape any trouble and made it to London on the Trans-Siberian Railway. He published an account of his adventures in "Blue Water Vagabond" (Doubleday, 1939).

He married Betty Wellington of New York in 1939 and became an American citizen in 1942, the year he started working with a firm of naval architects; he helped design the Duck-like two-and-a-half-ton DUKW amphibious landing craft adopted by the Allies.

Mr. Puleston was sent back to the Pacific, where he trained American forces on the craft, organized a training school for the British in India who used it and took part in amphibious operations in the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and Burma, where he was wounded in the spine by a Japanese shell splinter.

After a period in the hospital, he went to Britain to train allied forces in preparation for the Normandy landings. He then returned to the Pacific to organizing a DUKW training school on Oahu and take part in the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where he was when the war ended in September 1945.

After retiring from the Brookhaven laboratory in 1970, Mr. Puleston began a second career as a lecturer and a guide, accompanying groups of tourists on boat trips all over the world. He went on almost 200 cruises, including about 35 trips to Antarctica.

Mr. Puleston is survived by his wife; his son, Peter, of New Brunswick, Canada; and two daughters, Jennifer Clement of Brookhaven and Sally McIntosh, also of New Brunswick.