George J. Wallace: Dying to be Heard Documentary

The life and work of MSU ornithologist Dr. George J. Wallace was featured in the Michigan Emmy award-winning documentary, Dying to Be Heard, the first documentary in a periodic series titled Environment, premiered on the 100th birthday of the late Rachel Carson, a date celebrated nationwide by environmentalists. The video project was inspired by an article in EJ Magazine by Jim Detjen, Director and Chair of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.   

Shot and co-produced with the help of Michigan State University students in various locations around the MSU campus, the documentary ­ directed by instructor Lou D'Aria ­ focuses on the challenges that Wallace, a professor of zoology at what was then Michigan State College, had to overcome to prove the damaging effects of DDT on MSU's robins and other wildlife. Wallace's work played a major role in the eventual banning of the pesticide. It was his -- and his students' -- research that was cited in Carson's landmark book, Silent Spring. The Knight Center documentary is a historical look into Wallace's groundbreaking research. 

Some of the birds that Wallace and his students collected for study are housed in the collections of MSU'S museum. Much of the story was told by MSU professors Dr. Richard Snider, Dr. Jim Bingen, and former MSU president Dr. Gordon Guyer. Snider remembers that the robins were dying in great numbers were all over the campus... "They would just shake and then plop over dead," he recalls. 

D'Aria referred to the robins as "collateral damage...damage from a forgotten war, it was a war against nature." Snider had been a student working with Wallace at the time and recalls the personal and professional criticism heaped upon the professor for his research. It wasn't until a young Congressman, John Dingell, threatened to withhold federal funding for Michigan State University unless Wallace's theories were appropriately recognized that he gained the respect he deserved and his message was heard. 

"Wallace did it through Rachel Carson," says Snider. "She quoted him all the time until her death."

Not long after Wallace's death, MSU's Dr. Gordon Guyer presented Wallace with an honorary Ph.D. It was accepted by one of Wallace's daughters. Today the University honors Wallace with a scholarship in his and his wife's name. 

"The wonderful part of the story is that we were able to involve students not only from journalism and telecommunications, but the College of Music as well as fisheries and wildlife. All but one student worked for no credit," says D'Aria, adding they also worked with professors in zoology, and natural resources, as well as the MSU Museum and the Michigan State Archives. 

Dying to be Heard was named one of the top three student-produced documentaries in the nation in 2008.

References

1. Suelter, Clarence H. A History of the College of Natural Science, Michigan State University,1855-2005. CD-ROM. Distributed by College of Natural Science Alumni Association. 2008. 
 
2. Department of Zoology. News Archives. 2007-2015. Web.