Pioneering mercury research cited

William F. Fitzgerald, emeritus Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Marine Sciences, will be recognized for his pioneering work on mercury in the environment with the first Kathryn R. Mahaffey Lifetime Achievement Award in Mercury Research.

The award will be given at the 10th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant in Halifax, Nova Scotia on July 28.

The award was named in honor of the late Kathryn Mahaffey, a former EPA mercury scientist who wrote a groundbreaking study for Congress in 1998 on mercury poisoning and was known for her activism in pursuing protection from lead poisoning and other environmental pollutants.

Fitzgerald, often called “the father of mercury research,” began studying the effects of mercury in the environment as a graduate student. He was one of the first to adopt clean lab techniques in studying trace metals. His were the first accurate global cycling models and estimates of natural versus human-caused deposition of mercury in the environment, according to those who nominated him for the award.

Fitzgerald refers to himself as a bio-geochemist and chemical oceanographer. Four of the papers that he co-authored in the 1970s and 1980s have more than 1,000 citations to date. Although retired, he remains an active researcher. In June he and Pieter Visscher, professor of marine sciences, were awarded a $500,000 National Science Foundation grant to study the cycles and transformation of mercury in the upper ocean, and they will conduct a month of research in the Pacific Ocean this fall. Fitzgerald is also working on an NSF-funded mercury research project on the Continental Shelf and Slope off New England.

“His pioneering work has influenced nearly every mercury scientist and nearly ever facet of mercury research over the past 30 years,” wrote ten fellow scientists (many of them his former graduate students) in nominating him for the Mahaffey award.

“The important contemporary human and wildlife exposure questions we are now posing and exploring would be likely delayed by decades if Bill’s group had not developed the analytical techniques or applied the oceanographic ‘clean hands’ methods so widely utilized today,” they wrote.

Among the scientists nominating him for the Mahaffey award was Robert Mason, professor of marine sciences who was one of Fitzgerald’s first PhD students and who taught at the University of Maryland before returning to UConn.

“He’s been the leader in the study of mercury in the ocean and how it moves around and is transported in the atmosphere,” he says of Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald is a native of Boston who studied chemistry at Boston College and Holy Cross. He earned the first PhD granted in a joint Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute/Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemical oceanography program. While there, he became interested in studying mercury after learning about the then-largest industrial poisoning ever – the contamination of Minamata Bay, a Japanese fishing village, by discharges from a chemical company.

He came to UConn in 1970 as an assistant professor and has had almost continuous funding from the NSF for his research.

He previously won the Clair C. Patterson Medal, the highest award of the Geochemical Society for environmental geochemistry. Patterson developed clean lab techniques in studying trace metals, which Fitzgerald learned from him when he was a young researcher. Fitzgerald later established the first clean lab at Avery Point, and his research group developed protocols that are now used worldwide for analyzing and processing mercury.
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