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June 22, 2022

MSU’s peregrine falcon legacy

George J. Wallace was a professor of zoology at Michigan State University from 1942 to 1972. His research in the 1960s is credited with inspiring the movement that eventually led to the banning of a dangerous insecticide and the revitalization of the peregrine falcon population.

Shortly after World War II, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, grew in popularity as a highly effective insecticide. In the 1950s, MSU deployed DDT to combat a surge of Dutch Elm disease, which is mostly spread by Elm bark beetles.

Soon after, Wallace began to observe large amounts of birds, particularly robins, dying on campus. Along with his students, Wallace analyzed the birds and found elevated levels of DDT. More observation and analysis found that, in treating the Elm trees, DDT was making its way into the soil and being ingested by earthworms. Robins and other birds ate the earthworms, resulting in the toxic chemical entering their nervous systems.

Farther up the food chain, as raptors ate the infected birds, the DDT in their systems resulted in the reduction of the thickness of their eggshells. Populations of raptors in the U.S., including the peregrine falcon, declined dramatically as the birds could not successfully reproduce.

Thanks to the research of Wallace and others, the use of DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972.

Wallace’s work was featured in the 2008 documentary, “Dying to Be Heard.” It was shot and co-produced with the help of MSU students in various locations around campus. Wallace’s connection to environmentalist Rachel Carson and her acclaimed book, “Silent Spring,” were part of an exhibit at the MSU Museum in 2012.

By: Melody Kindraka