Earth Day co-founder Morton S. Hilbert dies

April 9, 2007

ANN ARBOR—Morton Shelly Hilbert, a co-founder of Earth Day and University of Michigan professor emeritus of public health, died on Dec. 24 at his home in Bellevue, Wash. He was 81.

Hilbert was an environmentalist known for his affable demeanor and distinguished leadership, according to his colleagues. He was a distinguished academician and public health steward who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of thousands of people throughout the world.

“He will always be remembered at the school for his skillful leadership and contributions to public health,” said Robert H. Gray, a colleague and professor of environmental-industrial health at the U-M School of Public Health.

In 1968, Hilbert and the U.S. Public Health Service organized an environmental conference for students to hear from scientists about the effects of environmental degradation on human health. This was the beginning of Earth Day. For the next two years, Hilbert and students worked to plan the first Earth Day. In the spring of 1970?along with a federal proclamation from U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson?the first Earth Day was held.

While Earth Day was only one of Hilbert’s many accomplishments in the environmental arena, it clearly demonstrated his unique ability to channel the environmental concern of others toward constructive conclusions, his colleagues noted.

He touched the lives of thousands of people throughout the United States, Europe, U.S. Virgin Islands and Third World countries where he helped develop public sanitation systems and sanitary public health-care facilities.

For 18 years he was director of the Environmental Health Department for Wayne County (Detroit). In 1954, he helped to relocate 1 million refugees in Vietnam.

In 1961, he returned to the U-M as associate professor of environmental health. In 1968, Hilbert was appointed chairman of Environmental Health for the U-M School of Public Health. The department eventually became Environmental and Industrial Health, of which Hilbert was the first chairman.

Also in 1968, he served as a member of President Nixon’s Task Force on Urban Problems. In 1975-76 he served as president of the American Public Health Association (APHA). While president, he emphasized the primacy of prevention which he believed had often been neglected among public health officials in favor of “corrective action.”

After retiring from the U-M in 1986, Hilbert and his family moved to Brussels, Belgium, where Hilbert was director of the European Office of the National Sanitation Foundation. In 1992, he and his family moved to Bellevue, Wash.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Stephen, a junior at the University of Washington, two daughters and two grandsons: Major Kathleen Murray of Minot, N.D.; Barbara Kaier of Dearborn, Mich.; Nathan Murray, Ramstein, Germany; and Jason Kaier of Dearborn, Mich.

A memorial service was held Dec. 30 in Bellevue. The family asks that contributions may be made in his name to: The University of Michigan School of Public Health, Encore Playhouse in Bellevue and the American Heart Association.