Dr. Susan Shaw was an environmental health scientist, marine toxicologist, professor, and author. She was globally recognized for pioneering research on ocean pollution, oil spills, and plastics that fueled public policy and societal change. Those close to her remember her as a witty, strong, and loving wife, sister, and friend. A wine-connoisseur passionate about documentary film and photography, Susan and Cynthia were also national doubles champions in boules. Her friends loved her for her sense of adventure and ability to always turn dull moments into fun memories.
Susan was born in Dallas, Texas on October 24, 1943. A talented archer and state-champion high diver, she was focused from a young age. Her extensive travels began as an American field Service exchange student to Germany as a high school junior. Then, while completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Texas, Susan was selected for the UT-Chilean Exchange Program in 1964 and spent a year in Chile as a Fulbright Scholar. “She graduated with every academic honor you could receive from the University of Texas,” Susan’s brother Stuart bragged. She then earned an MFA degree in Film from Columbia University and a doctorate in Public Health/Environmental Health Sciences from Columbia University's School of Public Health.
Susan’s early career was launched with the 1983 publication of her book Overexposure, commissioned by the legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams. The book was the first to document the health hazards of photographic darkroom chemicals and pointed to a link between these chemicals and cancer in young photographers, ultimately transforming the field.
In 1989 Susan moved to Blue Hill Bay on the coast of Maine to work on her dissertation and discovered “her soul place,” as described by Cynthia. She fell in love with the seals of the islands, watching them on the rock ledges during pupping season. In 1990, following the deaths of 20,000 harbor seals inhabiting polluted waters of northwestern Europe, Susan founded the Marine Environmental Research Institute (later renamed the Shaw Institute), a nonprofit scientific institution. Its mission was to improve human and ecological health through innovative science and strategic partnerships.
It was through the Shaw Institute that Susan was able to tackle her passion for the environment and work to rid chemical exposure in marine wildlife and humans. For more than three decades she used her platform to collaborate with scientists worldwide, addressing critical environmental and public health concerns including plastics, ocean pollution, flame retardants, and climate change. Named Gulf of Maine Visionary in 2007, she was credited as the first scientist to reveal widespread contamination of fish and marine mammals in the northwest Atlantic from flame retardant chemicals leaching from furniture. For this discovery, Susan was awarded a Citation of Recognition by the Governor and State of Maine Legislature.
An outspoken voice on ocean pollution, Susan was the first scientist to dive into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 to assess the BP oil spill, influencing the national debate on the dangers of dispersant chemicals. She delivered three TEDx talks discussing the long-term damage to the ecosystem and the impending human health crisis in the Gulf because of exposure to the oil-Corexit mixture. She appeared in several documentary films on the oil spill, including Animal Planet’s Black Tide: Voices of the Gulf and Green Planet's The Big Fix.
She then led an international team in examining the combined impact of global warming and pollution on the survival of marine mammals across three oceans. In 2012 Susan launched the first studies of microplastics in the Gulf of Maine that led to state and national bans of microbeads.
In 2018 the Shaw Institute partnered with the international Plastic Health Coalition to advance the understanding of the human health effects of microplastics and promote effective plastic reduction strategies on a global scale. Up until her death, Susan was working to expose illegal plastic waste trade and its catastrophic effect on the health of children in developing nations. Her last professional contribution was an impassioned speech at the 2021 Plastic Health Summit in Amsterdam, sounding the alarm on the millions of young children who work as waste pickers and e-waste recyclers, “The plastic waste trade is killing children. That violates every human right I can think of.”
Susan was recipient of numerous awards, none of which made her prouder than the 19th Gold Medalist of the Society of Woman Geographers, putting her in the ranks of Amelia Earhart, Margaret Mead, Sylvia Earle, and Jane Goodall.
Dr. Susan Shaw died peacefully at her New York City home in January, 2022 with her loving wife Cynthia Stroud by her side. She was 78 years old.