Susan Shaw, founder of what is now called the Shaw Institute, died Jan. 27. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SHAW INSTITUTE

MERI founder Susan Shaw dies at 78

BROOKLIN — As a child in Texas, the late Marine Environmental Research Institute founder Susan Shaw would go down hills standing on the seat of her bike.

The environmental health scientist and Brooklin resident passed away Jan. 27 after an illness. She was 78.

“As a child, she was a high diver,” recalled Shaw’s wife and partner of 38 years, Cynthia Stroud. “She had kind of a wild spirit, an independent spirit, she was very courageous.”

That spirit, along with her passion for public health and marine health, would fuel Shaw to swim in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill in 2010.

“When she swam in the Gulf of Mexico, to be the first person in the water after the oil spill, she wrote such an important op-ed piece in the New York Times,” said friend and former institute board member Susan Leonard of New York City. “Nobody was really paying attention that the stuff they were using to clean up the oil spill was worse than the oil.”

Stroud said that at the time of her wife’s passing, Shaw had several projects going.

“The one she was working on most, they’re getting samples now in India; it was about the waste pickers — the children at risk,” Stroud said. A lot of the waste is burning and is quite hazardous, she said. “She cared deeply about the children.”

“She was dedicated and fearless,” Stroud said. In Shaw’s work with the chemical industries, “standing up to them took a lot of courage.”

“She had a dry wit, and she was a keen observer of people,” Stroud said. “She was funny about that. She’d catch you by surprise with her humor. She was just fun. She was very bright, and she had a real sparkle, a beaming smile. A good sense of humor, very dry, very funny.”

“She was focused,” her wife said. “She was very specific. She knew what she thought, pursued it. She got up in the morning and worked. She loved working.”

Shaw founded MERI, now known as The Shaw Institute, in 1990. The New York and Blue Hill-based institute’s mission is to discover and expose environmental threats to people and wildlife through innovative science and to engage in global partnerships to improve human and ecological health. Over three decades, its research on plastics, ocean pollution, flame retardants and climate change has informed public opinion and fueled policy, affecting millions of people in the U.S. and around the world.

Shaw’s work has made a difference for firefighters near and far.

“We owe Susan our appreciation for the improvements in the health and safety of firefighters,” said Hancock County Firefighters Association President Tom Morris of Brooklin.

Leonard said Shaw had gotten very involved in researching fire retardants and illnesses in firefighters.

“I was a principal in New York at the time, and I had a science teacher who was a volunteer firefighter,” Leonard said. “They prided themselves on never cleaning their gear. I kept sending him all of Susan’s stuff saying, ‘This is killing you guys, you can’t keep doing that.’ Finally, those guys in New Jersey started cleaning their gear.”
Despite all of this important work, Shaw still liked to have a good time.
“She loved to gamble,” Stroud said. “She wasn’t a big spender, but she loved to gamble.”

Shaw also liked to eat.

“Her interests in science and the environment were foremost, but she loved good food and good wine,” said Leonard.

“I can think of some really good meals I’ve had with Susan. She loved Maine, but she loved New York.”

Shaw had moved to New York from Austin, Texas, to use the Lincoln Center Library for her thesis and stayed, Stroud said.

The couple met in New York when Stroud attended a nutrition lecture Shaw gave.

“Her love, besides anything international, was French literature and film,” Stroud said.

Shaw had a degree in documentary film and had worked with the late film critic Andrew Sarris.

But, Shaw would switch her focus to improving the health of the world and its people.

“She had a pretty big practice in nutrition while she was helping to put herself through Columbia [University],” said Stroud. Shaw got to a point where she realized nutrition didn’t “scratch the surface of what the nastier diseases were. That’s why she got into public health.”

The couple moved to Maine in 1989. They have a house in Brooklin.

In 1990, Shaw founded MERI, which was renamed The Shaw Institute in 2018 to honor its founder and recognize the organization’s expanded research work.

Maria Westerbos, the founder of Plastic Soup based in Amsterdam, met Shaw on Earth Day in Texas in 2018 and the two became fast friends.

“We talked for a long time and that never stopped after that,” Westerbos said. “We talked about making the world a better place. Trying to reinforce each other.”

Westerbos said she intends to continue Shaw’s work helping waste pickers.

“I want to see if I can finish that,” said Westerbos. “If we can save these children from certain death. I promise I will follow in her footsteps to see if I can finish that crusade she took on. Those children deserve a better life. She knew that better than anyone else. I will miss her tremendously.”

Shaw was the recipient of numerous awards, none of which made her prouder than being the 19th Gold Medalist of the Society of Woman Geographers, which put her in the ranks of Amelia Earhart, Margaret Mead, Sylvia Earle and Jane Goodall.

“I met Susan through the Society of Women Geographers, so we were colleagues there,” said her friend Alice LeBlanc, an environmental economist in Spencertown, N.Y. “She was my sponsor into the Explorers Club.

“We became close personal friends as well. Being with Susan was always fun. She had a great sense of humor and an adventurous spirit that brought sparkle to our conversations. I am grateful for having known her, for her friendship and love as well as for her achievements in protecting the natural world and human health.”

Stroud said, “I think she’d like to be remembered for her sparkling energy, her really lovely mind and humor and her passion for being a good force in the world.”

The board of directors at the Shaw Institute is working to appoint an interim executive director while they search for Shaw’s permanent replacement.

A memorial service will be held in Blue Hill in the summer. Donations to The Shaw Institute would be appreciated in lieu of flowers.


Jennifer Osborn

Jennifer Osborn

Reporter and columnist at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Jennifer Osborn covers news and features on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington. She welcomes tips and story ideas. She also writes the Gone Shopping column. Email Jennifer with your suggestions at [email protected] or call 667-2576.
Jennifer Osborn

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