Jump to content

Gaylord Nelson

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Gaylord Nelson
Nelson in 1963
United States Senator
from Wisconsin
In office
January 8, 1963 – January 3, 1981
Preceded byAlexander Wiley
Succeeded byBob Kasten
35th Governor of Wisconsin
In office
January 5, 1959 – January 7, 1963
LieutenantPhilleo Nash
Warren P. Knowles
Preceded byVernon Wallace Thomson
Succeeded byJohn Reynolds
Member of the Wisconsin Senate
from the 26th district
In office
January 3, 1949 – January 5, 1959
Preceded byFred Risser
Succeeded byHorace W. Wilkie
Personal details
Gaylord Anton Nelson

(1916-06-04)June 4, 1916
Clear Lake, Wisconsin, U.S.
DiedJuly 3, 2005(2005-07-03) (aged 89)
Kensington, Maryland, U.S.
Resting placeClear Lake Cemetery, Clear Lake, Wisconsin
Political partyDemocratic
Carrie Lee Dotson
(m. 1947)
EducationSan Jose State University (BA)
University of Wisconsin–Madison (LLB)
AwardsPresidential Medal of Freedom (1995)
Military service
Allegiance United States
Branch/serviceUnited States Army
Battles/warsWorld War II

Gaylord Anton Nelson (June 4, 1916 – July 3, 2005) was an American politician from Wisconsin who served as a United States senator and governor. He was a member of the Democratic Party and the founder of Earth Day, which launched a new wave of environmental activism.

Early life and education[edit]

Nelson was born in 1916 in Clear Lake, Wisconsin, the son of Mary (Bradt), a nurse, and Anton Nelson, a country doctor. He had Norwegian and Irish ancestry.[1] He grew up and was educated in the local public schools. In 1939, he received a bachelor's in political science at what is now San Jose State University in San Jose, California.[2] In 1942, he received an LL.B. degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison[3][4] and was admitted to the bar. He practiced as a lawyer before serving in the United States Army, during which time he saw action in the Okinawa campaign during World War II. He rose to the rank of first lieutenant.


Nelson as governor
Nelson as U.S. Senator

In 1948, Nelson was elected to the Wisconsin State Senate. He remained there until 1958, when he was elected governor of Wisconsin. He served for four years as governor, in two two-year terms, before being elected to the United States Senate in 1962. He served three consecutive terms as a senator from 1963 to 1981. In 1963 he convinced President John F. Kennedy to take a national speaking tour to discuss conservation issues. Senator Nelson founded Earth Day, which began as a teach-in about environmental issues on April 22, 1970.[5]

During his 1968 re-election campaign, Nelson was praised by Vince Lombardi, the General Manager and former coach of the Green Bay Packers, as the "nation's #1 conservationist" at a banquet in Oshkosh. Nelson's campaign turned Lombardi's banquet speech into a radio and television campaign commercial, infuriating Lombardi, the Wisconsin Republican Party, and Vince's wife, Marie, who was a staunch Republican.[6]

Although known primarily for his environmental work, Nelson also was a leading consumer advocate, strong supporter of civil rights and civil liberties, and one of the early outspoken opponents of the Vietnam War.[7] In 1969, Nelson was one of four senators to introduce a bill to establish the Wisconsin Islands Wilderness.[8]

In 1970, Nelson called for Congressional hearings on the safety of combined oral contraceptive pills, which were famously called "The Nelson Pill Hearings." As a result of the hearings, side-effect disclosure in patient inserts was required for the pill – the first such disclosure for a pharmaceutical drug.[9]

Nelson further attempted to overhaul how pharmaceuticals were marketed, proposing a bill that would require drug manufacturers to prove both the safety and efficacy of their marketed drugs in 1971.[10] His office received a memorandum in 1975 stating that both Sominex and its competitor Compoz had been shown ineffective when compared to placebos, in spite of the US$34 million spent on sleeping aids in 1974.[11]

Nelson was also a noted advocate of small business. While chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, he led successful efforts to authorize the first modern White House Conference on Small Business, create the system of Small Business Development Centers at U.S. universities, and improve the way that federal agencies regulate small businesses and other small entities, the Regulatory Flexibility Act.[7][12]

In 1973, Nelson was one of the three senators who opposed the nomination of Gerald Ford to be Vice President. (The other two were Thomas Eagleton and William Hathaway.)[citation needed]


After Nelson's 1980 defeat for re-election, he became counselor for The Wilderness Society in January 1981. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in September 1995 in recognition of his environmental work.

Nelson was inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in 1986. The Wisconsin Conservation Hall of fame is located at the Schmeeckle Reserve Visitor Center in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. The visitor center is maintained by the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Nelson viewed the stabilization of the nation's population as an important aspect of environmentalism. In his words:

The bigger the population gets, the more serious the problems become ... We have to address the population issue. The United Nations, with the U.S. supporting it, took the position in Cairo in 1994 that every country was responsible for stabilizing its own population. It can be done. But in this country, it's phony to say "I'm for the environment but not for limiting immigration."[13]

He also rejected the suggestion that economic development should take precedence over environmental protection:

The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around.[14]

In 2002, Nelson appeared on To Tell the Truth as a contestant, with his founding of Earth Day highlighted.

Death and legacy[edit]

Nelson died of cardiovascular failure at age 89 on July 3, 2005.

The Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (or Nelson Institute) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison is named after him in recognition of his love for nature.[15] In addition, the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore –comprising more than 80% of the land area of the park – was named after him in honor of his efforts to have the park created.[16][17] Governor Nelson State Park near Waunakee, Wisconsin, is also named after him. The elementary school in Clear Lake, Wisconsin is named Gaylord A. Nelson Educational Center.


  1. ^ "Nelson, Gaylord Anton". Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved April 21, 2021.
  2. ^ "Distinguished Alumni". SJSU. Archived from the original on October 28, 2014. Retrieved June 7, 2014.
  3. ^ University of Wisconsin-Madison News. "Alumni Park opening date, first featured grads announced". May 10, 2017.
  4. ^ "Earth Day Founder Gaylord Nelson to Receive Medal of Freedom" (PDF). The Wilderness Society. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 22, 2017 – via Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day.
  5. ^ Seely, Ron (July 4, 2005). "A Wisconsin giant; Founding Earth Day one of many achievements of the former governor and senator Gaylord Nelson: 1916-2005". Wisconsin State Journal. Archived from the original on July 31, 2005. Retrieved April 23, 2015.
  6. ^ Maraniss, David (1999). When Pride Still Mattered. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-87290-0.
  7. ^ a b Aukofer, Frank A. "Gaylord Nelson: Earth Day founder was a voice crying out for the wilderness". Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Archived from the original on January 31, 2006. Retrieved April 23, 2015.
  8. ^ Designation of Wilderness Areas: Hearings Before the Subcommittees on Public Lands and National Parks and Recreation of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, 1970, page 228–229
  9. ^ Seaman, Barbara (July 2005). "A Planetary Loss. Senator Nelson had more than one string to his bow". Healthy Skepticism. Retrieved March 11, 2007.
  10. ^ Kirkman, Don (July 22, 1971). "Stricter Control of Drugs to Be Asked". Knoxville News Sentinel. No. 29, 075. p. 24. Retrieved April 16, 2024 – via Newspapers.com.
  11. ^ Anderson, Jack (October 17, 1975). "Washington merry-go-round | Public service profitable for senator". Delphos Tri County Daily Herald. Vol. 106, no. 106. p. 6 – via NewspaperArchive.com.
  12. ^ Verkuil, Paul A. (April 1982). "A critical guide to the Regulatory Flexibility Act". Duke Law Journal. 31 (2): 227.
  13. ^ "Earth Day founder sees some progress". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. April 22, 2001. Archived from the original on June 3, 2001. Retrieved March 11, 2007.
  14. ^ Nelson, Gaylord (November 2002). Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise. Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-18040-9.
  15. ^ "The Nelson Legacy". The Nelson Institute. Retrieved September 30, 2016.
  16. ^ "Gaylord Nelson | The Wilderness Society". Wilderness.org. October 22, 2008. Archived from the original on October 7, 2008. Retrieved March 20, 2010.
  17. ^ "Apostle Islands National Lakeshore – Gaylord Nelson Wilderness". U.S. National Park Service. Retrieved March 20, 2010.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Party political offices
Preceded by Democratic nominee for Governor of Wisconsin
1958, 1960
Succeeded by
Preceded by Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator from Wisconsin (Class 3)
1962, 1968, 1974, 1980
Succeeded by
Wisconsin Senate
Preceded by Member of the Wisconsin Senate from the 26th district
January 3, 1949 – January 5, 1959
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by Governor of Wisconsin
Succeeded by
U.S. Senate
Preceded by U.S. Senator (Class 3) from Wisconsin
Served alongside: William Proxmire
Succeeded by
Preceded by Chair of the Senate Small Business Committee
Succeeded by