Morton Hilbert

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Morton Shelly Hilbert (January 3, 1917 – December 24, 1998) was a professor of public health, environmentalist, and co-founder of Earth Day.[1][2] He is best known for developing public sanitation systems and sanitary public healthcare facilities throughout the United States, Europe, U.S. Virgin Islands, and developing nations.


In 1940, Hilbert graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and began his career as a public health official and field engineer in Michigan. He then enrolled in the University of Michigan School of Public Health, and in 1946 received his master's degree in Public Health.

Environmental health[edit]

For 18 years he was director of the Environmental Health Department for Wayne County in the Detroit, Michigan area. In 1954, he helped to relocate 1 million refugees in Vietnam. In 1961, he returned to the University of Michigan as associate professor of environmental health. In 1968, Hilbert was appointed chairman of Environmental Health for the University of Michigan School of Public Health. The department eventually became Environmental and Industrial Health, and Hilbert was the first chairman.

From 1962-1969, he was the chairman of the board of the American Public Health Association.[3] His reports address a range of environmental health issues such as care of laboratory animals, air pollution, and sanitation in hospitals.[3] In 1968, he served as a member of President Richard Nixon's Task Force on Urban Problems.

Earth Day beginnings[edit]

In 1968, Hilbert and the U.S. Public Health Service organized the Human Ecology Symposium, an environmental conference for students to hear from scientists about the effects of environmental degradation on human health.[4] For the next two years, Hilbert and students worked to plan the first Earth Day.[5] In the spring of 1970—along with a federal proclamation from U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson—the first Earth Day was held.[6]

American Public Health Association[edit]

In 1975-76, Hilbert served as the first elected president of the American Public Health Association (APHA).[7] He was elected president in 1976, and focused his tenure on promoting the importance of prevention, rather than corrective action, in managing environmental health.[4]


Spanning the several decades of his career, he authored numerous articles on sanitation,[8] disease prevention,[9] housing,[10] and the environment.[11] Through his consulting business, Hilbert worked in many different locations including the Virgin Islands, Thailand, Egypt,[12][13] and Malaysia.[14]

Personal life and legacy[edit]

After retiring from the University of Michigan 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, Washington.

Hilbert is remembered by students, colleagues, and especially his family, who continue to honor his legacy. In 2008, his wife Stephanie Hilbert, Daughters Barbara Kaier and Major Kathi Murray, (Ret.) and son Stephen Hilbert, were honored guests of the Dalai Lama at the Earth Day celebration in Ann Arbor. In 2010, Stephen was keynote speaker celebrating Earth Day at Cascadia College in Bothell, Washington.[15]

Morton Hilbert's work can be viewed at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan.[4] He is referenced in the history of conservation and environmentalism movements in Michigan.[16] Recently, some have called for an increased awareness of Hilbert's role in the founding of Earth Day.[17]


  1. ^ "Center for Occupational Health & Safety Engineering: Alumni". Retrieved 2011-05-28. 
  2. ^ "U-M launches campus sustainability Web site". 2008-11-21. Retrieved 2011-05-28. 
  3. ^ a b Hilbert, MS (1970). "The Technical Development Board. Report of the chairman to the Governing Council, 1969". American journal of public health and the nation's health. 60 (1): 160–2. PMC 1349593Freely accessible. PMID 5460824. doi:10.2105/AJPH.60.1.160. 
  4. ^ a b c "Bentley Historical Library Finding Aids". 1976-10-18. Retrieved 2011-05-28. 
  5. ^ "Historical Timeline - About UM SPH". Retrieved 2011-05-28. 
  6. ^ "Earth Day co-founder Morton S. Hilbert dies". 1999-01-05. Retrieved 2011-05-28. 
  7. ^ "Past Presidents". APHA. Retrieved 2011-05-28. 
  8. ^ Hilbert, M. S. (1954). "Development of Sanitary Districts for Water, Sewage, Drainage, and Refuse Control". American Journal of Public Health. 44 (4): 467–72. PMC 1620700Freely accessible. PMID 13148391. doi:10.2105/AJPH.44.4.467. 
  9. ^ Hilbert, M S (1977). "Prevention". American Journal of Public Health. 67 (4): 353–6. PMC 1653598Freely accessible. PMID 403778. doi:10.2105/AJPH.67.4.353. 
  10. ^ Molner, JG; Hilbert, MS (1964). "Responsibilities of Public Health Administrations in the Field of Housing". Public health papers. 25: 9–46. PMID 14186559. 
  11. ^ Hilbert, MS (1979). "Challenges to environmental health personnel". Journal of environmental health. 41 (6): 315–7. PMID 10308910. 
  12. ^ Miller, F; Hussein, M; Mancy, KH; Hilbert, MS; Monto, AS; Barakat, RM (1981). "An epidemiological study of Schistosoma haematobium and S. Mansoni infection in thirty-five rural Egyptian villages". Tropical and geographical medicine. 33 (4): 355–65. PMID 7342382. 
  13. ^ Dewolfe Miller, F; Mancy, KH; King, C; Hilbert, MS; Hussein, M (1979). "Schistosome patterns in Egypt". Lancet. 2 (8145): 749. PMID 90843. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(79)92136-6. 
  14. ^ Chen, Donald F.; Meier, Peter G.; Hilbert, Morton S. (1984). "Organochlorine pesticide residues in paddy fish in Malaysia and the associated health risk to farmers". Bulletin of the World Health Organization. 62 (2): 251–3. PMC 2536305Freely accessible. PMID 6610493. 
  15. ^ "Cascadia to Celebrate Earth Day with Tree Planting Ceremony on April 22". 2010-04-14. Retrieved 2011-05-28. 
  16. ^ "Conservation and Environmentalism Movements in Michigan". 2008-09-01. Retrieved 2011-05-28. 
  17. ^ "Real Green Girl: Happy Earth Day! - Who Was the Original Founder?". 2009-04-22. Retrieved 2011-05-28.