(from the University of
Morton Shelley 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
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
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
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.
From the Michigan
"He forever challenged his
co-workers and students to think broadly," said Glenn Brown,
a colleague of Hilbert at the Wayne County Department for
Working in public and environmental
health through most of his career, Hilbert was the first
director of what is now the Wayne County Department for
Brown remembers Hilbert as a "very
forceful man with very sound ideas," who accomplished much
in his field while working throughout Michigan, the United
States and abroad.
Before coming to the University in
1961, Hilbert worked on solving several environmental and
public health problems for Wayne County, helping to
establish a solid waste incinerator in western Wayne County,
and helping to formulate state legislation on solid waste,
"He was able to work within the
system to solve problems," said Sam Stock, another colleague
at the Wayne County Department for Environmental
While at the University, Hilbert
studied water quality in Egypt, the effects of pesticides on
Indonesian rice paddies, the use of sterilization of infant
formula and the improvements of sanitation and water
supplies in developing nations.
But Hilbert is best known for his
work in helping to organize Earth Day, which started at the
University in 1970. Hilbert "was into environmentalism early
on," Stock said.
From its start at the University,
Earth Day has grown into an annual national event promoting
Before retiring from the University
in 1987, Hilbert served as president of many national
organizations such as the American Public Health Association
and served at the University as chair of the Senate Advisory
Committee on the University Affairs in
Moving to Belgium after his
retirement from the University, he became director of the
National Sanitation Foundation's European office. He moved
to Washington in 1992.