Russell W. Peterson papers

Biographical and Historical Notes

Russell W. Peterson (1916-2011), served as governor of Delaware from 1969 to 1973.

After leaving office, he remained politically active as a leading figure in environmental advocacy and wildlife preservation. Peterson held positions such as chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, director of the United States Congress Office of Technology Assessment, and president of the National Audubon Society. In 1996, Peterson changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat.

Russell Peterson was born in Portage, Wisconsin, on October 3, 1916. He was the eighth of nine children born to Emma Anthony Peterson and Johan Anton Peterson. Peterson received a B.S. degree from the University of Wisconsin, where he went on to complete a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1942. Peterson was married to Lillian Turner until her death in 1994. He was later married to June B. Jenkins.

After receiving his Ph.D., Peterson spent 26 years working for the DuPont Company in Delaware. Starting as a research chemist, he rose to the position of Director of Research and Development. At DuPont, Peterson led research on Dacron polyester fiber and set up the first Dacron plant in Kinston, North Carolina.

In 1968, Peterson was elected governor of Delaware. His first act as governor was to order the National Guard off the streets of Wilmington, where they had been stationed since the assassination of Martin Luther King. One of Peterson's most notable achievements during his four-year administration was the passage of the Coastal Zone Act of 1971, which prohibited all new development of heavy industry in a two-mile wide, 115-mile-long zone that covered the coast of Delaware.

After his term as governor, Peterson was appointed chair of the President's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). In 1974, as chair of the CEQ, Peterson organized and co-chaired a federal task force to study the claim that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in aerosol sprays and as refrigerants were a threat to the ozone layer. His work contributed to the global phase-out of CFCs. In 1978, Peterson was appointed head of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). The mission of this office was to advise Congress on the long-term economic, environmental, and social impacts of technological innovations.

From 1979 to 1985, Peterson was president of the National Audubon Society. He expanded the mission of Audubon beyond the protection of wildlife, embracing new issues like population control, energy policy and curbing toxic chemicals. In the 1980s, Peterson taught as a visiting professor at Dartmouth College, Carleton College, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

As a long-time bird watcher, Peterson served as president of the International Council for Bird Preservation from 1982-1990. He also held numerous other leadership positions, such as member of the Commission on Critical Choices for Americans, president of New Directions, member of the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island, chairman of the Global Tomorrow Coalition, vice president of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (now IUCN – The World Conservation Union), president of the Better World Society, and board member of the Riverfront Development Corporation. Peterson promoted revitalization of the urban shoreline in Wilmington, Delaware, which now includes the 250-acre Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge. In 2000, Peterson created the citizens' action group SURJ (Stand Up for What's Right and Just). This group worked to reform Delaware's criminal justice system.

Throughout his life, Peterson wrote and published frequently. He wrote two books, Rebel with a Conscience and Patriots, Stand Up! which were published in 1999 and 2003 respectively. Peterson passed away on February 21, 2011, at the age of 94.


"Russell W. Peterson: A Register of His Papers in the Library of Congress." Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. 2006.

"Russell Wilbur Peterson, Obituary." The News Journal. (accessed October 2015).

"Russell W. Peterson." The Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame. (accessed October 2015).

Martin, Douglas. "R.W. Peterson, Leader on Environment, Dies at 94." The New York Times. (accessed October 2015).

Scope and Content Note

The Russell W. Peterson papers span the dates 1953-2010, with the bulk of the material dating 1970-2010. Records include correspondence, speeches, personal notes, press clippings, schedules, calendars, personal planners, informational materials, photographs, and audiovisual materials. The collection consists of approximately 7.3 linear feet of paper records.

The collection is organized in five series: Correspondence, Writings and Speeches, Schedules and Calendars, Coastal Zone Act, and Subject Files.

Series I. Correspondence consists of letters sent and received by Peterson from 1972-2010. Correspondents include colleagues, friends, fellow Delaware politicians, White House officials, universities, and leaders of environmental organizations. These files are organized chronologically.

Series II. Writings and Speeches contains texts of speeches, lectures, convocation addresses, articles, essays, book drafts and other writings composed by Peterson from 1953-2010. Topics include personal beliefs, criminal justice, and environmental issues. For the most part, the series is ordered chronologically. Files from a grouping of binders labelled "Writings and Speeches" were kept together. Also, drafts and research for Peterson's book Patriots, Stand Up! were maintained in their original order, which corresponds to sequential book chapters. Other materials include an alphabetical index card filing system of Peterson's speeches and publications.

Series III. Schedules and Calendars documents the appointments, meetings, engagements, conferences, trips, and other events Peterson attended from 1969-1993. Files in this series are organized chronologically and include daily schedules, travel schedules, planners, and desk calendars. Evelyn Kneisley, associated with files dated 1967-1972, was Governor Peterson's secretary.

Series IV. Coastal Zone Act highlights Gov. Peterson's involvement in creating, implementing, and enforcing the Coastal Zone Act. Files include correspondence, position papers, press clippings, legal documents, and personal notes from 1971-1995. These files are ordered chronologically and document regulation challenges that faced the Coastal Zone Board following passage of the Coastal Zone Act.

Series V. Subject Files comprises primarily documents relating to subjects of Peterson's advocacy work from 1969-2009. Major issues represented include Delaware River deepening, social justice, the Wilmington Riverfront, and wind power. Files also include Peterson's work with organizations such as the Commission on Critical Choices, the Council on Environmental Quality, the National Audubon Society, the Office of Technology Assessment, and SURJ (Stand Up for what's Right and Just). Materials include reports, informational material, personal notes, speeches, correspondence, press clippings, event programs, maps, and two DVDs. Files in this series are arranged alphabetically by subject.