The University of Delaware Library has opened a new research collection, the Russell W. Peterson papers, which may be accessed in Special Collections located on the second floor in the Morris Library. Peterson served as Governor of Delaware from 1969 to 1973. This collection spans the dates 1953-2010, with the bulk of the collection covering Peterson’s work on the Coastal Zone Act and his activities as an activist and environmental leader following his term as governor. This collection includes Peterson’s correspondence, schedules, speeches, and writings (including editorials and book drafts).
After leaving office, Peterson remained politically active as a leading figure in environmental advocacy and wildlife preservation. He 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, Jr. 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. In the 1980s, Peterson taught as a visiting professor at Dartmouth College, Carleton College, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Peterson held leadership roles in numerous advocacy groups, especially those related to environmentalism and criminal justice. 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. As board member of the Riverfront Development Corporation, Peterson promoted revitalization of the urban shoreline in Wilmington, DE, 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 & Just). This group worked to reform Delaware’s criminal justice system.
Throughout his life, Peterson wrote and published frequently. He authored 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.
Access to the collection finding aid for the Russell W. Peterson papers is available here through the Special Collections website.
The Russell W. Peterson papers were processed by Cheryl Mariani, a graduate assistant from the Department of Political Science and International Relations.