Susan Shaw looks over a stranded seal pup. Shaw, who studied contamination of marine life due to hazardous chemicals, died last month. Courtesy of the Shaw Institute. Credit: Contributed Photo

BLUE HILL, Maine – Susan Shaw, a pioneering environmental health scientist, toxicologist and author dedicated to researching ocean pollution, toxic chemicals and plastics in Maine and beyond, died late last month.

Shaw lived in Blue Hill since 1989, but had moved back to New York City recently. She died at her home on Jan. 27 after battling an illness. She was 78.

For decades, Shaw, the founder and executive director of the Shaw Institute in Blue Hill, fought against the hazards of chemicals and plastics to marine and human life. She is credited as the first scientist to reveal widespread contamination of fish and marine mammals in the northwest Atlantic from flame retardants leaching from furniture, documented the dangers of photographic darkroom chemicals, and launched the first studies into microplastics in the Gulf of Maine that led to state and national bans on microbeads.

Before her death, Shaw was working to expose the illegal plastic waste trade and its effect on the health of children in developing nations, said Holly Clare, a spokesperson for the institute.

“She was really a woman who lived to make the world a better place,” Clare said.

Born in Dallas, Texas in 1943, Shaw was a talented archer and state champion high diver growing up. She graduated from the University of Texas and went on to earn an MFA degree in film and a doctorate in public health and environmental health sciences, both from Columbia University.

Shaw’s career took off after she published “Overexposure” in 1983. The book, which was commissioned by legendary photographer Ansel Adams, was one of the first to highlight the dangers of darkroom chemicals and the links between them and cancer in young photographers.

In 1990, Shaw founded the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill after the death of 20,000 harbor seals in polluted European waters. The organization, which was later renamed the Shaw Institute, set out to improve human and ecological health through science.

Through the nonprofit, she did work for more than 30 years to take on climate change, pollution and hazardous chemicals. She was the first scientist to dive into the Gulf of Mexico to assess the damage after the BP oil spill, led an international team in examining the combined impact of global warming and pollution on the survival of marine mammals and delivered several Tedx talks.

In 2007, she was named the Gulf of Maine Visionary and in 2011 she was awarded the Gold Medal from the Society of Woman Geographers, putting her in the company of past winners  Amelia Earhart, Margaret Mead and Jane Goodall.

Shaw’s work with firefighters and toxic chemicals was a touchstone for departments across the nation and her death drew tributes from several firefighting organizations. After analyzing the blood of firefighters in San Francisco, Shaw found that they had high levels of cancer-causing chemicals created when commercial flame retardants in household items burn.

“Her work raised the collective awareness of the many cancer risks to firefighters from the toxins and chemicals we are exposed to in the performance of our duties,” the Orland Fire Department posted on their Facebook page.

Chief Robert Conary said Shaw’s efforts helped change old attitudes in the firefighting profession. Years ago, there was a sense of pride in having turnout gear dirtied with the soot of past fires.

“That was always a sign that you’re an experienced firefighter,” Conary said.

But her research showed that firefighters breath in these toxic chemicals while responding to fires and have continued exposure to them even after the fire is out through their clothing. Conary now tries to make sure all firefighters have two sets of gear, allowing them to have a clean set after a fire. Crews also wear portable air tanks more frequently.

“It really kind of opened our eyes,” he said.

In her personal life, Shaw and her wife Cynthia Stroud were national doubles champions in boules, a game similar to bocce. She was a wine connoisseur who loved documentary film and photography.

Shaw had still been active in the institute’s work until about a month ago, Clare said. The institute is currently working to appoint an interim executive director while searching for a permanent replacement.

A memorial service is planned to be held in Blue Hill this summer.