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Perry McCarty, environmental engineer who launched field of environmental biotechnology, has died

McCarty specialized in harnessing bacteria for water purification and renewable energy.
Portrait of Perry McCarty, 1931-2023
Perry McCarty, 1931-2023 |Image courtesy of the McCarty family

Perry Lee McCarty, the Silas H. Palmer Professor in Civil Engineering, Emeritus, and former chair of the Department of Civil Engineering at Stanford University, died June 4 in Stanford, California. He was 91 years old.

McCarty’s early, groundbreaking laboratory experiments led to the discovery of anaerobic bacteria that could break down environmental contaminants ranging from excess nitrogen to toxic chemicals, particularly chlorinated solvents, which were then heavily polluting groundwater reservoirs. This revolutionary treatment of water using bacteria that thrive without oxygen helped guide new strategies for cleaning up industrial contamination and minimizing groundwater pollution worldwide.

Among his noted remediation pursuits, McCarty and colleague David Hill were among the first to study anaerobic degradation of the now-banned pesticide DDT. The pair reported significant dechlorination of DDT, a key step toward its complete degradation. McCarty’s contributions were so foundational that fellow researchers named a previously unknown pollutant-eating anaerobe Dehalococcoides mccartyi.

Because of worldwide water shortages and the need for renewable energy, McCarty remained convinced of the enormous potential of anaerobic as opposed to aerobic wastewater treatment. It was the environmentally sustainable way to go. Following his official retirement from Stanford, in 2009 he began a productive five-year collaboration with Inha University in South Korea with a former graduate student, teaching and pursuing pilot studies of innovative bioreactor technology.

This research resulted in a new cost-efficient pilot treatment system that both reclaims domestic wastewater and produces energy from methane, thereby recovering resources from the treatment process. McCarty brought the technology back to Stanford in the form of the William and Cloy Codiga Resource Recovery Center, becoming the first plant of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. The largest example of a McCarty-inspired anaerobic treatment plant is now being piloted in Redwood City.

“My whole life has been anaerobic processes,” McCarty recalled in a Stanford oral history of the engineering strategy behind his innovation. “If you put in oxygen, it takes a lot of energy. Why do treatment where we have to put energy in, when you’ve got another process where it’s energy out?”

Pioneering the Field of Environmental Biotechnology

Born October 29, 1931, in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, McCarty graduated from Wayne State University in Detroit with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1953. He was then drafted into the U.S. Army and served in the Counter Intelligence Corps. With help from the G.I. Bill and a Tau Beta Pi fellowship, McCarty then entered graduate school at MIT and received his MS in 1957 and ScD in 1959, both in sanitary engineering, as the field was known at the time.

In 1962, McCarty joined Stanford as an associate professor to develop its environmental engineering and science programs and to enjoy greater freedom to interact with colleagues across disciplines. He was also drawn to California, where water shortage is a significant issue. McCarty was promoted to full professor in 1967.

“When Perry McCarty came to Stanford from MIT in 1962, water and wastewater treatment was transitioning from the old empiricism of sanitary engineering to engineering science–based design,” recalled Richard Luthy, a colleague in the department and the Silas H. Palmer Professor. “Perry pioneered the field of environmental biotechnology and the design of microbial bioreactors for pollution control and safe drinking water. Everyone who knew Perry McCarty was touched by his thoughtful and gentlemanly demeanor. He was a role model for students, faculty, and practitioners everywhere.”

“Our faculty have been deeply and positively impacted by Perry as a colleague, teacher, mentor, and friend,” said Sarah Billington, professor and chair of civil and environmental engineering and the UPS Foundation Professor at Stanford. “He was a giant in so many ways. He leaves behind a legacy of four generations of students who have gone on to be leaders and innovators in environmental engineering around the world. We will always remember him as brilliant, humble, and a truly visionary engineer.”

Influence Beyond Academia

McCarty’s work sparked interest beyond academia, in industry and in government. In 1974, the Santa Clara Valley Water District approached him about conducting water reclamation research for human consumption. It led to a collaboration between the Environmental Protection Agency, Stanford, the Santa Clara water district, and the Orange County Water District’s Water Factory 21 facility – the first water treatment plant to treat wastewater using semi-permeable membranes – to analyze the effectiveness of different types of advanced water treatment practices.

McCarty’s career coincided with the major social and environmental movements of the 1960s, which propelled his approach to addressing groundwater pollution control and finite water resources with scientific understanding and better technology. It also drew graduate students to the lab who wanted to be involved in solving environmental challenges. Among McCarty’s greatest satisfactions was the success of his students: He mentored more that 40 PhD students to their dissertations, including several women whom he eagerly encouraged to join a field then dominated by men.

“When I joined Stanford as an assistant professor who knew very little about environmental engineering, he welcomed my curiosity and joined me on my first proposal to the Woods Institute in 2004 on bio-based polymers, which led to more and more fruitful collaborations across campus for many years,” Billington recalled. “I will always remember him.”

National and International Recognition

McCarty had at least 350 peer-reviewed publications and co-authored two foundational environmental engineering textbooks that have been widely translated and used throughout the world. He was named the chair of Stanford’s Civil Engineering Department in 1980 and, in 1989, helped establish the EPA’s Western Region Hazardous Substance Research Center. McCarty retired from Stanford in 1999 but continued collaborating with international universities and industries.

In 2016, McCarty was named a Stanford Engineering Hero and he has been recognized internationally for his work. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. McCarty won the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement in 1992, the Clarke Prize from the National Water Research Institute in 1997, and the Stockholm Water Prize in 2007 – the three premier awards in the environmental field.

Reflecting on his career, McCarty believed that being at Stanford, he was in the right place at the right time. He was especially proud to see the establishment of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability during his lifetime and was deeply honored that the directorship of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, now part of the Doerr School, was named after him.

McCarty is survived by his wife of 70 years, Martha C. McCarty; four children, Perry L. McCarty Jr. of Redwood City; Cara McCarty of New York; Susan McCarty of Palo Alto; Kathleen Geist of Huntsville, Alabama; two sisters, Louise Ciullo and Sandy Zoerner; as well as six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

A memorial tribute will be held at Stanford University on Tuesday, October 24. Donations can be made to “The Perry L. McCarty Memorial Fund” at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, supporting McCarty’s legacy across today’s environmental programs at the school.

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