After getting out of medical school, Needleman was working at a community psychiatric clinic in Philadelphia when he met a boy who was clearly intelligent, but had halting speech that Needleman thought might be a sign of lead poisoning. As he considered the case, he thought other children in the neighborhood might also be affected, and tried to think of a way to do a study. The only way to really get good data was to get bone samples — obviously difficult and painful for children. Then he found a study of adults that used teeth: that would work, especially since kids commonly lose their “baby teeth,” providing a low-impact way to get the needed data. “That was the insight that changed everything,” says the former dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s graduate school of public health, Dr. Bernard Goldstein. “Herb became the Tooth Fairy.” Despite the study being about dramatic health effects of children, there was a huge backlash from companies in the “lead industry” — supplying lead for gasoline, paint, and other industrial products.
But Dr. Needleman’s findings, published in 1979, were so conclusive that the Centers for Disease Control issued guidelines for the diagnosis and management of lead poisoning in children, the Environmental Protection Agency mandated removal of lead from gasoline, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned lead from interior paints, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development removed lead from thousands of housing units across the U.S. But the political backlash continued: in 1990, there was a court case in Utah where two psychologists representing a lead mine looked at Needleman’s data and found a minor math error. They charged Needleman with scientific misconduct; the federal Office for Scientific Integrity heard the case. After lengthy investigation, Dr. Needleman was not only exonerated, but newer research by others showed that the problem was even worse than he had found, and even lower limits were set for lead exposure. “He swung in the wind for those years, and he never backed down,” says the dean for global health at the New York’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Dr. Philip Landrigan. “I don’t use this word often, but ‘hero’ is appropriate in Herb’s case.” Dr. Needleman died on July 18 from lung failure. He was 89.