The first Earth Day

Ed Muskie in Fairmount Park, first Earth Day
Photo credit: University Archives

Global interest in saving and protecting the environment has been picking up steam in recent years, but it all started 40 years ago, on April 22, 1970, with Earth Day.

The idea for Earth Day was inspired by a speech by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis. Nelson hoped to send a message to federal officials that something needed to be done to protect the environment from the extinction of wildlife, pollution from factories and power plants, oil spills and toxic dumping.

Ian McHarg, late professor emeritus of landscape architecture and urban planning at Penn, along with Penn students and other faculty members, led efforts for the Philadelphia region’s first Earth Day events. The Penn group joined forces with professional city and regional planners, lawyers and educators from area colleges and universities to hold events and lectures for the entire week leading up to the first-ever Earth Day.

U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie, D-Maine, pictured in this 1970 photo, was the featured speaker at the Earth Day rally held at Fairmount Park’s Belmont Plateau. An estimated 30,000 people gathered to hear Muskie, who at the time was chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution. He encouraged everyone to do something to fight pollution and to protect the environment.

“We can use the power of the people to turn the nation around ... The power of the ballot box, the cash register, the courts and peaceful assembly, where we can demand redress of grievances as we are doing here today and across the land,” Muskie told the crowd.

During the outdoor demonstration, participants chanted and danced to music provided by several area rock bands.

For more information on this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives at

Originally published on April 22, 2010