By counting back through these layers and measuring the amount of lead in each, he could work out global lead concentrations at any time for hundreds, or even thousands, of years. The notion became the foundation of ice core studies, on which much modern climatological work is based.
What Patterson found was that before 1923 there was almost no lead in the atmosphere, and that since that time its level had climbed steadily and dangerously. He now made it his life's quest to get lead taken out of gasoline. To that end, he became a constant and often vocal critic of the lead industry and its interests.
It would prove to be a hellish campaign. Ethyl was a powerful global corporation with many friends in high places. (Among its directors have been Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell and Gilbert Grosvenor of the National Geographic Society.) Patterson suddenly found research funding withdrawn or difficult to acquire. The American Petroleum Institute canceled a research contract with him, as did the United States Public Health Service, a supposedly neutral government institution.
As Patterson increasingly became a liability to his institution, the school trustees were repeatedly pressed by lead industry officials to shut him up or let him go. According to Jamie Lincoln Kitman, writing in The Nation in 2000, Ethyl executives allegedly offered to endow a chair at Caltech "if Patterson was sent packing."