The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

John Froines, chemist charged in ‘Chicago Seven’ trial, dies at 83

The trial in 1969 became a touchstone for the era’s disquiet and divisions. Dr. Froines went on to a distinguished career in research on environmental contaminants and worker safety.

John Froines, left, and Tom Hayden head to court in Chicago during the “Chicago Seven” trial in 1969. (David Fenton/Getty Images)
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A few months before the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a call came for John Froines, an antiwar activist and PhD chemist from Yale. On the line was Tom Hayden, a fellow member of the anti-establishment Students for a Democratic Society and a rising star of the left.

Come to Chicago, Hayden urged. Dr. Froines’s experience in anti-violent organizing — sit-ins, community marches, vigils — was needed. Tens of thousands of demonstrators were expected to stream into Chicago in late August with various views and agendas, including some bent on challenging police.

Dr. Froines (pronounced FRO-ins), who died July 13 at 83, would leave Chicago embedded in the public consciousness, alongside some of the 1960s’ counterculture leaders, as part of the “Chicago Seven.” The group was charged by the U.S. government for allegedly fomenting riots and promoting violence during street clashes between demonstrators and police and the National Guard. “The world is watching,” some protesters chanted.

The trial in 1969 became a touchstone for the era’s disquiet and divisions — with Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Hayden and two others charged with crossing state lines with intent to start a riot, and Dr. Froines and antiwar activist Lee Weiner facing allegations of instructing demonstrators on how to construct devices such as stink bombs and nail-studded Styrofoam balls.

Froines and Weiner were acquitted. The convictions for the rest of the “Seven” were tossed out in 1972 on appeal. Of the defendants, Weiner is the only survivor.

The proceedings riveted the nation. It was part showdown over the power vs. protest struggles in the 1960s and part performance art by Hoffman and Rubin — well-known leaders of the Youth International Party, or Yippies — with tirades against the judge and acts of courtroom disobedience. Hoffman threw a kiss to the jurors during the prosecution’s opening statement. He and Rubin came to court dressed in judicial robes. (An eighth defendant, Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, was removed from the overall case.)

“Froines’s courtroom antics were comparatively mild,” the Los Angeles Times reported from the trial. Sketch artists captured him slumped in his chair or cringing wryly.

Dr. Froines would sometimes walk side-by-side to court with his friend Hayden, who was seen as the most politically experienced of the group. Hayden helped shape the seminal Port Huron Statement, a 1962 manifesto on social change that became a reference point for the antiwar movement and other 1960s student activism. (Hayden was married to actress Jane Fonda from 1973 to 1990 and became a California state senator.)

Dr. Froines went on to have a distinguished career as an environmental scientist, often engaging in research with social justice implications such as examining pollutants that directly affect lower-income areas or migrant workers. But his Chicago Seven moment never left him. It was often revisited in interviews, documentaries and films, including a 2020 Netflix drama, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” directed by Aaron Sorkin, with Danny Flaherty playing Dr. Froines.

A 1969 image of the seven defendants, standing as if in a police lineup, became one of the signature works by renowned photographer Richard Avedon. Dr. Froines is second from the left with a deadpan expression and a hand in his pants pocket.

As recently as 2021, Dr. Froines recounted the tumult of that summer during an interview with “@theBar,” a Chicago-based legal affairs podcast. He noted that he may have been targeted for arrest by undercover police after some protesters used cloth soaked in pungent butyric acid to empty out the Hilton Hotel.

“So I think it was in part due to the chemical warfare, if you will,” Dr. Froines said.

Opinion: 'Chicago 7' tries to make history convenient

Academia and activism

John Radford Froines was born in Oakland, Calif., on June 13, 1939. His parents were shipyard workers during World War II. Dr. Froines was 3 when his father was killed while returning home from the docks, the family statement said.

Dr. Froines was a standout athlete at Berkeley High School, named to its football Hall of Fame. After graduating in 1957, he served in the Air National Guard and, in 1962, received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley.

Dr. Froines completed a doctorate in physical chemistry at Yale in 1967. He also became involved with community-organizing efforts with the Students for a Democratic Society in New Haven, Conn., where he met his first wife, antiwar activist and women’s studies lecturer Ann Rubio. They married in 1965.

In 1968, after two years at a postdoctoral fellowship in Britain under Nobel laureate George Porter, Dr. Froines and his wife were asked by Hayden to help coordinate events in Chicago during the Democratic convention. Many demonstrators believed the presidential nominee, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, would follow President Lyndon B. Johnson’s policies to continue the Vietnam War.

After the Chicago Seven acquittals, Dr. Froines traveled the country as a speaker at antiwar events, including helping organize a May Day march in Washington in 1971 that led to more than 12,000 people being taken into custody by police, which has been widely described as the largest mass arrest in U.S. history.

In New Haven, Dr. Froines and his wife worked with a defense fund for Seale and Ericka Huggins during a trial for conspiracy to murder in the killing of a Black Panther member suspected of being an informant. That trial resulted in a hung jury, and Seale and Huggins were freed.

Dr. Froines taught chemistry at Goddard College in Vermont before becoming head of toxic chemical standards for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Washington in the mid-1970s. Among his priorities was developing standards to reduce lead poisoning in industries.

At a San Francisco conference in 1979, Dr. Froines, then divorced, met Andrea Hricko, a worker safety advocate. They were married later that year.

Dr. Froines went on to serve as the deputy director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. In 1981, Dr. Froines took a position at the University of California at Los Angeles as a professor of toxicology. He remained at the university for more than 30 years, directing the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health and leading research into areas such pesticide contamination, diesel pollution and air quality at landfills.

The group Physicians for Social Responsibility in Los Angeles recognized Dr. Froines in 2012 for his “courageous commitment to scientific integrity and for increasing our understanding of the health impacts of toxic chemicals on the health of workers and communities.”

“John embodied the spirit of ‘science for the people’ by using his scientific knowledge and research to save the public and working Americans from the toxic impacts of pollution and unsafe materials,” said Bill Zimmerman, a political consultant who had joined Dr. Froines in 1970s antiwar activism.

Dr. Froines died at a hospital in Santa Monica, Calif., of complications from Parkinson’s disease, his family said in a statement.

In addition to his wife, a professor emerita in environmental health at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Rebecca Froines Stanley of Hamden, Conn.; a son from his second marriage, Jonathan Froines of Los Angeles; and two granddaughters.

“No one is the same now as then [in the ’60s],” Dr. Froines told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “I think it’s more valuable to look at a person’s history — to see if they have been consistent within the context of their values. We still need student protesters because many of the problems of the ’60s continue and new issues have emerged. But nobody’s a student activist at 50. You’d have to have your head examined.”