Rachel Carson (1907-1964)
“Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth, are never alone or weary of life.” Rachel Carson delved into those mysteries of the earth, piecing together what we now regard as ecosystems, and discovering the impact of human life on our world.
Rachel Louise Carson (May 27, 1907 – April 14, 1964) was an American marine biologist and nature writer credited with catalyzing the global environmental movement. She started as a biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in 1936, but became a full-time author in the 1950s. Her first three books were about marine life, from the shore to the surface to the deep sea. But it was her 1962 bestselling book, Silent Spring, about the effects of pesticides that brought environmental issues to the attention of the American public, and later, the world. Silent Spring led to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides, and the grassroots environmental movement the book inspired led to the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency [EPA].
Early Life, Education and Adversity
Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907 on a small family farm near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She owed her love of nature to her mother, who taught her daughter "as a tiny child joy in the out-of-doors and the lore of birds, insects, and residents of streams and ponds," as well as a love of reading (Beatrix Potter) and of writing. The youngest, and only child of three to attend college, she was a published writer by age 10 and regularly submitted stories to her favorite children’s magazine. Rachel excelled in school, graduating at the top of her high school class of forty-four students.
At the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University), Rachel switched her major from English to biology, but continued contributing to the student newspaper and literary supplement. Although admitted to graduate standing at Johns Hopkins University for her senior year, finances forced her to complete her degree in Pennsylvania, graduating magna cum laude in 1929. After a summer course in Marine Biological Laboratory, she continued her studies in zoology and genetics at Johns Hopkins that fall.
After her first year of graduate school, Carson became a part-time student, taking an assistantship in the biology lab to earn her tuition. She also served on the zoology staff of the University of Maryland for five years and spent summers in the exciting atmosphere of the new oceanographic institute at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. She completed a master's degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins in June 1932, and then taught at their summer school for seven years. However, strained family financial circumstances, worsened by her father’s death, forced her to forego her pursuit of a doctorate and seek full-time work to support her aging mother and, later, two orphaned nieces.
Carson spent the World War II years with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, writing publicity that urged people to eat less meat and more fish; meat was rationed, and fish was not. She also wrote radio scripts for a weekly broadcast, and the series on aquatic life proved surprisingly popular. After outscoring all other applicants on the civil service exam, Carson became only the second woman to be hired by the Bureau of Fisheries. Starting as a junior aquatic biologist, she had a 15-year federal career. She analyzed data on fish populations and used lively, non-bureaucratic language to write brochures for the public. Her work culminated in promotion to the position of Editor-in-Chief of all publications for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
All the while that she worked for the federal government, she continued her personal research and writing. Her first book, Under the Sea Wind (1941), had the bad fortune to come out just weeks before Pearl Harbor and the beginning of the war, and consequently had been buried in the avalanche of more pressing publishing topics. A decade after the disastrous timing of this beautiful book, she published her second, The Sea Around Us (1951). Chapters were reprinted in Science Digest, the Yale Review and The New Yorker; it won the National Book Award; and Carson was awarded two doctorates and a national science-writing prize as a result. This led to the reissue of Under the Sea Wind, as well as a Guggenheim grant that enabled Carson to leave federal employment and focus on The Edge of the Sea (1955).
With the resultant financial security, she bought a good binocular- microscope and a house in Maine. In 1952, she was finally able to give up her federal job to concentrate on writing. She worked on a documentary script for The Sea Around Us, which she had a right to review, but not final script approval. The very successful film won the 1953 Oscar for Best Documentary, but Carson was so disgusted by the experience that she never again sold film rights to her work.
Relationship with Dorothy Freeman
In 1953, Carson moved with her mother to Southport Island, Maine, and in July met Dorothy Freeman. This was the beginning of an extremely close relationship, which some describe as a “romantic friendship”, that would last the rest of her life. Freeman was a summer resident – and married, a “kindred spirit” according to biographer Linda Lear. The two women had a number of common interests - nature foremost. They began exchanging letters while apart and shared every summer for the remainder of Rachel's life, meeting elsewhere in the off-season when their schedules permitted. Shortly before Rachel's death, she and Freeman destroyed hundreds of letters. The surviving correspondence was edited and published by Freeman's granddaughter in 1995 as Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952–1964: An Intimate Portrait of a Remarkable Friendship.
Transition to Conservation Work
Carson continued to write for TV and popular magazines and planned a book on evolution, but abandoned the project as she became more interested in conservation. She became involved with The Nature Conservancy and other conservation groups. She also decided to acquire and preserve from development a wilderness area in Maine.
Early in 1957, one of the nieces died, leaving a five-year-old son whom Carson adopted. This additional responsibility, along with continuing care of her mother, took its toll on her, and she moved to Silver Spring, Maryland to care for them both. Around this time, a letter arrived from an old friend in Duxbury, Massachusetts, which detailed the loss of bird life in this coastal town. The idea of spring without bird songs triggered Silent Spring (1962) about consequences of DDT, which was sprayed aerially to prevent mosquitoes – and killed birds.
She worked with the Audubon Society and communicated with many scientists. Some worked for the government, which was at the forefront of the pro-chemical advocates, with projects using DDT to eradicate fire ants and encouraging other pesticide use to improve crop yields. Carson’s anti-chemical stance was vindicated when the sale of U.S. cranberry products was halted due to three consecutive years (1957-59) of findings of high levels of an herbicide known to cause cancer in rats.
The Duxbury area remains the nation’s primary producer of cranberries, and federal hearings about the “Great Cranberry Scandal” led Carson to wonder aloud about the possible "financial inducements behind certain pesticide programs." This was a real possibility, as the testimony of chemical manufacturers was directly contradicted by researchers at the National Institute of Health who studied carcinogens.
During the two decades prior to the publication of Silent Spring, there had been an explosion of indiscriminate pesticide use, as agriculturists used new chemicals and airplane-spraying technologies developed during the war. Hundreds of millions of pounds of insecticides and herbicides were spread over millions of acres of forests, prairies, and croplands to kill insects and clear brush and weeds. Biographer Mark Hamilton Lytle writes that Carson "quite self-consciously decided to write a book calling into question the paradigm of scientific progress that defined postwar American culture." The main theme of Silent Spring is the powerful, and often negative, effect humans have on the natural world.
At a time when humans largely believed themselves to be apart from nature and destined to control it, Rachel Carson argued passionately that nature is a network of interconnections and interdependencies and that humans threaten its cohesion at their own peril: "Man, however much he may like to pretend the contrary, is part of nature. Can he escape a pollution that is now so thoroughly distributed throughout our world?" What is mainstream belief today was heretical in 1962.
Her main argument is that pesticides have detrimental effects on the environment, with their effects rarely limited to the target pests. "Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called 'insecticides' but 'biocides'." She also accused the chemical industry of intentionally spreading disinformation and public officials of accepting industry claims uncritically. Most of the book is devoted to pesticides' effects on natural ecosystems, but four chapters also detail results on humans, including cancer and other illnesses. The book’s bibliography lists 55 pages of sources.
Carson predicted increased consequences in the future. She foresaw that targeted pests develop resistance to pesticides, while weakened ecosystems fall prey to unanticipated invasive species: i.e., the birds that naturally eat mosquitoes were killed, while mosquitoes quickly evolved defense mechanisms against pesticides. Although Carson never called for an outright ban on DDT, the book closes with a call for an ecological approach to pest control.
Carson and the others involved with publication of Silent Spring anticipated fierce criticism and possibly a libel suit, and their expectations were realized. Before publication, though, the book was submitted to eminent scientists and even to Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who was known to have environmentalist leanings, and who ultimately endorsed it. In order to generate public interest and support, the book as serialized in The New Yorker, starting in June 1962 issue. Silent Spring was issued in late September and was selected as the Book-of-the-Month for October.
The chemical companies went on the attack, and former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, who also was a prominent Mormon, wrote to former President Dwight Eisenhower, reportedly concluding that because Carson was unmarried, despite being physically attractive, she was "probably a Communist.” Critics asserted that she was calling for the elimination of all pesticides, yet Carson had repeatedly clarified that she was merely encouraging responsible, managed use with an awareness of the chemicals' impact on the entire ecosystem.
The academic community generally backed the book's scientific claims, and public opinion soon turned Carson's way. The chemical industry’s campaign backfired, as the controversy greatly increased public awareness of potential pesticide dangers, as well as Silent Spring book sales. (Bill Moyers recently termed the book a “blockbuster.”) Pesticide use became a major public issue, especially after the CBS Reports TV special, "The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson" that aired April 3, 1963, which showed Carson reading from Silent Spring, including this passage:
"We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven't become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man's attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself…. Now, I truly believe, that we in this generation must come to terms with nature, and I think we're challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves."
The program included interviews with a number of other experts, mostly critics funded by the $300 million pesticides industry, but Carson appeared calm and convincing, not the hysterical alarmist that her critics complained of. The TV audience was estimated at ten to fifteen million, and the public response resulted in a congressional review of pesticide dangers and the public release of a pesticide report by the President Kennedy's Science Advisory Committee, validating her scientific claims. She made numerous public appearances, including The Today Show, and received many honors and awards, including medals from the National Audubon Society and the American Geographical Society, and induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Unfortunately, Carson could scarcely savor these fruits of her labors, for she was so seriously ill with cancer that completing the final manuscript of Silent Spring had required tremendous determination. She died on April 14, 1964, just two years after the publication of her warning of a spring without songbirds, her own prescient voice silenced by bone cancer.
Rachel Carson’s longtime agent and literary executor, New York City’s Marie Rodell, spent nearly two years organizing and cataloging Carson's papers and correspondence for archiving. She arranged for the publication of an essay, combined with photographs, as a book: A Sense of Wonder, which encourages parents to help their children experience the "lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world", which "are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea and sky and their amazing life." Additional previously unpublished work was edited by Linda Lear and issued as Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson.
Rachel Carson's impact cannot be overstated. Her most important legacy was the coalescing of the general public around ecological issues and the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Silent Spring is generally credited with inspiring the modern global environmental movement. In its collection of the 100 most important people of the 20th Century, Time magazine said: "Before there was an environmental movement, there was one brave woman and her very brave book."
Carson’s early literary education enabled her to distil dull scientific facts and translate them into the lyrical prose that engaged her readers. The Sea Around Us stayed on the bestseller lists for 86 weeks, including 39 weeks in first place; by 1962, it had been published in 30 languages. Thus, she was able to connect with the general public and to weather the abuse resulting from Silent Spring.
Rachel Carson and the environmental movement were—and continue to be—criticized by chemical trade industry groups and conservative legislators as unnecessarily restricting economic freedom. The policies of the Reagan and Bush Administrations emphasized economic growth at the expense of environmental regulation, rolling back many of the environmental policies, and we are today seeing pressure to drill at sea and to deforest national preserves and other wildlife areas in response to the current economic crisis.
Since her death, a variety of groups -- government institutions to environmental and conservation organizations to scholarly societies -- have celebrated Carson’s life and work. In 1980, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, by President Jimmy Carter. The U.S. and several other countries have honored her on stamps. Rachel Carson is also a frequent namesake for prizes awarded by philanthropic, educational and scholarly institutions.
Her birthplace and childhood home in Springdale, PA, now known as the Rachel Carson Homestead, is a National Register of Historic Places site. Her home in Colesville, Maryland, where she wrote Silent Spring, was named a National Historic Landmark in 1991.From Maine to North Carolina, numerous conservation areas bear her name. She is memorialized by buildings and schools in Maryland, Virginia, and DC, including the ceremonial auditorium at the U.S. EPA's main headquarters.
Carson summarized her thought in 1958: Awareness of ecological relationships is — or should be — the basis of modern conservation programs, for it is useless to attempt to preserve a living species unless the kind of land or water it requires is also preserved. So delicately interwoven are the relationships that when we disturb one thread of the community fabric we alter it all — perhaps almost imperceptibly, perhaps so drastically that destruction follows. ["Essay on the Biological Sciences" in Good Reading.]
Almost two decades later, in 2007, the Editor-in-Chief of the Chemical & Engineering News Rudy M. Baum, acknowledged the power of Silent Spring: “A certain moral outrage suffuses the book: ‘Who has decided—who has the right to decide—for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight? The decision is that of the authoritarian temporarily entrusted with power; he has made it during a moment of inattention by millions to whom beauty and the ordered world of nature still have meaning that is deep and imperative.’ Carson's prose gave voice to millions who yearned for a value system that effectively opposed the indiscriminate poisoning of their world in the name of economic efficiency.”
• Under the Sea Wind, 1941, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Group, 1996, ISBN 0-14-025380-7
• The Sea Around Us, 1951, Oxford University Press, 1991, ISBN 0-19-506997-8
• The Edge of the Sea, 1955, Mariner Books, 1998, ISBN 0-395-92496-0
• Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin, 1962, Mariner Books, 2002, ISBN 0-618-24906-0
• Silent Spring initially appeared serialized in three parts in the June 16, June 23, and June 30, 1962 issues of The New Yorker magazine
• The Sense of Wonder, 1965, HarperCollins, 1998: ISBN 0-06-757520-X published posthumously
• Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman 1952–1964 - An Intimate Portrait of a Remarkable Friendship, Beacon Press, 1995, ISBN 0-8070-7010-6 edited by Martha Freeman (granddaughter of Dorothy Freeman)
• Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, Beacon Press, 1998, ISBN 0-8070-8547-2
Written by Linda Mahoney.