Rachel Carson

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Rachel L. Carson
Carson's Government Photo (1940s)
Born: May 27, 1907
Springdale, Pennsylvania, United States
Died: April 14, 1964
Occupation(s): zoologist, marine biologist
Nationality: American
Writing period: 1937-1964
Subject(s): ecology, pollution, pesticides
Magnum opus: Silent Spring
Influenced: Natalie Angier, Sandra Steingraber, Marla Cone

Rachel Louise Carson (May 27, 1907 – April 14, 1964) was a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania–born zoologist, biologist, ecologist and best-selling author whose landmark book, Silent Spring, is often credited with having launched the global environmental movement. Silent Spring had an immense effect in the United States, where it spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy.

Her first three books, “Under the Sea Wind”, “The Sea Around Us”, and “The Edge of the Sea” were immense successes, with "The Sea Around Us" remaining on the national best-seller lists for eighty-six weeks, thirty-nine of them in first place. By 1962, it had been published in thirty languages. A highly popular writer, praised for her ability to take dull scientific facts and transform them into near poetry, she stunned the American public with the release of "Silent Spring".

Miss Carson understood the delicate balance between humankind and creation and thus courageously spoke out for the environment, even when attacked as an alarmist by giant chemical corporations and even some in the government.

Her philosophy and life work were summed up thus: "The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe around us, the less taste we shall have for destruction." – Rachel Carson, 1954

Early life and education

Rachel Carson was born in 1907 on a small family farm near Springdale, Pennsylvania. As a child, she spent many hours learning about ponds, fields, and forests from her mother. Ten-year-old Rachel Louise Carson was first published in the Saint Nicholas Literary Magazine for Children. A reader, loner, birdlover and nature lover, she continued writing throughout adolescence.

She chose an English major at Pennsylvania College for Women and continued to submit poetry to periodicals. Not until her junior year, when a biology course reawakened the "sense of wonder" with which she had always encountered the natural world, did she switch her majors to zoology and marine biology, not yet aware that her literary and scientific passions would complement each other to the point of sparking environmental reform. [1] Her talent for writing would help her in her new field, as she resolved to "make animals in the woods or waters, where they live, as alive to others as they are to me." She graduated from the Pennsylvania College for Women, today known as Chatham College, in 1929 with magna cum laude honors. Despite financial difficulties, she continued her studies in zoology and genetics at the Johns Hopkins University, earning a master's degree in zoology in 1932.

Carson taught zoology at Johns Hopkins University and at the University of Maryland, College Park, for several years. She continued to study towards her doctoral degree, particularly at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Her financial situation, never satisfactory, became worse in 1932 when her father died, leaving Carson to care for her aging mother; this burden made continued doctoral studies impossible. She submitted a master's thesis instead, entitled "The Development of the Pronephros During the Embryonic and Early Larval Life of the Catfish (Ictalurus puncatatus)." She then accepted a part-time position at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries as a science writer working on radio scripts. In the process, she had to overcome resistance to the then-radical idea of having a woman sit for the American Civil Service exam. In spite of the odds, she outscored all other applicants on the exam and in 1936 became only the second woman to be hired by the Bureau of Fisheries for a full-time, professional position, as a junior aquatic biologist.

Early career and publications

At the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, Carson worked on everything from cookbooks to scientific journals and became known for her ruthless insistence on high standards of writing. Early in her career, the head of the Bureau's Division of Scientific Inquiry, who had been instrumental in finding a position for her in the first place, rejected one of Carson's radio scripts because it was "too literary." He suggested that she submit it to the Atlantic Monthly magazine. To Carson's astonishment and delight, it was accepted, and published as "Undersea" in 1937. (Other sources state that it was the editor of the Baltimore Sun newspaper who made the Atlantic Monthly suggestion—Carson had been supplementing her meager income by writing short articles for that paper for some time.)

Publishing house Simon & Schuster, impressed by "Undersea," contacted Carson and suggested that she expand it into book form. Several years of working in the evenings resulted in Under the Sea-Wind (1941) which received excellent reviews but was a commercial flop. It had the misfortune to be released just a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor catapulted America into World War II.

Carson rose within the Bureau (by then transformed into the Fish and Wildlife Service), becoming chief editor of publications in 1949. For some time she had been working on material for a second book: it was rejected by 15 different magazines before The Katie serialized parts of it as A Profile of the Sea in 1951. Other sections soon appeared in Nature, and Oxford University Press published it in book form as The Sea Around Us. It remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 86 weeks, was abridged by Reader's Digest, won the 1952 National Book Award, and resulted in Carson being awarded two honorary doctorates. It was also made into a 61-minute long documentary film, winning an Oscar.

With success came financial security, and Carson was able to give up her job in 1952 to concentrate on writing full time. She completed the third volume of her sea trilogy, The Edge of the Sea, in 1955. Through 1956 and 1957, Carson worked on a number of projects and wrote articles for popular magazines.

In 1937, Carson's family responsibilities further increased when her older sister died at the age of 40, and she took on responsibility for her two nieces. Family tragedy struck a third time when one of the nieces she had cared for in the 1940s died at the age of 36, leaving a five-year-old orphaned son. Carson took on the care of that child, along with continued responsibility of caring for her mother, who was almost 90 by this time. She adopted the boy and, needing a suitable place to raise him, bought a rural property in Maryland. This environment was to be a major factor in the choice of her next topic.

Silent Spring and the DDT ban

Beginning in the mid-1940s, Carson became concerned about the use of newly invented pesticides, especially DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). "The more I learned about the use of pesticides, the more appalled I became," she wrote later, explaining her decision to start researching what would eventually become her most famous work, Silent Spring. "What I discovered was that everything which meant most to me as a naturalist was being threatened, and that nothing I could do would be more important." [2]

Silent Spring focused on the environment, and pesticides in particular. It was known as Carson's crusade, and she worked on this book until her death. Carson explored the subject of environmental connectedness: although a pesticide is aimed at eliminating one organism, its effects are felt throughout the food chain, and what was intended to poison an insect results in poisoning larger animals and humans.

The four-year task of writing Silent Spring began with a letter from a close friend of Carson's. It was from a New Englander, Olga Owens Huckins, who owned a bird sanctuary. According to the letter, the sanctuary had been sprayed unmercifully by the government. The letter asked Carson to immediately use her influence with government authorities to begin an investigation into pesticide use. Carson decided it would be more effective to raise the issue in a popular magazine; however, publishers were uninterested, and eventually the project instead became a book.

Now, as a renowned author, she was able to ask for, and receive, the aid of prominent biologists, chemists, pathologists, and entomologists. She used Silent Spring to create a mental association in the public's mind between wildlife mortality and over-use of pesticides such as dieldrin, toxaphene, and heptachlor. Her cautions regarding the previously little-remarked practices of introducing an enormous variety of industrial products and wastes into wilderness, waterways, and human habitats with little concern for possible toxicity struck the general public as common sense, as much as good science.

We are subjecting whole populations to exposure to chemicals which animal experiments have proved to be extremely poisonous and in many cases cumulative in their effects. These exposures now begin at or before birth and - unless we change our methods - will continue through the lifetime of those now living. No one knows what the results will be because we have no previous experience to guide us. [3]

Rachel Carson, Houghton Mifflin

Even before Silent Spring was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1962, there was strong opposition to this book. As TIME Magazine recounted in 1999:

Carson was violently assailed by threats of lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that this meticulous scientist was a "hysterical woman" unqualified to write such a book. A huge counterattack was organized and led by Monsanto, Velsicol, American Cyanamid - indeed, the whole chemical industry - duly supported by the Agriculture Department as well as the more cautious in the media. [4]

Scientists such as Robert White-Stevens (who wrote "If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth."), and chemical companies and other critics, attacked the data and interpretation in the book, some going further to attack Carson's scientific credentials because her speciality was in marine biology and zoology, not in the field of biochemistry. Some went as far as characterizing her as a mere birdwatcher with more spare time than scientific background, calling her unprofessional, and a fringe of her critics accused her of being a communist.

In addition, many critics repeatedly asserted that she was calling for the elimination of all pesticides; despite the fact that Carson had made it clear she was not advocating the banning or complete withdrawal of helpful pesticides, but was instead encouraging responsible and carefully managed use with an awareness of the chemicals' impact on the entire ecosystem. In fact, she concludes her section on DDT in Silent Spring not by urging a total ban, but with Practical advice should be "Spray as little as you possibly can" rather than "Spray to the limit of your capacity."[5]

Houghton Mifflin was pressured to suppress the book, but did not succumb. Silent Spring was positively reviewed by many outside of the agricultural and chemical science fields, and it became a runaway best seller both in the United States and overseas. Again, TIME Magazine noted that, within a year or so of publication, "all but the most self-serving of Carson's attackers were backing rapidly toward safer ground. In their ugly campaign to reduce a brave scientist's protest to a matter of public relations, the chemical interests had only increased public awareness.” [6]

Pesticide use became a major public issue, helped by Carson's April 1963 appearance on a CBS Television special in debate with a chemical company spokesman. Later that year she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and received many other honors and awards, including the Audubon Medal and the Cullen Medal of the American Geographical Society.

World wide effect

Despite the acceptance of Carson's philosophy in the 1960s, criticism of Carson's work and its effects has grown as developing nations struggle to battle infectious diseases nearly eradicated by DDT.

According to former Surgeon General and retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Dr. Harold M. Koenig, although DDT "provides the most effective, cheapest, and safest means of abating and eradicating" infectious diseases, all changed with the 1962 publication of Carson's tome Silent Spring. And just as the world's leading scientists predicted 30 years ago, Carson's crusade against DDT has caused the world's deadliest infectious diseases such as typhus and malaria… to make a deadly comeback that will soon threaten the United States and Europe again." [7]

According to the World Health Organization, "more people are now infected with malaria than at any point in history," with "up to half a billion cases being reported every year." The National Institute of Health reports that "infectious diseases remain the leading cause of death" in the world and is "the third leading cause of death in the United States." WHO estimates put the number of people in Africa dying from malaria annually is equal to the number of AIDS' deaths over the last 15 years combined. [8]

An excerpt from the paper "When Politics Kills" by Richard Tren and Roger Bate reads: "Hailed for its near-miraculous success in eradicating malaria from North America and southern Europe in the years immediately following World War II, and in sharply reducing malaria incidence in India and other developing countries by the 1960s, DDT was the primary public-health tool to fight malaria. Gradually, however, with the growth of the modern environmental movement, governments in industrialized nations were persuaded to restrict DDT because of fears of damage to birds of prey. Today, because they can afford it, the rich nations control insect-borne diseases with alternative, more expensive, but less effective methods.

This retreat from DDT causes havoc in the developing world, however, where public health programs to fight malaria are partly or wholly dependent on aid from donor countries, which are extremely reluctant to support the use of DDT because of its potential impact on wildlife. This precautionary protection of wildlife takes precedence over human health and well being, and comes at great cost in malaria-endemic countries." [9]

Carson's legacy

Carson received hundreds of speaking invitations, but was unable to accept the great majority of them. Her health had been steadily declining since she had been diagnosed with breast cancer halfway through the writing of Silent Spring. In one of her last public appearances, Carson testified before President Kennedy's Science Advisory Committee, which issued a report on May 15, 1963 largely backing Carson's scientific claims. However, she never did live to see the banning of DDT in the United States. She died on April 14, 1964, at the age of 56. In 1980, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

Silent Spring remains a founding text for the contemporary environmental movement in the West and is seen as an important work to this day.

The Rachel Carson State Office Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is home to the Commonwealth's Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

On April 22, 2006, to celebrate Earth Day, the Three Sisters Ninth Street Bridge in Pittsburgh was formally renamed Rachel Carson Bridge [10]

Between 1964 and 1990, 650 acres (260 hectares) near Brookeville, Montgomery County, Maryland, were acquired and set aside as the Rachel Carson Conservation Park. The Hawlings River runs through this undeveloped park and there are both hiker and equestrian trails through both meadow and woodland. It is administered by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

Numerous schools have been named after her: there is a public elementary school named after Rachel Carson in San Jose, California, and a middle school named after her in Herndon, Virginia. In Beaverton, Oregon, there is an optional middle school program named after her which is focused on environmental sciences.

The Rachel Carson Prize was founded in Stavanger, Norway in 1991, and is awarded to women who have made a contribution in the field of environmental protection.

A Sense of Wonder, a one-woman play based on the life and works of Rachel Carson—written and performed by stage and screen actress Kaiulani Lee—has toured the United States, Canada, England and Italy since 1995. The play has been performed at regional and national conferences, more than one hundred universities, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, the Albert Sweitzer Conference at the United Nations, the Sierra Club Centennial in San Francisco, and the Department of the Interior 150th Anniversary Celebration.

Books Written by Rachel Carson

  • Under the Sea Wind, 1941, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Group, 1996, ISBN 0140253807
  • The Sea Around Us, 1951, Oxford University Press, 1991, ISBN 0195069978
  • The Edge of the Sea, 1955, Mariner Books, 1998, ISBN 0395924960
  • Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin, 1962, Mariner Books, 2002, ISBN 0618249060
    • 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 006757520X, published posthumously
  • Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, Beacon Press, 1998, ISBN 0807085472


  1. Peter Matthiessen, March 29, 1999. "Before there was an environmental movement, there was one brave woman and her very brave book" TIME magazine's "100 most important people," Retrieved January 24, 2007
  2. Marcia Mueller, RACHEL CARSON'S ENVIRONMENTAL LEGACY. The Sierra Club. Retrieved January 24, 2007
  3. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring Retrieved January 24, 2007
  4. Peter Matthiessen, March 29, 1999 "Before there was an environmental movement, there was one brave woman and her very brave book" TIME magazine's "100 most important people." Retrieved January 24, 2007
  5. Introduction to Environmental Science University of Iowa. Retrieved January 24, 2007
  6. Matthiessen, Peter, March 29, 1999 "Before there was an environmental movement, there was one brave woman and her very brave book" Time magazine's "100 most important people". Retrieved January 24, 2007
  7. Africa Fighting Malaria Africa Fighting Malaria, NGO, Official Website. Retrieved January 24, 2007
  8. Africa Fighting Malaria Africa Fighting Malaria, NGO, Official Website. Retrieved January 24, 2007
  9. Richard Tren and Roger Bate, When Malaria Kills, DDT and the Malaria Story The Competitive Enterprise Institute.
  10. Jerome L. Sherman, April 23, 2006 Environmentalist Rachel Carson's legacy remembered on Earth Day Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved January 24, 2007

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Lear, Linda. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: Henry Holt, 1997, Owl Books paperback 1998. ISBN 0805034285
  • Quaratiello, Arlene. Rachel Carson: A Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004. ISBN 0313323887

External links

All links retrieved December 7, 2022.


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