September 21, 2007
The Environmental Protection Agency looks to her as a founding inspiration and the Fish & Wildlife Service as a source of agency pride. The EPA's official history site states: "There is no question...that SILENT SPRING prompted the Federal Government to take action against water and air pollution as well as against the misuse of pesticides several years before it otherwise might have moved."
But the common view of Rachel Carson's impact goes far beyond government bureaucracy. Carson and her most famous book, SILENT SPRING, are credited with no less than 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." In 2007, the centenary of Carson's birth is being celebrated around the world and her work is still making waves just as it did in 1962.
Rachel Carson was born in 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania. Carson was always interested in writing contributing a number of stories to the children's magazine ST. NICHOLAS. She also had a long-standing love of nature. In a speech to the society of women journalists, Theta Sigma Pi, in 1954 she said: "I was rather a solitary child and spent a great deal of time in woods and beside streams, learning the birds and insects and flowers."
Carson attended the Pennsylvania College for Women at Pittsburgh. Originally intending on majoring in English composition, Carson changed her focus to biology and went on to study at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, and received her MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932.
Carson went on to a position as aquatic biologist with the Bureau of Fisheries in Washington (subsequently the Fish & Wildlife Service). Both a writer and biologist Carson started out creating radio scripts her series was called "The Romance of the Seas." She stayed with the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service for fifteen years, finishing her career as Editor-in-Chief of all publications for the Service.
Encouraged by friends and colleagues, Carson submitted articles for publication "Undersea" was published in 1937 by ATLANTIC. Carson followed with three books about the sea: 1941's UNDER THE SEA WIND, best-selling THE SEA AROUND US in 1951, and THE EDGE OF THE SEA, 1955 all of which were lauded for her ability to write eloquently and clearly about science for a mainstream audience. THE SEA AROUND US won numerous awards including the Gold Medal of the New York Zoological Society, the John Burroughs Medal, the Gold Medal of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia and the National Book Award and was a best-seller.
The success of THE SEA AROUND US enabled Carson to retire from government service. She turned her attention to documenting the effects of pesticides on the environment. As she noted in "Essay on the Biological Sciences" in GOOD READING from 1958 the notion of ecology and the idea that some wondrous new technologies may come with destructive side effects were new.
Only within the 20th Century has biological thought been focused on ecology, or the relation of the living creature to its environment. 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, 1958
Carson undertook her own painstaking research and the result was the blockbuster SILENT SPRING that garnered the attention of the populace, the President and the chemical industry.
SILENT SPRING had been excerpted before its 1962 publication in THE NEW YORKER and furor over the book came swiftly. Some critics characterized Carson as a hysterical alarmist who advocated for rolling back progress though Carson never argued for out-right pesticide bans but rather for study and caution. Others impuned her science. A review in CHEMICAL & ENGINEERING NEWS ended with a condemning note: "The responsible scientist should read this book to understand the ignorance of those writing on the subject and the educational task which lies ahead." (Read the original review, letters to the editor published by CHEMICAL & ENGINEERING NEWS, and CHEMICAL & ENGINEERING NEWS's look back at the controversy from 2007.)
THE NEW YORK TIMES covered the furor in "'Silent Spring' is Now Noisy Summer: Pesticides Industry Up In Arms Over a New Book": "The $300,000,000 pesticides industry has been highly irritated by a quiet woman author whose previous works on science have been praised for the beauty and precision of the writing."
But the battle itself had put the question on the table at the highest level. Specifically citing SILENT SPRING, the Kennedy administration ordered a study on the possible long-term effects of DDT and other pesticides. Carson herself testified in front of the Commission and Congress and seven years later her request for a department to study man's effect on the ecology was fulfilled with the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Legacy and the Debate
It stands to reason that if her impact had not been so formidable the backlash would not have been so great. And with the 100th anniversary of Carson's birth there has been renewed attention focused on SILENT SPRING and DDT. With this centenary year too, Carson's books are all back in print, and a new generation of writers and scientists are looking to her for inspiration.
Find out more about the DDT debate
Published on September 21, 2007