Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Rachel Carson
Carson speaking before Senate subcommittee studying pesticide spraying.
Photo: Library of Congress

Rachel Carson

1907 – 1964

Like many activists of the '60s, Rachel Carson fights against the tide of public opinion, and copes with professional and personal threats. And, like many activists, she uses mass media to spread her message. But none of her revolutionary peers is so directly and personally responsible for creating a global movement.

For the first 30 years of her life, Rachel Carson works hard to gain credibility as a woman in the sciences. Her exceptional writing skills are a professional asset, and a source of supplemental income.

In 1937, the Atlantic Monthly publishes "Undersea", a short article by Carson. Simon & Schuster encourages her to expand the piece into book form. After several years of late nights, Under the Sea-Wind is released less than a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite excellent reviews, the book doesn't sell. Her second book, The Sea Around Us, is on the New York Times bestseller list for 86 weeks. With the profits, Carson quits her job and pursues full-time writing. Her next book, The Edge of the Sea, is also a bestseller.

If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson…the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.

Dr. Robert White-Stevens
industrial biochemist

In the late '50s, Carson moves to Massachusetts, where she receives a letter from the custodian of a local bird sanctuary destroyed by DDT used in neighboring fields. Over the next four years, with the aid of scientists who know her earlier work, Carson writes a story to help people grasp the link between pesticide use and wildlife death. Even before Silent Spring goes to press, the chemical industry launches a vicious campaign against Carson. They threaten her with lawsuits, attack her credentials, advise the press to dismiss her as a "hysterical woman," and even suggest she is a Communist. [At the same time, on the other side of the world, the U.S. is saturating Vietnam with Agent Orange herbicide.]

Carson's publishers stand by her work, but get a toxicologist to check her facts before the book is shipped. By publication day, September 27, 1962, advance sales total 190,000 copies.

Carson dies from cancer in the spring of 1964. The government finally bans DDT, 10 years after Silent Spring is published.

Snap ShotsNews MakersReflectionsOn the Record