Rachel CarsonAired January 24, 2017 She set out to save a species… us.
When Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962, the book became a phenomenon. A passionate and eloquent warning about the long-term dangers of pesticides, the book unleashed an extraordinary national debate and was greeted by vigorous attacks from the chemical industry. But it would also inspire President John F. Kennedy to launch the first-ever investigation into the public health effects of pesticides — an investigation that would eventually result in new laws governing the regulation of these deadly agents.
Featuring the voice of Mary-Louise Parker as the influential writer and scientist, Rachel Carson is an intimate portrait of the woman whose groundbreaking books revolutionized our relationship to the natural world. Drawn from Carson’s own writings, letters and recent scholarship, this film illuminates both the public and private life of the woman who launched the modern environmental movement and revolutionized how we understand our relationship with the natural world.
Cast and Crew
Rafael De La Uz
Peter R. Livingston Jr.
Written and Directed By
Voice of Rachel Carson
Original Score By
Director of Photography
Rafael De La Uz
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Rafael De La Uz
Justin Thomas Ostensen
Rebecca Shpak Conley
Jason Lee Hively
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Quotes from the works of Rachel Carson used with permission of Frances Collin, Trustee
Archival Materials Courtesy of
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Southport Island, Maine
Reid State Park, Maine
Porter Preserve, Maine
Glover-Archbold Park, Washington D.C.
Rachel Carson House, Colesville, Maryland
Cape Cod National Seashore
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Narrator: It was 1962––the height of the Cold War––a moment when unrelenting anxiety about the future was leavened by an abiding faith in the power of science to secure our safety and prosperity. Then came an incendiary book that sowed seeds of doubt.
Archival: [Sevareid]: This is one of the nation's best sellers, first printed on September 27, 1962. Up to now 500,000 copies have been sold, and Silent Spring has been called the most controversial book of the year.
Narrator: At the eye of the storm was Rachel Carson, one of the most celebrated American writers of her time. With her first three books––a lyrical trilogy about the sea––Carson had opened people's eyes to the natural world. Now, in Silent Spring, she delivered the dark warning that they might soon destroy it.
Archival: [Rachel Carson] If we are ever to solve the basic problem of environmental contamination, we must begin to count the many hidden costs of what we are doing.
Archival: [White-Stevens] Miss Carson maintains that the balance of nature is a major force in the survival of man. Whereas the modern chemist, the modern biologist, the modern scientist believes that man is steadily controlling nature.
Mark Lytle, Historian: It was sort of the gospel at the time that human ingenuity would triumph over nature; what Carson was arguing was for caution. She really confronted the orthodoxies of her time.
Naomi Oreskes, Historian: She was accused of being a Communist, of being a hysterical, female Luddite. The reaction was to attack the messenger.
Narrator: Carson was an unlikely heretic. Dutiful, demure, and so jealous of her solitude that her most intimate relationship was conducted mainly through letters, she'd thrust herself into the public eye––all the while harboring a secret that was literally killing her.
To some, Silent Spring was an act of heroism; to others, an irresponsible breach of scientific objectivity. But there could be no dispute that with her rebuke to modern technological science, Carson had shattered a paradigm.
William Souder, Biographer: Rachel Carson not only changed the kind of questions we ask about the environment; I think she caused us to start to ask those questions. She’s the instigator.
Narrator: In mid-July 1945, as the Second World War ground on in the Pacific and weary Americans scanned the morning's headlines for the word "victory," Rachel Carson was trying to call attention to what she believed was a war against the earth.
Carson was 38 that summer, and restless. A writer by inclination and a biologist by training, she'd spent much of the previous decade in the employ of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, overseeing publications about its conservation work. The job paid the bills; but Carson craved a wider audience.
Now, the agency had undertaken a study she felt warranted public attention. As she put it in a letter to the popular monthly Reader's Digest: "Practically at my backdoor... in Maryland an experiment of more than ordinary interest and importance is going on."
On a vast, forested tract at the Patuxent Research Refuge, not far from Carson's home in Silver Spring, Fish and Wildlife scientists had begun to examine the environmental impacts of a relatively new chemistry-lab creation: a so-called "synthetic" pesticide known as DDT.
William Souder, Biographer: Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, DDT. It was first synthesized back in the 19th century and it sat on lab shelves for decades. Nobody knew if it did anything, if it had any useful purpose, until 1939 when a Swiss chemist named Paul Müller discovered that it was a very potent insecticide and killed all kinds of bugs very readily.
Archival: Absorbed through the feet or other parts of the body, DDT effects the nervous system and motor coordination of the insect. Several hours elapse before symptoms develop; then in sequence follows restlessness, tremors, convulsions, paralysis, and death.
Deborah Blum, Science Writer: Farmers have been doing war with insects and other pests for a long time and they had been using what we think of now as almost obviously homicidal poisons to do that. But for the first time we have a sort of new generation pesticide. It’s a whole new fascinating kind of chemical formula that's not obviously toxic to people and insects are dying all over the place.
Narrator: After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military had rushed DDT to the battle zones, in an effort to protect American troops from insect-borne diseases such as typhus––which was spread by lice, and left untreated could kill.
Archival [DDT]: Weapon Against Disease (1945)]: This was Naples, Italy, shortly after the Allied occupation. Its crowded population lacked almost everything for the safeguarding of public health. The perfect set-up for epidemic.
David Kinkela, Historian: Naples is really a city under siege. And typhus spreads quickly under those kinds of conditions. So they set up spray stations in the cities, spraying thousands of people a day with hand sprayers–– people who wanted to get sprayed, people who didn’t wanna get sprayed, children, elderly.
Archival: Next, the 40,000 Italians dwelling in the jam-packed air raid shelters were deloused.
Narrator: In all, more than a million people were dusted with DDT, and the epidemic was stopped in its tracks. “Neapolitans," the New York Times reported, "are now throwing DDT at brides instead of rice.” Meanwhile, in the tropical Pacific theater––where more soldiers had been sidelined by malaria than by gunshot wounds––entire islands were saturated with DDT.
Mark Lytle, Historian: General Douglas MacArthur once said that in war an Army commander had three divisions, one in the front fighting, one in reserve, and one in the rear being refitted. He said, “I have one in the front, one in reserve, and one in the hospital” because of malaria. But with DDT that problem diminished substantially. It was considered to be a miracle substance in that it saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
Narrator: By the middle of 1944, TIME magazine had pronounced DDT “one of the great scientific discoveries of World War II.” To Reader's Digest, Rachel Carson was offering a new angle––a piece exploring DDT's potential to cause collateral damage to wildlife.
Naomi Oreskes, Historian: Biologists for the Fish and Wildlife Service begin to see pretty quickly that when DDT is used in certain areas there’s evidence of problems. There’s evidence of fish kill or bird kill and they see that and like any expert they publish it in a place where other experts will read it. But how that information then filters out to a larger public is a very big question.
William Souder, Biographer: Carson understood the implications of this. She wanted to write a story warning people that, “We need to be a little bit careful with this. This looks like it’s a great thing but we maybe need to be cautious in how we use it, how much of it we use.”
Linda Lear, Biographer: But Reader’s Digest doesn't want this article. They essentially say, “Oh, housewives would be just turned off by this. They wouldn’t wanna know about this terrible stuff so no. No, thank you.”
Archival: The victory flash electrified Times Square keyed to the bursting point as the magic word of complete surrender came through.
Narrator: Just weeks later, the war in the Pacific finally was won, and credit for the victory went to the twin weapons of modern science: the atomic bomb and the so-called "insect bomb," DDT.
Mark Lytle, Historian: Americans were actually healthier and the death rate went down during World War II even if you include soldiers in the equation. And so people considered this a real triumph of human ingenuity over the old pestilences of, of nature that had made life nasty, brutish, and short.
Deborah Blum, Science Writer: So people just went, “Wow. We have this incredibly potent compound, doesn’t cause any harm to anything but bugs. We’ll just use it everywhere.”
Archival: I consider this amazing chemical the most valuable contribution of our wartime medical research program for the future health and welfare not only of this nation, but of the entire world.
Narrator: Carson's misgivings about DDT were not assuaged. But she was in no position to spend time on a story she couldn't sell.
Linda Lear, Biographer: She really is pretty certain that synthetic pesticides are not good for the environment, and that they have the power to destroy, which is not being made cLinda Lear, Biographer to anybody. But Reader’s Digest doesn’t think so. So she gives it up. She puts it away. But it really doesn’t go away.
Voice: I can remember no time, even in earliest childhood, when I didn’t assume I was going to be a writer. Also, I can remember no time when I wasn’t interested in the out-of-doors and the whole world of nature. Those interests, I know, I inherited from my mother and have always shared with her. [[––Rachel Carson]]
Narrator: She was, from the very beginning, her mother's child. A former schoolteacher of stern Presbyterian stock, Maria Carson had given up her career for marriage and motherhood––only to find herself alone among strangers.
Her husband Robert, while well-meaning, had never managed to provide more than a meagre existence. The family's clapboard house, on the Allegheny River just north of Pittsburgh, lacked both central heating and running water throughout the 29 years the Carsons occupied it.
Maria's two older children already were school-aged when their younger sister was born, and already showed a marked lack of interest in their mother's passions.Rachel would be different.
William Souder, Biographer: Maria Carson was an educated woman and a woman who enjoyed reading. She enjoyed music. She was a person who, to some degree, lived a life of the mind.
Robert K. Musil, Environmental Scientist: She focused and passed this all on to Rachel. She was ambitious for her daughter. This was her youngest, brightest, frankly favorite child and so she wanted her to get a good education.
Narrator: Inspired by a popular educational movement which held that children should "study nature, not books," Maria made the surrounding woods and fields Rachel's first classroom.
Linda Lear, Biographer: to love the natural world, the theory went, and one will wish to protect it.
Mark Lytle, Historian: Rachel and her mother would spend their afternoons together exploring and she Linda Lear, Biographerned to identify wild things, the songs of birds, and she could recognize the nests, and the flora and fauna. Her mother taught her to be rigorous in her observation but it also of course deepened her relationship with her mother.
Narrator: She was the solitary sort of girl who greeted the birds on the way to school in the morning and was partial to the companionship of books.
At the age of eight, she was writing stories of her own. At ten, at her mother's urging, Rachel entered a contest sponsored by the popular children's magazine St. Nicholas and became a published author. By fourteen, she was submitting her work to magazines for sale.
Robert K. Musil, Environmental Scientist: If we picture a girl in a small farm in Nowhere, Pennsylvania who is transported through literature and can imagine being elsewhere, I think she was led to see that as something that she could do, and it was constantly reinforced.
Linda Lear, Biographer: Maria Carson had always wanted to go to college and couldn’t so she was going to be quite sure that this daughter, this smart daughter, was gonna go to college.
Narrator: When Rachel won a scholarship to Pennsylvania College for Women, Maria sold off even the family china to help cover her daughter's expenses, then made the 30-mile roundtrip to Pittsburgh most weekends to visit her.
William Souder, Biographer: She was the star pupil. Everyone realized right away what a talented writer she was and also saw that this was her ambition in life that she wanted to be a writer. So it came as a great shock when she fell in love with biology. The science of life just struck a chord in her that I think she didn’t realize was there.
Narrator: Thrilled by the prospect of understanding the natural world she'd been taught to so closely observe, Carson changed her major from English to biology and announced her intention to go on to graduate school.
She spent the next two years taking courses in zoology, physiology, anatomy. But her true interest only revealed itself after graduation––when she landed a coveted research spot at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Wood's Hole, Massachusetts, and for the first time in her life laid eyes on the ocean.
Linda Lear, Biographer: She’s moved beyond just the ordinary person would be moved who would have seen the ocean for the first time. The sea taught her everything that she later came to want to understand and want the world to understand, that everything was connected to everything else.
William Souder, Biographer: If you study biology and if you look at how all life on earth has evolved, eventually you begin to see everything in totality. You can’t divorce yourself or any other living thing from the environment that we all share. And Carson was fascinated by that.
Mark Lytle, Historian: It was one of the most liberating, expansive experiences she ever had in her life. One of her overriding lessons was that the sea, with all of its massive expanse and its varieties of creatures was beyond the controlling hand of man.
Narrator: Had it not been for the Depression––and her family's dire financial straits––Carson might have become a marine biologist. As it was, she'd barely started her graduate work at Johns Hopkins before her parents, her older sister, and her two nieces came to live with her in Baltimore.
Full-time study gave way to part-time study and part-time work. Then, when Carson was 28, her father died suddenly. Not long after, her sister died as well, leaving two daughters in Rachel and her mother's care.
Now the family's sole breadwinner, Carson left Johns Hopkins with her Master's Degree and took a job with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, writing an assortment of publications about the Bureau's marine conservation work.
William Souder, Biographer: As she’s looking over the press releases that she’s writing, she realizes that some of these subjects are kind of interesting and could be turned into feature stories for a local newspaper. So she starts selling stories to the Baltimore Sun that are based on some of the work that she’s seeing being done at the Bureau of Fisheries.
Narrator: From time to time, Carson omitted her first name from her signature, believing certain pieces would have more credibility if they were presumed to have been written by a man. Still, as she later said, "[I]t was a turning point... I had given up writing forever, I thought. It never occurred to me that I was merely getting something to write about."
William Souder, Biographer: She has at last found this way to combine her two passions in life. Biology and writing merge and I think really from that time forward she never thinks of them as being separate things, what she is is someone who writes about science.
Narrator: In 1937, a piece Carson published in The Atlantic came to the attention of Simon & Schuster, which offered her a small advance for a book about the sea.
Hopeful the opportunity would help her make the leap to full-time writer, she poured three years' worth of nights and weekends into the book–– a kind of literary triptych about the lives of three sea creatures. Under the Sea Wind earned early critical praise; but the rush to the book store Carson had dreamed of never happened.
William Souder, Biographer: A few weeks after the book is released the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and everybody’s attention shifts from books, certainly from slight books, like a book about creatures that live in the ocean. And Under The Sea-Wind just kind of vanishes without a trace, never sells even 2,000 copies.
Narrator: For Carson, there would be no escape from her day-job. The Bureau of Fisheries by then had merged with another agency to become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but Carson's position was essentially unchanged. And though she excelled in it, it was not work that she loved.
By the time the war came to an end, in 1945, she was back to pitching feature stories and frustrated beyond measure. What she was, as a friend put it, was a “would-be writer who could not afford the time for creative work.”
Linda Lear, Biographer: I don’t think Rachel sees that there’s much alternative. She’s got a good job. She’s got family to support. So she’s really stuck.
William Souder, Biographer: She felt she’d come to an obstacle that didn’t have any easy way around. Really for the first time in her life I think she really didn’t see the way forward. And I think she was in the “now what?” phase for several years.
ARCHIVAL [WNYC radio announcer 1]: Headlines in Chemistry!
[WNYC radio]: (music)
[WNYC radio announcer 1]: And here is our first headline. Science can now rid the country of mosquitoes.
[WNYC radio announcer 2]: The mosquito is doomed! And so is the bloodthirsty black fly. These biting insects can now be completely wiped out by man-made fogs loaded with DDT.
Narrator: Not long after Reader's Digest declined Carson's DDT piece, the "miracle pesticide" was released for civilian use. For the first time, the insect-borne scourges that spread disease and ravaged crops seemed subject to man's control.
Mark Lytle, Historian: Most people were inclined to think of humans as the superior, apex species and that the rest of the animal, plant kingdom existed for our convenience, and that man’s function was to dominate and in a sense to bend nature to his purposes. And so the ethos of science and technology is that humans could improve on nature.
William Souder, Biographer: DDT was going to end diseases like malaria and typhus. It was going to greatly increase agriculture output. DDT was thought to be so important that Paul Müller won the Nobel Prize for discovering DDT.
Narrator: Cheap and long-lasting, DDT was rushed into widespread use practically overnight.
In the southeastern United States, where malaria was rife, a coalition of state and local health agencies treated some four-and-a-half million homes with DDT. By 1951, malaria had been eliminated from the entire country.
The U. S. Department of Agriculture meanwhile promoted DDT to farmers and, in conjunction with the military, sold thousands of decommissioned planes as crop dusters––boosting agricultural yields across the country.
William Souder, Biographer: It’s hard to understand now because it seems instinctive to us. But the idea that a chemical might present a hazard to your health, or to the well being of the natural environment, this was not front-of-mind for anybody at the time. There was really no rigorous testing of these chemicals to ensure their safety. There was much greater attention paid to whether they were effective.
Deborah Blum, Science Writer: Nature was big, and dark, and scary, and dangerous in profound ways through much of human history. So when people looked at nature they saw that the world would be safer if they could master it. And when you get something that looks like a tool, a “magic bullet," you want the magic bullet.
Narrator: Spurred by the success of DDT, chemists soon created a host of new pesticidal compounds––endrin, dieldrin, toxaphene.Over the decade to come, all would be weapons in the struggle to master nature.
David Kinkela, Historian: So you see an explosion of American science that has the potential to solve the deep-seated problems of famine and disease around the world. And so there’s this sense of a quest. We have the tools, we have the technology, we have the know-how and this is our moment.
Narrator: On an overcast morning in July, 1949, Rachel Carson found herself in a boat off the coast of Miami, staring down into the storm-churned waters of Biscayne Bay.
After five years spent making the best of her job at the Fish and Wildlife Service, she'd begun to toy with the idea of writing another book about the sea––and this time, she was determined to experience her subject firsthand.
William Souder, Biographer: She probably didn’t let on that she was a very poor swimmer. She didn’t like boats. Um You know, she was happy being in up to about her knees and beyond that she really wasn’t very comfortable. But she felt that if she could somehow muster the courage to go under the surface that it would be illuminating and helpful to her in her writing.
Narrator: From her desk in Maryland, it had seemed critical to her research that she make this dive. But now, on the boat, the prospect of simply getting into the water seemed impossibly daunting. The diving helmet alone weighed 84 pounds. Carson, at five-feet-four-inches tall, weighed all of 120.
Trembling, she managed to descend about eight feet, to the bottom of the boat's ladder, staying just long enough to note the presence of seaweed and a few vibrantly colored fish. She never once let go of the ladder's rung.
William Souder, Biographer: Her facemask kind of clouded up. She was breathing heavily. She was terrified. But she spent a few minutes there and then climbed back up the ladder and, and went home.
Narrator: Carson judged the dive a success, because she'd at least been able to glimpse the ocean's surface from below. But as research, it was largely irrelevant: the new book was to be based not on firsthand observation, but rather on the surfeit of oceanographic studies that lately had been piling up on her desk.
Naomi Oreskes, Historian: Up until World War II, nobody really worried much about what happened below the waves. But in World War II submarine warfare becomes important for the first time, and the only way you can operate in the submarine environment is with a very, very detailed understanding of the ocean. And so we start a tremendous amount about the ocean and about the life in the deep ocean that had been quite mysterious before that. And the idea that there was all this amazing diverse life in the ocean that we didn’t really know about and that is existing as a kind of parallel universe, I think that that really captured her.
Linda Lear, Biographer: Carson wanted to be the biographer of the ocean. She wanted certainly to tell about its beauty and about how intricate nature was. It’s the same question that she approached in Under the Sea-Wind––only now there was all this information that she could tap. She had access to confidential information. She had access to war records. She had access to submarine research.
She was a master synthesizer. She could take information from this place and that place and then see how it went together in ways that I don’t think very many people can do.
William Souder, Biographer: Carson’s technique was to identify the leading experts in the field, ask a few harmless questions about their work, and then once she got her foot in the door with them to expand the questioning so that she could really pick their brains.
Narrator: In the evenings, after a full day at the office and dinner with her mother, Carson cloistered herself in her study and worked on her book, sometimes until dawn.
Deborah Cramer, Writer: Once you have all these hundreds and hundreds of papers you need to shape them in some kind of narrative, and that requires a very different prose style than what she was reading. And so when you go about taking that material and, and transforming it but still being true to it, it’s just an extraordinarily difficult thing because when you choose different words to describe it you run the risk of mistranslating what you’re reading.
Linda Lear, Biographer: It was a painstaking process because she was a perfectionist. She had to get the first sentence right before she could go to the second sentence. And then she’d revise. It takes a long time for her to get something that she likes and then in the morning she’s likely to revise it again so things go very slowly.
Narrator: Determined that this book would not languish as Under the Sea-Wind had, Carson signed on with a literary agent named Marie Rodell, who sold the volume to Oxford Press even before it had a title. "Current suggestions from irreverent friends and relatives,” Carson joked, “include ‘Out of My Depth’ and ‘Carson at Sea.’" By the spring of 1950, the manuscript, now bearing the title The Sea Around Us, was nearly finished.
Hoping to foster advance interest in its publication, Rodell began shopping excerpts to magazines. Fifteen turned the material down before it finally made its way to William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, who offered to publish ten of the book's chapters.
William Souder, Biographer: This is the turning point in Carson’s career The New Yorker is a very prestigious, widely read, widely respected magazine and so to be serialized in The New Yorker, to have your work preview there ahead of its publication as a book is almost a guarantee of success.
Narrator: Carson would cLinda Lear, Biographer more from The New Yorker serialization than she did from an entire year at Fish and Wildlife Service. "I am still in a daze...," she cabled Rodell, "all I know is how lucky I am to have you." By the time Carson's book went to print in the spring of 1951, the world seemed to be cleaving in two.
The Soviet Union had shaken Americans' sense of security with the successful test of an atomic bomb. Communist forces had triumphed in China. Now, there was a pervasive feeling that the struggle to stem the Red Tide would be unremitting.
Archival VO From the White House in Washington D.C., President Harry S. Truman. My fellow Americans, I want to talk to you plainly tonight about what we are doing in Korea and about our policy in the Far East. In the simplest terms, what we are doing today in Korea is this: we are trying to prevent a third world war.
Narrator: Against the backdrop of war–-both hot and cold––Carson worried that her second book would founder like the first. But thanks to the The New Yorker serialization, readers snapped it up all across the country––and found in its pages an antidote to anxiety.
Voice: [Carson]: The whole world ocean extends over about three-fourths of the surface of the globe. If we subtract the shallow areas of the continental shelves and the scattered banks and shoals, where at least the pale ghost of sunlight moves over the underlying bottom, there still remains about half the earth that is covered by miles-deep, lightless water, that has been dark since the world began.
Narrator: Drawing upon all that was then known about the ocean, Carson told the story of its life over the eons––and revealed a natural realm largely indifferent to the rhythms of man.
William Souder, Biographer: It’s a book that is jammed with news from the natural world, It's about currents, about the propagation of waves, about storm systems, about the ocean’s relationship to climate.
William Souder, Biographer: You have to remember that this is all new. Nobody knows what the ocean is like. So there’s a lot of really compelling information that transcends that term. It’s not just information. It’s revelation. It’s this immersive experience.
Narrator: "It is a work of science," one critic raved, "it is stamped with authority. It is a work of art: it is saturated with the excitement of mystery. It is literature."
Deborah Cramer, Writer: What she has done is to take a very complicated subject and distill it into its essence, and bring the reader right there. So science, which can be extraordinarily impersonal and dry has suddenly become immediate and very important.
Narrator: Three weeks after it appeared in bookstores, The Sea Around Us made the New York Times bestseller list. Amid the near-universal praise for the book, there occasionally emerged a distorted portrait of Carson––as a working scientist with rare literary gifts, or as an experienced diver who'd come to know her subject at a depth of a hundred feet. Thrilled about the book's success but dismayed at the attention focused on its author, Carson did nothing to correct the misconceptions.
William Souder, Biographer: Critic after critic would remark in some way, either offhandedly or directly, how amazing it was that a woman understood these technical matters and wrote so beautifully about them, particularly because the ocean was such a hostile place, where you know presumably only men could go. So Carson had to endure that. And so I think letting this fiction stand was her little way of kind of getting even with the people that kind of doubted her or doubted her gender. I think it amused her.
Narrator: By early September, The Sea Around Us had reached number one on the bestseller list. There it would remain for an astonishing thirty-two weeks. When it at last dropped a notch, it was joined on the list by a reissue of Carson's first book, in what the New York Times called a “publishing phenomenon as rare as a total solar eclipse.”
At 44, Rachel Carson––the one-time "would-be writer"––had two of the country's non-fiction bestsellers.
Mark Lytle, Historian: The Sea Around Us was one of the best selling science books of all time. It sold almost two million copies in its initial publication. It was also translated into I think 30 foreign languages so it was an international best seller, and it won the National Book Award. So it really made her a public figure with a very large following.
Narrator: “We have been troubled about the world, and had almost lost faith in man," one reader wrote Carson. "[It] helps to think about the long history of the earth, and of how life came to be. When we think in terms of millions of years, we are not so impatient that our own problems be solved tomorrow.”
Archival: You have a grandstand seat here for one of the most momentous events in the history of science. This is the first full-scale test of a hydrogen device. If the reaction goes, we're in the thermonuclear era. (voice on loudspeaker) It is now thirty seconds to zero time. Put on goggles or turn away.5 - 4 - 3 -2 -1.
Linda Lear, Biographer: Carson was always aware, I think, from especially her time in government that some people looked at science as discovering something beautiful and new, and some people looked at science as discovering ways in which to wage war, to destroy things not to create things, that by the time of the Cold War there are really two sciences going on in the United States.
Narrator: World War Two had raised the profile of American science. Now, the Cold War made it soar.
David Kinkela, Historian: The atom was used in a very destructive way but it also suggested in many ways that science was at the forefront of something grand. This is the way in which we will solve the problems of the world.
Narrator: The laboratory was no longer merely the source of the nation's military might. It was also, ever increasingly, a font of ingenious chemical tools that gave mankind an edge against its enemies in the natural world.
David Kinkela, Historian: For any sort of question that deals with nature, what is emerging in the post-war period, is that chemicals will solve the problem, right. So if your question is about crop production, more chemicals. If your question is about public health, more chemicals. If your question is about, “How do I protect my home from these unwanted pests?” More chemicals.
Deborah Blum, Science Writer: People are worshiping at the altar of science and technology because finally it’s making us the human masters of the planet and we’re taking this incredibly dangerous, un-nurturing landscape and it is now under our control. Science is rewriting the way we live on earth. And so there was very little questioning.
Narrator: Rachel Carson was less sure. To her, there seemed something dangerous about a world in which human ingenuity knew no limits.
Linda Lear, Biographer: She sees human beings in their post-World War II form as being arrogant, that human arrogance out runs human wisdom and we ought to try to put them back together as equals again.
Narrator: When the demands of promoting The Sea Around Us threatened to overwhelm her, Carson escaped to Maine, to a remote stretch of the central coast where slivers of land reach out into the ocean and the tides rise higher than anywhere along the Atlantic seaboard.
A research trip had first brought her to the area some years before, and it had since been her ambition, as she'd put it to a friend, "to be able to buy a place here and then manage to spend a great deal of time in it...".
Now, flush from the sales of two best-selling books, she purchased a plot on Southport Island and built a summer cottage of her own.
William Souder, Biographer: At the edge of her property, there’s this large area of rocky shelf tableland that at high tide is under the water but at low tide is exposed. And so this exposes all the crevices, and nooks, and tidal pools where starfish, and periwinkles, and sea anemones live. All these creatures of this intertidal zone that so fascinated Carson and always had, that’s all available to her right there.
Robert K. Musil, Environmental Scientist: She identifies with the creatures who live on the edge, this borderland between the power of water that could also crush you, and its ability to release life and to create new life. Rachel wanted to be still, to feel and to imagine and this was the place that would allow her to do that.
Narrator: Before her house was even habitable, Carson received a letter from a Mrs. Dorothy Martha Freeman, Dorothy Freeman's Granddaughter, whose family owned a cottage a half-mile up the shoreline from Carson's property. Dorothy's husband, Stanley, had been given a copy of The Sea Around Us for his birthday.
Martha Freeman, Dorothy Freeman's Granddaughter: My grandparents had read it out loud to each other sailing or on the porch of their cottage and had adored it. Um, It really spoke to a lot of what they cared about in life. And my grandmother read about Rachel coming in the local newspaper and sent her a little welcoming note in 1952, and she got a note back.
Narrator: Despite all the attention that recently had been showered upon her––requests for interviews, speaking invitations, mountains of fan mail––Carson felt isolated and more than usually burdened by her family. Maria Carson, as she aged, had grown demanding and jealous of Rachel's time and attention. And then, there was niece Marjorie, who had taken up with a married man and become pregnant.
Mark Lytle, Historian: Carson and her mother arranged to have the young woman admitted to a special home where she had the baby and kept it out of the public eye, and sort of protected her from the rumor mill and what not. Carson once wrote, she said, “If ever I was bitter about anything I was bitter about that." The problems with her niece really detracted from the joy and the wonderful sense of success she felt for The Sea Around Us.
Narrator: Having finally resigned her position at the Fish and Wildlife Service to dedicate herself to writing, Carson lacked even the companionship of colleagues.
The friendship that bloomed with the Martha Freeman, Dorothy Freeman's Granddaughters was a revelation to her. The couple shared her love for nature and the sea, and enthusiastically joined in her tide pool explorations––Dorothy marveling at the unseen life that teemed at the shoreline, while Stanley took photographs. But of the two, it was Dorothy to whom Carson felt most drawn.
Martha Freeman, Dorothy Freeman's Granddaughter: I think Rachel had the same experience in a way that I had with my grandmother in that she was just so present, so much herself, so comfortable in herself that she was really open to seeing who you were, listening. You totally felt heard and understood. I did anyway and I believe Rachel did. She was just a very comfortable person to be with, a really wonderful friend to have.
William Souder, Biographer: Dorothy Martha Freeman, Dorothy Freeman's Granddaughter and Rachel Carson had, almost from the beginning, this deep, deep, emotional connection that they would later describe as the ability to know exactly what the other one was thinking about everything, to feel as though they were inside the other person’s head at all times. Everything they each loved about the world hit them in the same way.
Narrator: Dorothy was 55, the mother of a grown son, a new grandmother, a devoted homemaker and wife. Now––as the summer turned to fall and Southport was abandoned for the season––she became the confidante that Carson, at 46, had never had.
Voice [Carson]: Darling [Dorothy,] ...I don't suppose anyone really knows how a creative writer works...or what sort of nourishment his spirit must have... All I am certain of is this; that it is quite necessary for me to know that there is someone who is deeply devoted to me as a person, and who also has the capacity and the depth of understanding to share, vicariously, the sometimes crushing burden of creative effort... Last summer I was feeling, as never before, that there was no one who combined all of that... And then, my dear one, you came into my life!
William Souder, Biographer: They started writing letters to each other, and the letters became more and more frequent and they very quickly escalated to include a level of personal affection that was surprising to everyone except to them. Before they ever see each other in person again they’ve declared their love for each other. Carson never really had any relationships. She never dated. I think she knew that Dorothy was the one person who really was the one person, the soul mate. And the beauty is that Dorothy feels the same thing in her way, to the extent that she can.
Narrator: In phone calls and occasional visits––and in letter after letter––Carson poured out to Dorothy the challenges of completing her third book, an Atlantic shore guide she'd agreed to write for Houghton Mifflin even before The Sea Around Us had been published.
Freed at last to do nothing but write, Carson found the task nearly impossible. Again and again, her approach to the guide changed. Entire chapters were laboriously revised. And what was meant to be a two-year project soon stretched into four.
Voice [Carson]: Maybe the easiest way for me to write a chapter...would be to type "Dear Dorothy" on the first page! As a matter of fact, you and your particular kind of interest and appreciation were in my mind a great deal when I was rewriting parts of the section on rocky shores...
William Souder, Biographer: Once they’re together, and they’re rarely physically together, they’re almost always in different places writing letters to each other, once they’re together, they’re never apart. There’s never any question between them.
Martha Freeman, Dorothy Freeman's Granddaughter: There's a huge amount of affection. I mean it is love, it's the love of kindred spirits. They wrote to each other three, four, five times a week. So their relationship was always this caring at a distance. They knew each other for about 12 years and I think I added it up at one point that they were probably in each other’s presence for at most 60 days.
Narrator: When The Edge of the Sea, the widely-acclaimed third volume in Carson's marine trilogy, finally hit bookstores in the summer of 1955, it would be dedicated not to her mother, as The Sea Around Us had been, but to Dorothy and Stanley Martha Freeman, Dorothy Freeman's Granddaughter.
Archival: Let's face it: the threat of hydrogen bomb warfare is the greatest threat our nation has ever known. Enemy jet bombers carrying nuclear weapons can sweep over a variety of routes and drop bombs on any important target in the United States. The threat of this destruction has effected our way of life in every city, town, and village from coast to coast. These are the signs of the times.
David Kinkela, Historian: You can imagine what it might be like to be thinking and hearing almost all the time that you could die at any moment, right, and that the Soviet Union will attack. There’s gonna be no warning, and the only way that you could protect yourselves is to duck and cover yourselves with whatever you have around you. The threat was incredibly palpable.
Narrator: More and more, when Rachel Carson raised her eyes to take in the man-made world around her, what she felt was a quiet rage.The Cold War had become a macabre game of one-upsmanship, a high-stakes standoff fueled by the threat of nuclear destruction.
Then, on March 1st, 1954, the United States pressed for the lead––with the test of a dry fuel hydrogen bomb, code-named "Shrimp."
William Souder, Biographer: Everything goes right with this test, except the things that go wrong, and the things that go wrong are really big problems. The explosion was much more powerful than the scientists had predicted––about two and a half times more powerful than it was supposed to be; largest explosion that had ever occurred on the face of the earth that wasn’t a volcano.
Narrator: Radioactive fallout scattered over more than five thousand square miles and then drifted downward, settling on open ocean, inhabited islands, and a hapless Japanese fishing boat, named Lucky Dragon Number 5.
William Souder, Biographer: This gray, snow-like ash begins to fall out of the sky and it coats the ship from, from stem to stern. It gets on every surface. It coats the men. It gets in their eyes. They’re tasting it to see if they can figure out what it is. That becomes apparent within a couple of days because very soon everybody on the ship is sick.
Narrator: By the time the Lucky Dragon returned to port, everyone on board had succumbed to radiation poisoning––their skin blackened, their hair falling out in clumps. Their ordeal made headlines all over the world.
William Souder, Biographer: For the first time people realized that the real danger in a nuclear war was not the explosions themselves but the fallout, this total contamination of the earth that had the potential to wipe out every living organism on the face of the earth.
Narrator: The Atomic Energy Commission and other government agencies now issued a flurry of reassurances that atmospheric testing was safe, and that fallout constituted no appreciable danger outside of the test zone.
Archival: The atomic cloud, like a giant vacuum cleaner, has sucked up dirt and debris from the earth and is full of radioactive particles. Is it dangerous? Yes, right now it is. You wouldn't want to go into it; but neither would you deliberately walk into a blazing fire. You have to use common sense...
Deborah Blum, Science Writer: It’s really easy for us to look back at something like above ground nuclear testing and think, “Well, that was a primitive moment,” But people had just suffered through a really terrible war. Tens, and tens, and tens of thousands of young Americans had died abroad. And so you can also say to yourself, as they did “We have to have the weapon that ends all wars.” Right? And if there’s some sacrifice involved well, you know, that’s for the greater good.”
David Kinkela, Historian: People were not dying because of nuclear tests. And that is tied to the question of how people understood harm. And throughout much of the 20th century and into the early 1950's, it was really about sort of the question of does this kill you? Very simple. Is it acutely toxic? And if so how much can a human body withstand before it kills somebody?
Narrator: Carson framed the question differently––and her doubts about the vector of modern technological science now began to harden into a certainty.
Linda Lear, Biographer: Now she has to come to grips with the fact that humans can destroy nature. So her mission, if you will, is to show the world what a perfect thing the natural systems are and how easily the hand of man can muck it up. And that becomes a theme in everything that she starts to write. It’s the undercurrent.
Narrator: By the close of 1954, Carson had a title in mind––Remembrance of Earth––and a vague idea for a book that would illuminate the relation of life to its environment. But months gave way to years, and she made no progress with it. Then in early January, 1957, her niece Marjorie contracted a pneumonia so severe she had to be hospitalized. Two weeks later, Marjie was dead and her five-year-old son Roger became Carson's responsibility.
Roger Christie, Adopted Son: Rachel kind of had a hard life that way. You know, first she had to raise my mother and my mother’s sister because their parents died when they were very young, and then the same thing repeated itself just when she was getting out from under it. She was very considerate of my feelings all the time, sometimes to the detriment of her own work.
Narrator: In the spring, on the heels of her 50th birthday, Carson legally became Roger's adoptive mother, and tried to resign herself to her changed circumstances. But as she confessed to Dorothy, she could not entirely keep herself from feeling a dark resentment.
She was all but convinced she'd never again have the time to write. Then friends told her about a U.S. Department of Agriculture program to eradicate the fire ant––and more than a decade after she'd proposed the piece about DDT to Reader's Digest, pesticides came roaring back into her consciousness.
Archival: The fire ant is believed to have entered this country from South America in 1925. The destructive insect has brought heavy losses to crops in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Once they swarm across a field like this, nothing survives.
Mark Lytle, Historian: The fire ant was the perfect invasive species for the Cold War era. They were red, they snuck into country, they were subversive, and they were mostly annoying. For some reason the Department of Agriculture got it in their head that, scientists there, that this would be a perfect demonstration of the power of pesticides to solve a nagging problem.
Narrator: The enthusiasm for DDT and other synthetic pesticides had given way to the conviction that science could do far more than control insects and other unwanted pests. The objective now was eradication.
David Kinkela, Historian: It meant extermination, extermination of the species. So in 1955, you see the advent of the World Health Organization’s Malaria Eradication Program which was in many ways designed to exterminate not the problem of malaria but the problem of mosquitos. The Fire Ant Eradication Program was the same idea. Scientists are convinced that this is the right way to go. And if we fail then we’re gonna fail humanity. It becomes this all or nothing equation.
Naomi Oreskes, Historian: And so what we see in the 1950’s is tremendous amounts of money going into studying pest killing, not so much money going into studying broader questions of wildlife biology, broader questions of environmental health, broader questions of environmental toxicity.
Mark Lytle, Historian: The people involved, the scientists and what not who are inventing pesticides, think they’re doing God’s work and that they are also helping the United States keep its edge in the Cold War environment. The Department of Agriculture and the chemical industry say, one of the reasons that we have such a rich material life is that we have found ways to control these problems, to maximize food and fiber production, and it’s one of the things that distinguishes the US and its allies from the Communist bloc. Our standard of living is so much higher and we owe it to human ingenuity.
Narrator: In 1957, in the USDA's all-out war against the fire ant, some twenty million acres in the South were doused with pesticides––killing not only ants, but blackbirds and meadowlarks, armadillos and opposums. The sprayed areas, as one Alabama agricultural official reported, "reeked with the odor of decaying [wildlife.]"
Mark Lytle, Historian: The hunting-fishing community was outraged. County agricultural agents dropped their support for the project and it, it really was a black eye for the Department of Agriculture, but it was a warning for Carson.
Narrator: What concerned Carson was not merely that synthetic pesticides had unintended consequences, but that substances about which so little was known were now practically ubiquitous.
Widely employed by government agencies to protect health and agriculture, as well as American interests abroad, synthetic pesticides also were sold directly to consumers–-who, by 1957, could choose from an array of some 6000 different products.
William Souder, Biographer: You could get shelf paper for your kitchen cabinets that was impregnated with DDT. You could get paints and varnishes that had DDT in them.
One of my favorite devices, and my father owned this, was a cylinder about the size and shape of a beer can and it had DDT in it. It attached to the muffler of your lawn mower so the hot exhaust gas would volatilize the DDT and spray a fog out across your yard so if you were having company over for a picnic later, you could poison the grass before they got there and nobody would get a mosquito bite.
Narrator: Although manufacturers were required by law to register new chemical compounds, the government mandated no independent safety testing of those compounds and placed no limitations on their sale or use. So long as the label provided safe-use instructions, the product was deemed to be safe under the law.
Naomi Oreskes, Historian: That’s, of course, reinforced by the manufacturers of the pesticides. The companies that are manufacturing DDT focus on this question of immediate short-term toxicity, they say, “Well, look. It’s not toxic. We applied it on all these soldiers in World War II and they were all fine so that proves that this is fine.”
David Kinkela, Historian: You had examples of people digesting spoonfuls of DDT just to prove how safe it was. At the same time, birds are dying en masse, fish are dying and I think Rachel understood that something radically transformative was happening, this sense that scientists have been asking the wrong question. Scientists have been thinking about this question of acute toxicity rather than what are the long-term impacts of this chemical world that we’re creating.
Linda Lear, Biographer: Carson is not eager to take on pesticides. She’s too busy and life is too complicated, but there’s this story there so she knows there’s a story. On the other hand, it’s also the fact that it is “the” story about human hubris.
Voice [Carson]: It was pleasant to believe... that much of Nature was forever beyond the tampering reach of man—he might level the forests and dam the streams, but the clouds and the rain and the wind were God’s...
But...I have now opened my eyes and my mind. I may not like what I see, but it does no good to ignore it, and it’s worse than useless to go on repeating the old ‘eternal verities’ that are no more eternal than the hills of the poets.
Narrator: Rachel Carson had long known that scientists were divided on the issue of synthetic pesticides––and that conclusions about their safety depended on who was asked.
Naomi Oreskes, Historian: You have scientists who are working closely with the Department of Agriculture and with the chemical industry and are part of a mindset or worldview that says, I’ve got a pest, I've got a boll weevil or a gypsy moth and I want to kill that pest, and I wanna kill effectively, without killing the person who is applying it to the crops. And so almost all the attention is either on the killing of the pest or the non-killing of the farmer. But on the other hand you have wildlife biologists who are not linked to any particular industry, they’re out in nature, they’re thinking about the interrelations between fish, birds, pollinators, plants, chemicals and the environment, and so they see there’s evidence of problems.
Narrator: For Carson, it began with research––a gathering of bits of information, excavated from technical reports and obscure scientific journals. What soon became clear was that pesticides such as DDT accumulated in the organisms exposed to them, and grew ever more concentrated as they moved up the food chain. According to one study, earthworms were still so toxic a full year after exposure to DDT that they poisoned the robins that fed upon them.
Another demonstrated that when birds were fed a miniscule amount of DDT daily, both their fertility and the survival rate of their young dramatically declined. Most troubling of all was the evidence that insect populations very quickly developed resistance to synthetic pesticides.
Naomi Oreskes, Historian: If you dump large amounts of pesticides in a field you will kill many of the insects you intend to kill but there’ll be some fragment that survive because for whatever reason they happen to be more resistant. That sub-population lives on, they breed, they pass on to their offspring whatever that resistance is that they have and pretty soon you have a pesticide resistant population. Carson fully understood that ultimately this strategy was gonna fail, and the farmer would be in the position of either needing a different pesticide or using more, and more, and more. And so then you have a kind of arms race of pesticide use. You use more pesticides, insects become more resistant, more resistance, more pesticides, more resistance, and now you’re trapped in an escalating cycle and it’s a damaging cycle because meanwhile you’re also killing fish, and birds, and other things that you like and that you want.
Narrator: In isolation, each study Carson read was little more than an anecdote. Taken together, they offered compelling evidence that synthetic pesticides had potentially grave disadvantages, none of which were yet fully understood.
Mark Lytle, Historian: She was not against the wise use of pesticides. She saw the need for that. But what she was against was the indiscriminate spreading of poisons that had untold and unanticipated consequences for all living things, human beings included.
Narrator: "I realized that here was the material for a book...," Carson later recalled. "[E]verything which meant most to me as a naturalist was being threatened, and... nothing I could do would be more important."
In May, 1958, she signed a contract with Houghton Mifflin, for what her friend and editor Paul Brooks had dubbed "the poison book." It was slated to be a short volume, perhaps 50,000 words, of which William Shawn of The New Yorker already had offered to publish two excerpts. Only Dorothy had misgivings.
Linda Lear, Biographer: It’s a book about death, and it’s a book about destruction, and Dorothy’s not comfortable, and she’s not comfortable with Rachel writing that, using her talent for beauty and beautiful words to write about the elixirs of death. She had Rachel before when she’s writing about tide pools and beautiful things. She can’t follow her in this research.
Voice: [Dorothy,] You do know, I think, how deeply I believe in the importance of what I am doing. Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent.
Linda Lear, Biographer: She wants to tell that story, and try to tell it fairly, and tell it scientifically but she’s got an argument from the beginning. It isn’t, “Well, let’s talk about the good and bad of pesticides.” The first titles of this book are Man Against The Earth, and Man The Destroyer. Carson’s underlying anger is right there.
Mark Lytle, Historian: In a sense she was going public with a lot of data that was somewhat inconclusive, or, or premature. On the other hand, she felt, what is the morality of remaining quiet when you have a huge amount circumstantial evidence that points to a substance being toxic or dangerous. You know, advocacy is not something scientists of the time were wont to do. But for Carson it became a crusade.
Narrator: On November 22nd, 1958, with Carson deep into the research for her book, Maria, now 89, suffered a stroke. When she died on the morning of December 1st, Rachel was at her bedside, holding her hand.
"More than anyone else I know, she embodied...[a] 'reverence for life,'" Carson told a friend. "And... she could fight fiercely against anything she believed wrong, as in our present Crusade! Knowing how she felt about that will help me...to carry it through to completion." Just weeks later, Carson was back to work––driven by the growing certainty that manmade pesticides menaced not only the environment, but human health.
Linda Lear, Biographer: Carson is convinced that there is this link between pesticides and cancer in humans. And that is going to be an explosive part to this book that she didn’t initially plan and she has to be very careful of how she puts that out.
Narrator: Once again, the evidence was preliminary––much of it, as yet unpublished. It was also well outside Carson's training as a biologist, and therefore difficult for her to parse. But the more she learned, the more focused she became on the parallels between synthetic pesticides and radioactive fallout.
William Souder, Biographer: They operated in much the same way. They were widely dispersed. You could absorb a body burden of both of them. Both of them were being linked to cancer and birth defects. Things would happen years, even decades after the exposure. These were long-range problems that you didn’t know were happening when they were happening.
Narrator: Events soon bolstered Carson's case. In the spring of 1959, government officials publicly admitted that they had underestimated the hazards of nuclear fallout. Of particular concern was the radionuclide Strontium 90, which had made its way into the nation's dairy supply and was now thought to cause leukemia, bone cancer, and birth defects.
Mark Lytle, Historian: This is the height of the Baby Boom and so you have a nation focused on child and family life being potentially poisoned by this byproduct of the nuclear testing regime.
Narrator: As Carson's editor, Paul Brooks, told her, "all this publicity about fallout gives you a head start in awakening people to the dangers of chemicals.” Then, just before Thanksgiving, 1959, came the so-called "cranberry scare."
Mark Lytle, Historian: People of my generation remember the Thanksgiving with no cranberry sauce. Farmers in Oregon had sprayed their cranberry bogs with a pesticide, but they did it in the wrong growth cycle, so that it got into the berries themselves and then into the national food supply.
William Souder, Biographer: It was potentially a cancer-causing agent. This might have been one of the first public demonstrations of the hazards of chemical pesticides. And of course this alarmed the public, who wanted their cranberries but didn’t wanna be poisoned, and it greatly distressed the cranberry industry. To Carson this was just exhibit A in a story she’d already formed in her own mind and was ready to tell.
Narrator: With shipments of cranberries being seized for inspection and panicked grocers pulling cranberry products from shelves, Oregon's bad berries were on the verge of ruining a fifty-million-dollar crop.
Growers in other states cried foul–-and government officials went into high gear to shore up the industry. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Benson had himself photographed eating cranberries. On the presidential campaign trail, Senator John F. Kennedy quaffed a cranberry juice toast, while his opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, swallowed down four full helpings of the supposedly tainted fruit.
William Souder, Biographer: Whether the public was reassured by that, we can’t know. But it demonstrated that there was this inherent coalition, this inherent partnership between the government and its clients in industry–-the chemicals industry, the agricultural industry––that would be very resistant to the ideas that Carson was gonna propose, that she was gonna come head-to-head with the massed might of the US economy and the US government if she tried to prove to the public that they were being poisoned.
Narrator: “I think you know," one of Carson's research contacts warned her, "how grim this struggle with the U.S. government and the whole chemical industry is bound to be." Initially, she'd thought it a nuisance: first, in early January, 1960, a painful ulcer, then a sinus infection that laid her low for weeks, then two lumps in her left breast, discovered during an examination in March.
Linda Lear, Biographer: Carson is making progress. She knows she’s going to finish this book. And suddenly she’s got this catalog of illnesses that happen to her. She was never very good at facing up to limitations. Probably none of us are but she’s in denial and she hides it under the covers of herself, and to herself, and just tries to plow through it.
Narrator: Carson had a history of breast tumors––and twice had had them surgically removed.This time, one tumor was "suspicious enough" to require a radical mastectomy. Still, the surgeon assured her that no malignancy had been found, so Carson sought no further treatment.
It was only when she discovered a hard lump on her rib, months later, that she sought a second opinion––and that the surgeon had withheld the truth. According to the pathology report, the removed tumor had, in fact, been malignant, and it had metastasized to her lymph nodes.
William Souder, Biographer: It was common at the time for doctors in such situations to discuss a diagnosis, a prognosis, a treatment with a woman’s husband, who they believed would be better able to handle this information, process it, make decisions if decisions had to be made.
Mark Lytle, Historian: It may also be that the cancer was sufficiently far enough advanced that he figured, “Well, there’s nothing much we can do about this. We’ve done what we can.” But, you know, in the process he denied her six months of potential treatment that might have mitigated the cancer or might have extended her life.
Narrator: Carson's first thought was for her privacy. "Somehow I have no wish to read of my ailments in literary gossip columns," she told a friend. "Too much comfort to the chemical companies!"
William Souder, Biographer: She was sure that she would be accused of having written the book as a retribution against the chemical industry on the unfounded allegation that pesticides caused cancer. And so she understood this was a serious risk and this would be a point of attack against her.
Narrator: The months that followed were excruciating: radiation treatments, a flare-up of her ulcer; a staph infection that progressed to septic arthritis in her knees and ankles. By the end of January, 1961, she was unable to walk and could barely stand.
Voice [Carson]: Darling…You know my high hopes for the goal I might meet by March––hopes I entertained last October!...Now I look back at the complete and devastating wreckage of those plans––not only no writing for months but the nearly complete loss of any creative feeling or desire... Sometimes I wonder whether the Author even exists anymore.
Roger Christie, Adopted Son: I think she handled it as well as she could. You know, the only negative thing I would have to say about it in retrospect was she wasn’t honest enough with me about it, although who knows whether that would’ve been a good thing. You know, but that's all I remember about it, just that it was kind of a broken time.
Narrator: To her research files on cancer, Carson now began to save clippings on experimental treatments and improbable miracle cures. She would never be truly healthy again. But as soon as the radiation treatments were finished, she went back to work.
Roger Christie, Adopted Son: The book became a race for her to finish. That was the one time where it would impact on us in that, you know, she would say “I have to go and lock myself in the study and you have to go amuse yourself and that’s just the way it is.” And uh, that got more and more intense as time went on.
Narrator: In late January, 1962, nearly four years after she'd begun to write it, Carson finally submitted the bulk of the manuscript to both Houghton Mifflin and The New Yorker. It was, she wrote Dorothy, "like reaching the last station before the summit of Everest." William Shawn called as soon as he'd finished reading it: Silent Spring, he told her, was "a brilliant achievement."
That night, while listening to her favorite violin concerto alone in her study, Carson wept.
Voice [Carson]: Darling, I could never again listen happily to a thrush song if I had not done all I could. And last night the thoughts of all the birds and other creatures and all the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness, that now I had done what I could—I had been able to complete it—now it had its own life!
Narrator: On June 16th, 1962––as the elements of Silent Spring were being prepared for publication––the first New Yorker installment arrived on the newsstands, and with its opening paragraphs lured readers into a fertile world of plenty.
Voice [Carson]: There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields.
Mark Lytle, Historian: The birds sing, and the woods are filled with living things, and it’s an abundant, happy place. And then suddenly the residents discover the birds are gone, and the animals have died, and many of the plants have withered.
William Souder, Biographer: People start to get sick for reasons that can’t be explained. Livestock have stunted offspring. Everything goes bad.
Voice [Carson]:In the gutters under the eaves and between the shingles of the roofs, a few patches of white granular powder could be seen; some weeks earlier this powder had been dropped, like snow, upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and the streams. No witchcraft, no enemy action had snuffed out life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.
Naomi Oreskes, Historian: She creates an image of silence. “What would it be like if you woke up in the morning and you went outside and instead of hearing birds chirp or sing you heard nothing?” And that’s just so amazingly powerful, right? And it just, you know, it stops you in your tracks.
Narrator: In the zealous quest for mastery, Carson argued, synthetic pesticides had been used indiscriminately, excessively, heedlessly––upsetting the delicate balance of nature and putting all life at risk.
Mark Lytle, Historian: She felt that proponents of widespread pesticide use were conducting an experiment with life itself without having done adequate testing or research to determine what the consequences might be. And that the citizenry weren’t being informed because the proponents of pesticides were telling them only one side of the story and the one that benefitted their own interests. And so all these things are part the Cold War consensus by which Americans lived––the benevolence of corporations, the authority of science. Well, Carson’s challenging all of those things
Narrator: The furor arose even before the second and third installments of Silent Spring hit the newsstands. The New Yorker was deluged with letters. So, too, was the USDA. Most of those who wrote, an agency spokesman told the New York Times, expressed "horror and amazement" that the use of such toxic chemicals was even permitted.
Deborah Cramer, Writer: She raised the level of awareness of the general public of all of these chemical applications and why we need to think about their implications. People were deeply moved and frightened by what she said.
Narrator: Scientists for the chemical industry and the USDA were incensed by Carson's assertions. What, they wondered publicly, was the death of a songbird against the possibility of ending malaria or world hunger? As one industry chemist put it: "DDT alone has saved as many human lives over the past 15 years as all the wonder drugs combined."
Mark Lytle, Historian: The proponents of pesticides argued that you have to take risks to go forward, that’s very much part of our scientific technological culture.
Deborah Blum, Science Writer: They saw themselves as doing something in the higher good. They were fostering human development. They were killing plagues. They were making the world a better place.
Naomi Oreskes, Historian: Carson herself acknowledged there was this benefit through the use of pesticides. But the whole point of her argument is that there’s been a kind of an assumption and a rush. The benefits were obvious so people rushed to take advantage of those benefits but there were these other problems that were maybe not as obvious but actually might outweigh the benefits.
Narrator: By August, with the publication of the book still more than a month away, the controversy over Silent Spring had reached the nation's capitol ––and a special Science Advisory Committee had been convened to review all federal policies on pesticides. On August 28th, the subject even found its way into one of the President's regular, televised press conferences.
Archival: [journalist] There appears to be growing concern among scientists about the possibility of dangerous long-range side-effects from the widespread use of DDT and other pesticides. Have you considered asking the Department of Agriculture or the Public Health Service to take a closer look at this? [Kennedy] Yes, yes, and I know that they already are, I think particularly because of Miss Carson's book, but they are examining the matter.
William Souder, Biographer: You can only image how worried the people who made these pesticides were. When President Kennedy said, “Yeah, we’re gonna look into this. We’re gonna reach in to the private sector and see if we need to regulate these products in a different way,” that was a threat. That’s a threat to the bottom line. That’s a threat to the business that these companies were in.
Mark Lytle, Historian: They formed essentially a war council to get together and develop a propaganda campaign to discredit Carson, to discredit the science in her book, and to defend their practices.
Narrator: From public relations departments throughout the chemical industry now came a flood of bulletins and brochures which emphasized the benefits of pesticides. The Monsanto Company, an industry leader, papered news outlets across the country with a spoof of Silent Spring's opening chapter, in which a pesticide-free world loses millions to yellow fever and malaria––
Archival: She dines on healthy blood, and in payment leaves the chills and fever of malaria.
Narrator: ––and crop-ravaging insects drive humanity to the brink of famine. Silent Spring, critics charged, was a "high-pitched," "emotional," "scientifically indefensible" screed. To heed Carson's call for restraint, it was argued, meant nothing less than "the end of all human progress."
David Kinkela, Historian: There is this real tension between this understanding of chemical sciences as a sort of hyper masculine lab-intensive research that produces these wonderful technologies and these scientists who work in nature, who examine issues over the long-term, but who really aren’t scientists. They’re sort of like a cult. And having a woman at this particular moment being the lead spokesperson of that kind of idea really chafed and made the chemical scientists really angry.
Naomi Oreskes, Historian: The idea that this woman, you know, this woman with what, a Master’s degree, that she knows something that we don’t know. You just see their, their condescension towards her in their just really dismissive approach, and their misrepresentation of her work. They try to accuse her of rejecting modernity, of being unrealistic, of wanting to ban all pesticides––none of which are true but it’s a way to try to discredit her and discredit the argument, and it’s a way to not even have the argument.
Narrator: Concerned the attacks from industry scientists created the impression that the science was "all...on the other side," Carson prevailed upon Houghton Mifflin publish a rebuttal to her critics.
Mark Lytle, Historian: The commercial, monetary, political resources that the agencies and the businesses that were arrayed against her could command were daunting indeed. But many scientists strongly supported Carson, and accepted her case, and contributed to it.
Naomi Oreskes, Historian: The worst thing you could say about Silent Spring is actually a compliment. It’s not a work of science. And that’s true. It’s not a work of science. It’s a work of science communication. She is communicating to us what scientists have to say and she’s communicating the meaning of that scientific work. She makes clear what’s at stake. And that’s her great gift.
Narrator: In the end, Silent Spring flew off the shelves. Within two weeks of its official publication, on September 27th, 65,000 copies had been sold. Before long, it was a runaway bestseller.
Every major publication in the country reviewed the book. More than seventy newspapers also ran editorials. Carson, meanwhile, was the subject of so many magazine articles and cartoons that she and Roger began to collect them.
Absent from all the publicity was the fact that Carson's cancer had spread to the right side of her body, and that she was once again undergoing radiation treatments. Inundated with interview requests, Carson agreed that fall to only two that involved cameras: a profile in LIFE magazine, and an appearance on CBS Reports, with Eric Sevareid. For both, she wore a heavy, dark wig she'd purchased at Elizabeth Arden. The two-day interview session with CBS at her home, in Silver Spring, was so taxing that it became plain to Sevareid that Carson was ill. Get the piece on the air as soon as possible, he urged his producer. "You’ve got a dead leading lady.”
Linda Lear, Biographer: Carson was determined as a young girl. She was determined to get an education. She was determined to be a writer. She was determined to find something to write about. And with Silent Spring she was determined that this message would get out. She’s willing to endure almost everything to get that message out.
Archival [Carson]: My text this afternoon is taken from the Globe Times of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a news item in the issue of October 12th. After describing in detail the reactions to Silent Spring of the farm bureaus in two Pennsylvania counties, the reporter continued: “No one in either county farm office who was talked to today had read the book, but all disapproved of it heartily.
Narrator: In early December, 1962, in an address to the Women's National Press Club, Rachel Carson finally answered her critics. Challenging the industry's contention that "chemicals are never used unless tests have shown them to be safe," she reminded her audience that pesticide manufacturers financed the studies of their own products' safety.
Archival [Carson]: I know that many thoughtful scientists are deeply disturbed that their organizations are becoming fronts for industry. Is industry becoming a screen through which facts must be filtered so that the hard, uncomfortable truths are kept back and only the harmless morsels are allowed to filter through? The tailoring, the screening of basic truth is done to accommodate to the short-term gain, to serve the gods of profit and production.
Linda Lear, Biographer: She is calling for the population to understand that money has a great deal to do with what is done in science. She says, “We need to ask who speaks and why." What is done in the name of science and why doesn’t the public have a right to know?” These are not just scientific questions. These are questions that a social revolutionary asks.
Archival (Carson): These are matters of the most serious importance to society. And I commend their study to you, as professionals in the field of communication. Thank you. (Applause)
Narrator: Unable to silence Carson, the chemical industry lobbied hard to muzzle the forthcoming CBS special on Silent Spring. In March, just weeks before the program was slated to air, the network was flooded with mimeographed letters urging fairness––a campaign orchestrated, CBS assumed, by the chemical industry lobby. Then, just days before the broadcast, two of the show's five commercial sponsors pulled out, followed swiftly by a third. CBS was undaunted––and on the evening of Wednesday, April 3rd, 1963, "The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson" was beamed into living rooms all across the country.
Archival: [CBS Reports] Eric Sevareid: Good evening, we are living in what has been called the synthetic age. The age of the atom, the missile, the frozen TV dinner. In the next hour, you will hear that this is also the age of the wormless apple and the calculated risk.
Archival: [Reporter] Do you know how long the pesticides persist it the water once they get into it? [Scientist] Not entirely. [Reporter] Do you know the extent to which our groundwater may be contaminated right now by pesticides? [Scientist] We don't know that either. Nor do we know...
Narrator: As the program unfolded, a welter of scientists and government officials––as well as Carson herself––argued the pros and cons of synthetic pesticides. In the end, one fact was clear, for every scientific certainty there was a host of unanswered questions.
Archival: Rachel Carson: We have to remember that children born today are exposed to these chemicals from birth. Perhaps even before birth. Now what is going to happen to them in adult life? As a result of that exposure? We simply don't know. Because we've never before had this kind of experience.
Archival: Eric Sevareid: A spokesman for the chemical industry, Dr. Robert White-Stevens. [01:53:53.24] Dr. White-Stevens: Ms. Carson is concerned with every possibility of hazard and danger, whereas the agricultural school has to concern itself with the probability, the likelihood of danger. And to assess that against utility, if we had to investigate every possibility, we would never make any advancement at all, because this would require an infinite time for experimental work, and we would never be finished!
Archival: Rachel Carson: We've heard the benefits of pesticides. We've heard a great deal about their safety, but very little about the hazards, very little about the failures, the inefficiencies, and yet the public was being asked accept these chemicals, being asked to acquiesce in their use and did not have the whole picture. So, I set about to remedy the balance there.
Linda Lear, Biographer: The CBS Reports becomes almost a second publication of the book. People who hadn’t read it and probably wouldn’t have read it can see that Rachel Carson is a very calm, rational woman who is not frothing at the mouth and is not a raving Communist. She’s giving the public credit for being able to understand science.
Narrator: With an audience estimated at between ten and fifteen million, "The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson" catapulted the environment to the top of the political agenda. The next day, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, chair of the subcommittee on Government Operations, was charged with conducting a broad congressional review of environmental hazards, including pesticides. Then, on May 15th, came the long-awaited report from the President's Science Advisory Committee.
Naomi Oreskes, Historian: And they say in more prosaic language what she has essentially already said in Silent Spring, which is, “Yes, there are some benefits to using pesticides, and no, we probably don't want to outlaw and ban all pesticides tomorrow but there is substantial scientific evidence that the indiscriminate use of pesticides, the overuse of pesticides, and particularly certain persistent pesticides like DDT may be problematic.”
Narrator: “I think it’s a splendid report," Carson told a journalist. "It’s strong. It’s objective and I think a very fair evaluation of the problem. I feel that the report has vindicated me and my principal contentions."
By now, Carson knew she didn't have long to live. Despite ongoing radiation treatments, the cancer had spread and spread again, to her collarbone, her neck, her shoulder. Though often in pain, she kept her call for change insistent––appearing in late May on The Today Show and in early June before Ribicoff's Senate committee, where she delivered forty minutes of testimony to a rapt, capacity crowd.
Archival: [Carson] We have acquired technical skills on a scale undreamed of even a generation ago. We can do dramatic things and we can do them quickly. By the time damaging side effects are apparent, it is often too late or impossible to reverse our actions.
Linda Lear, Biographer: She’s aware that there will be changes coming because of her words, because of her book so she’s at peace, comfortable in some ways with the fact that she’s done the work that she set out to do.
Archival: [Carson] If we are ever to solve the basic problem of environmental contamination, we must begin to count the many hidden costs of what we are doing and to weigh them against the gains or advantages.
William Souder, Biographer: Now we enter into a period of time in which everyone understands that the environment is an important subject, that it’s something we should talk about, something we should consider when we are using new technologies that might adversely affect it. It puts the government squarely into the middle as a regulating authority, as a force that can restrain technology. This hadn’t been part of the dialogue before.
Voice: It seems strange, looking back over my life that all that went before this past decade seems to have been merely preparation for it. Into that decade ... have been crowded everything I shall be remembered for.
Narrator: There was, for Carson, one last summer at Southport––a summer filled with birdsong, and the sound of the wind in the spruce trees. There were walks along the shore with Dorothy, slow and ginger now on account of Carson's constant pain, and bittersweet hours spent watching the surf crash against the rocks.
Martha Freeman, Dorothy Freeman's Granddaughter: I don’t think the kids, my brother, and Roger and I understood that this was some big last deal. But it was Rachel’s last summer at Southport and she was unable to go down to the beach. And yet, we all still had a lovely summer day going down and bringing little creatures up to the cottage for her to look at, and talk to us about, and then instruct us that they had to go back where they came from. I think I like that as a quintessential and last memory because that was her essence and there it was.
Narrator: The cancer spread to her pelvis, then to her upper back and arms. By October, back in Silver Spring, Carson was spending most of her time in bed.
Linda Lear, Biographer: She had all these other ideas of what she wanted to write. I think she comes to terms with the fact that she will lay down her pen without having done them all. Um, but the biggest thing of course is what to do with Roger and to face the fact that when she dies, which she doesn’t really face well, Roger needs a family and she can’t seem to come to grips with that.
Roger Christie, Adopted Son: She tried to shield me from how serious it was and it was never, “You know, well, I’m gonna die.” I don’t know how she expected it to work really, beyond, you know, making provisions for me in her will. It’s not something we talked about.
Martha Freeman, Dorothy Freeman's Granddaughter: The best she could do was add a codicil to her will that said it was her wish that either the Paul Brooks family, Paul Brooks being her editor at Houghton Mifflin, or my parents would take Roger in and would adopt Roger. I think in the end she punted. She just, wherever she was in her life, the end of her life, she didn’t want to or couldn’t make that decision.
Narrator: By spring, the cancer had spread to her brain. Dorothy still wrote nearly every day, but Carson no longer wrote back. When
Dorothy came for a visit, in early April, Carson was only dimly aware that she was there. On April 14th, 1964, Rachel Carson died. She was 56 years old. Some of her ashes were buried next to her mother's grave. The rest Dorothy Martha Freeman, Dorothy Freeman's Granddaughter spread over the ocean at Southport Island.
Deborah Blum, Science Writer: There’s a before Rachel and after Rachel in the way we think about what matters in protecting the environment. There are not very many people who you say, “That person drove a paradigm shift” but she did. And it’s post Silent Spring that you start seeing genuine environmental regulation in a way that didn’t exist before. It’s like a rain on a dry landscape, right. That book was it.
Linda Lear, Biographer: Silent Spring was the book that changed the world. It taught us that life was fragile, that it was mutable, that science was not omniscient. Her message was that there’s an ongoing story. It doesn’t just stop with the removal of pesticides.
Mark Lytle, Historian: Many business and political types who can’t stand environmental regulation have since been trying to discredit Rachel Carson. They feel if they can discredit her they can in a sense deconstruct the environmental apparatus. And they’re still doing it. It has not gone quiet.
Naomi Orekses, Historian: Rachel Carson begins a conversation that we needed to have, that we weren’t having in 1963 and that we still haven’t really figured out how to have in an appropriate way even today. It’s a conversation about the pros and cons of technology. It’s a conversation about the role of nature in our life and about whether or not we make our lives better through technological innovations or whether we do damage that outweighs the benefits.
William Souder, Biographer: Carson said, “Let’s try to look at life from the other side. Let’s try to look at the natural world as if we were actually a part of it.” And that’s a different way to understand things than anyone had ever proposed before. You’re not separate. You’re human but you’re not separate from this living world.