A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Rachel Carson
1907 - 1964

Rachel Carson grew up on a small Pennsylvania farm, where she spent hours exploring the outdoors. She always loved books, and when she was young thought she would be a writer. Her first publication was at age 10, in a children's magazine.

She went to the Pennsylvania College for Women. A required course in biology made her change assumptions about her career: She majored in zoology, and then went to Johns Hopkins for a masters degree in genetics. After completing her degrees in 1932, she wrote science articles for newspapers and worked at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. After her father's sudden death in 1935, she needed to find more regular work to help support her family. She was hired by the Bureau of Fisheries (later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) in Washington, D.C. Her sister died in 1936, and Carson and her mother raised her two orphaned children. While working as a scientist-bureaucrat for the government, Carson continued writing. In 1941, she published Under the Sea-Wind, her first book. She was a quiet, private person, fascinated with the workings of nature from a scientific and aesthetic point of view.

Carson went on to write The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea, and finally Silent Spring in 1962. Her science and nature writing was serialized in magazines, and she had a devoted following. The Sea Around Us won the National Book Award in 1951, and that year she received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. She was able to retire in 1952, living off her writing. Her books brought her considerable fame, which she disliked but about which she maintained some humor. The fame was both positive and negative. In the wake of Silent Spring, which described the dangers of pesticides such as DDT and other chlorinated hydorcarbons, she was attacked personally and as a scientist by many -- such as chemical company representatives -- who had reason to fear her critiques. She mostly did not reply, but let the book speak for itself. In one interview, however, she was asked by someone making the link between pesticides and agricultural output, "Miss Carson, what do you eat?" And she replied, "Chlorinated hydrocarbons like everyone else."

Despite innumerable personal tragedies while she was working on Silent Spring -- she was seriously ill, a niece died and left a young son whom she adopted, her mother died, and she learned she had cancer -- Carson produced a book that would take on a life of its own. It was a best-seller for a year and was translated into many languages. As Esquire magazine wrote, "The book that her efforts resulted in was about the spraying and what it did to the birds and other creatures. But that does not begin to describe its scope or account for its impact. One might just as well say that Darwin wrote about turtles and the Pacific islands where they were found."

Carson died two years after Silent Spring was published, at age 56.

"Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties of the earth are never alone or weary in life. . . . Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts." (from Sense of Wonder)

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