A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

"Silent Spring" is published

"Over increasingly large areas of the United States spring now comes unheralded by the return of birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song."
(from Silent Spring)

Rachel Carson received a letter from a friend in Massachusetts in the summer of 1957. Her friend wrote that an airplane hired by the state had flown back and forth over her two acres of woods, spraying DDT to control mosquitos. The next day, there were dead songbirds in her yard. She contacted Carson, a biologist and author working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to find out what could be done to stop another spraying. Carson looked into the problem and was shocked by how extensive the pesticide situation was. She decided to write about it and let people know.

DDT came into common use around 1939 (though invented in 1874), especially for insect control for the army during World War II. Two of Carson's colleagues had written of the dangers of DDT in the mid-1940s, but in scientific papers. Carson herself queried Reader's Digest at the time to see if they would run a story on the issue. They declined and Carson put the idea on the back burner. Until her friend's letter arrived.

Carson spent much of 1958 to 1962 researching and writing the book that would be Silent Spring. She brought a rare trio of assets to this work: scientific training, dedication to research, and literary flair. The book starts with a fable of a lovely rural town that suddenly suffers blight, sickness, and death. Its people finally realize they had unwittingly poisoned themselves. Carson then presented scientific evidence that this was happening all over the country. She explained in plain terms how the strongest bugs survive, making stronger pesticides necessary, and that DDT, though scarce in the water, becomes concentrated as it works its way up the food chain -- from plankton to fish to birds and so on. Her message that humans cannot totally control nature, or eradicate species we don't like -- at least not without harmful side effects—came through clearly. She advocated integrated management: using a minimum of chemicals combined with biological and cultural controls.

One chemical company tried to stop publication of the book before it went to press, threatening a law suit over facts. The publisher went ahead. The company did not sue, and in fact was found later to be one of the worst offenders in using and producing toxic chemicals.

As Esquire magazine wrote, Silent Spring "made people think about the environment in a way they never had before. . . . Rachel Carson introduced to the general imagination the idea of ecology." Her book is often cited as the kick-off of the modern environmental movement. The year after its publication, President Kennedy set up an advisory committee on environmental matters. In 1969, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Cancer Institute announced its findings that DDT could produce cancer. By then, individual states had started to ban DDT use. In 1972, a federal ban was placed on the pesticide.

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