Today (May 27) is the birthday of Rachel Louise Carson, born in 1907 in Springdale, PA. She was an American academic, scientist, marine biologist, ecologist, conservationist, journalist and author. At a time when few women enrolled in college, she graduated with a degree in marine biology from Chatham University in 1929, and received a Master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932. She had intended to continue her education to obtain a Doctorate degree, but was forced to leave school after the death of her father. To support her aging mother, she taught at the University of Maryland for five years before joining the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a scientist and editor. She rose to become Editor-in-Chief for all publications for the Service.
She wrote pamphlets on conservation and natural resources and edited scientific articles, but in her free time she wrote about the research she was doing. Her first article Undersea was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1937. This was followed by a book Under the Sea Wind in 1941. The Sea Around Us (winner of a U.S. National Book Award) was published in 1952, followed by The Edge of the Sea in 1955. This trilogy of books explored the whole of ocean life from the shores to the depths and made her famous as a naturalist and science writer.
“Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth
are never alone or weary of life.”
In 1952 Carson resigned from the Service to devote herself to writing. She wrote several other articles designed to teach people about the wonder and beauty of the living world. Her view was that human beings were but one part of nature distinguished by their power to alter it – sometimes irreversibly.
In 1945, Carson first encountered the subject of DDT (hailed as a revolutionary new pesticide; the “insect bomb”) and other chlorinated hydrocarbons and organophosphates, whose development was being funded through the military funding of science since World War II. She wrote an article about DDT, but her editors found the subject unappealing so it was put aside. By 1957, she was alarmed and closely following Federal proposals for indiscriminate spraying to eradicate fire ants. But it was the Federal government’s gypsy moth eradication program that spurred her to action. The proposal called for the aerial spraying of DDT and other pesticides mixed with fuel.
As her research progressed, Carson discovered that there were two camps when it came to pesticides: those who dismissed the possible danger of pesticide spraying without conclusive proof, and those who were open to the possibility of harm. For more information, she sought out scientists who were documenting the physiological and environmental effects of pesticides.
During the “Great Cranberry Scandal” it was found that the 1957-1959 crops of cranberries in the United States contained high levels of an herbicide which caused cancer in laboratory rats. The sale of cranberry products was halted and FDA hearings were called. Carson attended the hearings and came away discouraged by the aggressive tactics of the chemical industry representatives. She also worried about the financial inducements behind pesticide programs.
“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for its destruction.”
The Washington, D.C. chapter of the Audubon Society recruited Carson to research Federal spraying practices and she actively began gathering examples of environmental damage attributed to DDT. She found evidence to support the pesticide-cancer connection. By 1960 she had more than enough research material, including hundreds of individual incidents of pesticide exposure and the human sickness and ecological damage that resulted, to write Silent Spring in 1962.
Silent Spring was met with fierce and vigorous opposition by chemical companies and she became their target. Carson was threatened with legal action and chemical industry representatives and lobbyists filed numerous complaints against her. Surprisingly, she never actually called for an outright ban on DDT. Her argument was that even if it had no environmental side effects, the indiscriminate overuse of them would create insect resistance to the pesticide. Her scientific credentials and her personal character were repeatedly attacked, but the campaign backfired. The publicity that resulted raised awareness and pesticide use became a major public issue, with the American public responding with outrage towards the chemical companies. According to environmental engineer and Carson scholar H. Patricia Hynes, “Silent Spring altered the balance of power in the world. No one since would be able to sell pollution as the necessary underside of progress so easily or uncritically”.
During the writing of Silent Spring, Carson was diagnosed with cancer. Her health continued to deteriorate but she was determined to call for new policies to protect human health and the environment from the overuse of pesticides. She inspired President John F. Kennedy to launch the first-ever investigation into the public health effects of pesticides.
In one of her last public appearances, Carson testified before the Science Advisory Committee and a U.S. Senate subcommittee charges with making policy recommendations. Both backed her scientific claims. Rachel Carson died of breast cancer shortly thereafter on April 14, 1964 in Silver Spring, MD.
The formation of the Environmental Defense Fund in 1967 was the first major milestone in the campaign against DDT. It brought lawsuits against the government to “establish a citizen’s right to a clean environment” and secured the phase-out of DDT use in the United States. The creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 by the Nixon Administration is heralded as “the extended shadow of Silent Spring”. In 1980, Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest honor bestowed on a civilian in the United States) by President Jimmy Carter.
Unfortunately, the policies of the Reagan Administration rolled back many of the environmental policies adopted in response to Carson and research. Our current administration is trying to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency altogether.
Thank you Rachel Carson for being our voice and having the courage to carry on against the formidable resources you were up against.
“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,
but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”