First Do No Harm

Rachel Carson  

Rachel was born in 1907, in Springdale Pennsylvania. We originally published this on the 100th anniversary of her birth.

From her childhood, Rachel had wanted to be a writer. She even contributed stories to a children’s magazine St Nicholas. When she attended college, she majored in English composition. However, she soon discovered that she could not make a living writing, and changed her major to her second love, nature, and went onto get her masters in zoology from John Hopkins in 1932. Rachel Carson loved the natural world and often in speeches described herself as a “solitary child” who spent a good deal of her time in nature learning about birds, flowers, and insects.

In the mid thirties, Rachel combined both of her passions and started writing articles and radio scripts about nature and wild life. Her first major essay, “Undersea” was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1937. It was a major turning point in Carson’s life. Simon and Schuster suggested she expand it into a book; they loved the idea: a flowing, vivid narrative of a journey along the ocean floor. Under the Sea-World (1941) was published while she worked for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. During the forties she worked her way up in the Bureau from supervising a small staff of writers to becoming the chief editor of their publications.

Though her work involved a bit of fieldwork and the freedom to choose her topics, the tedious bureaucracy, paperwork, and responsibilities wore on her and as she began working on her second book, The Sea Around Us (1950), she contemplated leaving the Bureau and writing on a full time basis.

When The Sea Around Us remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 86 weeks, that did it. She left the Bureau in 1952 to concentrate on writing. The Sea Around Us won numerous awards, had excerpts reprinted in Science Digest and the Yale Review, and was even abridged an reprinted by Reader’s Digest. Carson also licensed a documentary film to be based upon her work. Her mistake was not to get the rights to review the script. The documentary won an Academy Award, but she did not like the script and walked away from the movie industry with a sour taste in her mouth.

Let’s step back just a bit. In 1945 Rachel Carson came up against a subject that would define her legacy. We’d just bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Bombs were good things to Americans. This new “thing” was called the “insect bomb.” It was DDT; touted in Life Magazine as being better than sliced white bread.

The safety of DDT had not been established before it had entered the lexicon of American life, but soon it would undergo tests for safety and to determine its affect on the ecology. Rachel Carson wrote an essay on it, but publishers and editors found the subject distasteful and she was forced to shelve this part of her work until the sixties.

In the fifties we got the phrase: Better Living Through Chemistry. Farming no longer used traditional fertilizers; they now used fertilizers converted from the leftover bombs from WWII. Pesticides were sprayed heftily on farms, lawns, and in parks. Children would run up to the sprayers to be sprayed with these wonderful new chemicals. Chemicals that everyone thought were perfectly harmless. The concept of ecology was not quite born yet; the idea that these wonderful chemicals came to us at a heavy cost was just being conceptualized. Rachel Carson led the movement: “So delicately interwoven are the relationships that when we disturb one thread of the community fabric we alter it all—perhaps almost imperceptibly, perhaps so drastically that destruction follows.” [Esay of the Biological Sciences” in Good Reading, 1958.]

Rachel Carson, contrary to public sentiment, did not set out to attack the chemical industry. She didn’t even want to write her most famous book, Silent Spring (1962). She approached other writers asking them to take up the project, but was consistently turned down. Magazines were not keen on publishing articles attacking their biggest advertisers, the chemical industry, nor where they willing to risk libel lawsuits.

Carson wanted to write about the beauty of nature, not the destruction of nature, but her research over the past 15 years was conclusive: The postwar human animal was quickly becoming the bane of the natural world. Our footstep was large and very destructive.

Carson worked with a very large community of scientists who were documenting effects of pesticides. But a large community of scientists is still a very small group of citizens. Carson knew her work would not be received well by the industries producing these poisons; she knew her work had to be concise and accurate or they would rip her apart and sue her into oblivion.

In 1959 Carson wrote a letter that was published in The Washington Post in which she attributed the recent decline in bird populations to pesticide overuse. This also happened to be the year of the “Great Cranberry Scandal” in which cranberries were found to contain high levels of aminotriazole, an herbicide known to cause cancer in laboratory rats.

Rachel Carson attended FDA hearings on the revision of pesticide regulations, but got quickly discouraged when she discovered the power of money and its affect on the FDA. Chemical industry reps aggressively attacked the research that showed the dangers of their pesticides with research of their own and “expert” testimony. Rachel Carson discovered that there were two “sciences” in America. One was dedicated to uncovering the truth while the other was dedicated to receiving a paycheck; the science of the “lowest bidder.”

Rachel Caron next discovered Wilhelm Hueper from the National Cancer Institute. Hueper was the founding director of the NCI’s environmental cancer section which had classified many pesticides as carcinogens. Carson then joined forces with Jeanne Davis and the librarian of the NIH to further document the pesticide-cancer connection.

By 1960, Rachel Carson had more than enough material to write Silent Spring: literature searches, hundreds of incidents of pesticide exposure and the resulting illnesses, statistics from Universities collecting dead birds, you name it. She was writing furiously when she was hit by illness and bedridden for weeks. As she was nearing recovery, the irony of irony landed in her lap. She had a “cyst” removed by mastectomy. By the end of the year, she would discover that it was not just a simple cyst; Rachel Carson had malignant breast cancer. Today we know that pesticides, xenoestrogens, cause many breast cancers.

Rachel Carson coined the term “biocide.” Pesticides rarely reach their target. Less than one percent of pesticides used actually kill pests. They linger in our environment and are a danger to all life.

With the publication of Silent Spring came the expected backlash from the chemical industry.

The New Yorker serialized the book and excerpts from that were serialized in Audubon Magazine. Silent Spring made the Book-of-the-Month club.

Dow Chemical (the main manufacturer of DDT) and the Velsicol Chemical Company were the first to respond to the publication of Silent Spring. They threatened legal action against the publishers as well as the magazines publishing excerpts, and then they began publishing their own brochures, documentaries, books and articles promoting the safety of pesticides while attacking Carson and her book. Staunch critics claimed that if we followed the advice of this “Doomsayer” that we’d return to the Dark Ages and insects would inherit the earth. Some attacked Carson’s scientific credentials (she was only a marine biologist), while others labeled her (get this) “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.” Finally there were those who called her a Communist.

JFK was in office at the time and he quickly created an independent panel to discover who was right in this debate, the chemical industry or Rachel Carson. The panel returned with their determination: Rachel Carson is right. We’re killing ourselves.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s official history site states: “There is no question...that SILENT SPRING prompted the Federal Government to take action against water and air pollution — as well as against the misuse of pesticides — several years before it otherwise might have moved.”

Silent Spring should be required reading in every high school in America. If you haven’t read it, you should. Understanding the hubbub surrounding its publication will give you a glimpse into the hubbub today surrounding Global Climate Change. The moneyed interests will always take the side contrary to any theory that claims the human animal is messing up our environment. The moneyed interests want to be free to exploit the environment and make a profit. The moneyed interests have no conscience.

Beyond predicting the Dutch Elm Disease epidemic that wiped out millions of these magnificent trees, Silent Spring made many points that we should all be aware of today. She promoted proper city planning, not to mention proper, responsible management of farms. She knew that if we keep planting the same crops in the same fields, the same insects will show up year after year, in greater numbers.

One of her very important theses is that chemical A might be harmless, and chemical B might be harmless, but together they can be deadly. I was reminded of this when I’d read of a fellow who went out to water his newly “sprayed” chem-lawn. The moisture seeped into his boots, into his socks, into his skin and he absorbed some of the chemicals on his lawn, which mixed with his blood pressure medicine and killed him.

Another very important thesis of hers was that if we keep increasing the use and strength of pesticides at the rates we’ve been increasing them, eventually we will wipe out all human life, but the insects will survive.

Below are some figures showing exactly that.

From the CRC Handbook of Pest Management in Agriculture, Vol I, 2nd ed., 1991:

Increase in pesticide use since 1942

3000%

Increase in pesticide strength since 1942

 1000%

Loss of crops due to pests 1942 

31.4%

Loss of crops due to pests 1991 

 37%

Rachel Carson was a quiet and unassuming woman, and a consummate and gifted writer. Her work forced us to take a hard look at our pesticide practices and eventually halted their unbridled expansion. DDT and other pesticides have been banned because of her work. She inspired a grassroots environmental movement that led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. She promoted her book while wearing a wig, having lost her hair to chemotherapy. She lost her life to breast cancer. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously. 

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