Rachel was born
in 1907, in Springdale
Pennsylvania. We originally published this
on the 100th
anniversary of her birth.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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
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.
publication of Silent Spring
came the expected backlash from the chemical industry.
New Yorker serialized the book and excerpts from that were
serialized in Audubon
made the Book-of-the-Month club.
(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
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
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
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.
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.”
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
predictingthe 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.
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
Increase in pesticide strength since 1942
crops due to pests 1942
crops due to pests 1991
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
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