In 1955 Rachel Carson was at the peak of her profession as a popular writer of science books about the sea. Under the Sea Wind (published in 1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), and The Edge of the Sea (1955) were all best-sellers, and they catapulted her into celebrity as one of the best loved and most sought after American authors. By 1956, she was planning a book in which she intended to explore the human race's relationship with nature. Fearing that human beings were severing their connection to the web of life, she began the painstaking research that would form her next work, Silent Spring, a book that would change her life and the world.
Carson's deepest held beliefs were in the delicate interconnectedness of nature and the sanctity of life. Her work as a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during World War II (1939-1945) had involved studying documents concerning the horrendous chemical and human-made devastations that were occurring. After the war, many of the chemicals developed for the military were unleashed on neighborhoods and farms in a war against nature. By 1960, there were some 200 untested chemicals used in pesticide formulas. That same year, 638 million pounds of poisons were broadcast in the United States alone. The chemical pesticide business was a $250 million industry enthusiastically supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other agencies. Government researchers had documented the dangers of uncontrolled pesticide use, but their warnings were ignored or destroyed, with many of the scientists encouraged to find other jobs. A chance note from an ornithologist friend concerning a die-off of baby birds after a DDT spraying of a nearby marsh spurred Carson to act. As she began reading hundreds of scientific papers and contacting biologists, chemists, agriculture experts, and doctors around the world, her alarm and her determination grew. "The more I learned about the use of pesticides the more appalled I became. I realized that here was the material for a book. What I discovered was that everything which meant the most to me as a naturalist was being threatened and that nothing I could do would be more important" (Jezer 1988, p. 79).
After four years of research, Silent Spring began appearing in a serialized condensed version in The New Yorker on June 16, 1962. It included an appendix of more than fifty pages of scientific references. Response was immediate and overwhelming. Praise and concern in the form of thousands of letters and telegrams poured into the magazine from citizens, scientists, and even the new U.S. president, John F. Kennedy. The response from the American Medical Association, the USDA, and the chemical companies was even more vocal, however. They targeted a quarter of a million dollars for a brutally negative publicity campaign, impugning Carson's science and her morals. One member of a government pest control board scoffed that Carson had no business worrying about genetics as she was a "spinster." The Velsicol Chemical Corporation sent her publisher a threatening letter insisting that Carson was part of a communist conspiracy to undermine the economy of Western nations. Houghton Mifflin was undeterred and the book was published on schedule, on September 27, 1962. As the book soared on the best-seller list, the attacks intensified in print and on television. Her opponents must have realized—as was indeed the case—that she was questioning not only the indiscriminate use of poisons but also the basic irresponsibility of an industrialized, technological society toward the natural world. She refused to accept the premise that damage to nature was the inevitable cost of progress.
President Kennedy initiated a Science Advisory Committee to study the dangers and benefits of pesticides. After eight months of study, their report concluded that "Until the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, people were generally unaware of the toxicity of pesticides." A U.S. Senate committee was formed to study environmental hazards. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall acknowledged, "She made us realize that we had allowed our fascination with chemicals to override our wisdom in their use." Most importantly she touched a chord in the population of the United States and the dozens of countries worldwide where her book was translated. Grass-roots conservation and environmental organizations sprang up demanding political action. By the end of 1962 more than forty bills regulating pesticides had been introduced in legislatures across the United States. By 1964, the U.S. Congress had amended federal laws to shift the burden of demonstrating the safety of new chemicals to the manufacturers, requiring the proof of safety before the chemicals could be released. As her ideas gained momentum, Carson was showered with honors and awards, including the Audubon Medal and honors from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Wildlife Federation, the Animal Welfare Institute, and the American Geographical Society. Carson continued to warn that "modern science has given human beings the capacity to destroy in a few years life forms that have taken eons to evolve. Humans are challenged to use this new power intelligently and cautiously. Conservation is a cause that has no end" (Jezer 1988, p. 99).
On April 14, 1964, Carson died of breast cancer. Before she wrote Silent Spring few people were aware of the ecological principle that all of life is interrelated. Because of her courage, determination and eloquence, these ideas have become widespread. Millions of human beings have begun to take responsibility for humanity's place in the natural world. They agree with Carson that "man is a part of nature and his war against nature is a war against himself. The human race now faces the challenge of proving our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves" (Jezer 1988, p. 105).
see also Carson, Rachel; DDT; Environmental Degradation; Habitat; Habitat Loss; Pesticide.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
Harlan, Judith. Sounding the Alarm. Minneapolis: Dillon Press, 1989.
Jezer, Marty. Rachel Carson. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
"Silent Spring." Animal Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/silent-spring
"Silent Spring." Animal Sciences. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/silent-spring
SILENT SPRING. The biologist Rachel Carson (1907–1964) published Silent Spring in 1962, first as a series in The New Yorker, then as a book. She had become concerned during the 1950s at the rapid increase in artificial pesticide and herbicide spraying by farmers and government agencies. Carson, an elegant writer, already famous for the best-selling The Sea Around Us (1951), singled out DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane)as a particularly toxic chemical and criticized its widespread and indiscriminate use. Not only did such chemicals kill benign insects and birds and work their way into the food chain, she argued, they also encouraged the evolution of resistant strains of the pest insects and the displacement of indigenous flora by opportunistic weeds. Worse, they reached high levels of concentration in lakes, killed fish populations, and were slow to biodegrade. Even on purely economic grounds they made no sense because spraying, once begun, had to be done annually, at great cost. She recognized that pest control was sometimes necessary but made the case for introducing natural predators, including imported insects, and for neutering male insects in laboratories to reduce populations.
The book's commercial success took Carson and her publisher by surprise. Its success is not hard to explain, however. Silent Spring contained not only the relevant chemical equations but also a forcefully argued moral case, invoking the grand tradition of America's natural beauty under threat and pointing to the danger that even mothers, breast-feeding their infants, might inadvertently pass the poisons along. Here was a problem affecting every citizen's life and safety. The book took its title from the opening chapter, a dystopian vision of a rural community rendered silent in springtime, its habitual birdsong silenced by the mass poisoning of all the birds. The Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation both honored the book with prizes, and 600,000 copies were sold in the first year of publication.
American chemical manufacturers were afraid that Carson's work would damage their reputation as purveyors of progress and that they would be exposed to tighter government regulation. The former secretary of agriculture Ezra Taft Benson dismissed her as a "hysterical female." President John F. Kennedy's secretary of the interior, Stewart Udall, by contrast, praised the book and organized an investigation of the industry, which led ultimately to the Pesticide Control Act of 1972. Carson did not live to see this consequence of her work, dying of cancer in 1964. Environmental historians today recognize Silent Spring as the first literary salvo of the new environ-mental movement.
Gartner, Carol. Rachel Carson. New York: Ungar, 1983.
Lear, Linda. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.
McKay, Mary A. Rachel Carson. New York: Twayne, 1993.
"Silent Spring." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/silent-spring
"Silent Spring." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/silent-spring