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Carson, Rachel (Louise)

CARSON, Rachel (Louise)

Born 27 May 1907, Springfield, Pennsylvania; died 14 April 1964, Silver Spring, Maryland

Daughter of Robert Warden and Maria Frazier McLean Carson

One of the most famous environmentalists of all time, Rachel Carson combined literary talent with scientific knowledge in her writings about the fragile state of nature. Her warnings about the havoc that humanity and its careless ways were wreaking on the environment led to new policies designed to protect nature. Written for both the scientist and the layperson, Carson's works sought to show readers the wonder of nature and instill in them a sense of responsibility for protecting it.

Carson was raised in rural Pennsylvania and doted on by her mother, a former schoolteacher who passed on her love of literature and nature to her youngest daughter. Rachel loved to write from an early age and had published articles in St. Nicholas magazine by the time she was ten. She entered Pennsylvania College for Women (later renamed Chatham College) with the intention of becoming a professional writer. Yet she switched her major to zoology by the end of her junior year against the advice of her professors, who told her there was no future for a woman in science.

In 1929 Carson graduated magna cum laude and was awarded a fellowship for a summer at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. It was the first time she had seen the ocean. She continued to study at Woods Hole in the summers while earning an M.A. in zoology at Johns Hopkins University, where she wrote a thesis on the development of the catfish. After a brief stint teaching at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, Carson took a position as a junior aquatic biologist at the Bureau of Fisheries in Washington, D.C. She was one of the first two women hired by the Bureau for nonclerical jobs, and she wrote and edited high-quality radio broadcasts and Bureau publications for many years.

Elmer Higgins, Carson's supervisor at the Bureau of Fisheries, turned down a radio script she wrote about the sea but recommended she submit it to Atlantic Monthly. The resulting article, "Undersea," (1937) came to the attention of Quincy Howe, an editor at Simon & Schuster, who asked her to write a book about the ocean. A thorough researcher and careful writer, Carson had an appealing descriptive style that appears throughout her works. Her first book, Under the Sea Wind: A Naturalist's Picture of Ocean Life, was published in late 1941 just before the outbreak of World War II and sold poorly, despite its favorable reviews. The book made the bestseller list upon its reissue in 1952, however, after Carson had achieved fame for subsequent works.

At the end of the war, Carson was promoted to chief editor of the newly renamed United States Fish & Wildlife Service. She still managed to find time to write and The Sea Around Us was published in 1951 after an overwhelmingly favorable response to excerpts published in the Yale Review and the New Yorker. The Sea Around Us utilized new information about the ocean to describe it and was referred to by Carson as a "biography of the sea." The book remained on the bestseller list for 86 weeks and eventually won both the John Burroughs and the National Book awards.

The Sea Around Us's three sections provide a detailed look at life beneath the ocean's surface, yet Carson's principal focus is still to provide readers with scientifically accurate information about the sea couched in her now trademark dramatic style. This work won Carson the National Book award; and she famously noted in her acceptance speech that "if there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave [it] out."

In 1953, two years after publication of The Sea Around Us, Carson became the first science writer in 13 years to be elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. RKO's production of a full-length documentary of the book won an Oscar the same year, although Carson never approved of the film because of some scientific inaccuracies. Honorary degrees and other accolades continued to pour in along with royalties from the book's eventual translation into 32 languages.

With her financial well-being ensured, Carson resigned from the Fish & Wildlife Service to devote herself full time to writing. The Edge of the Sea was published in 1955 and became another instant bestseller. In this book Carson describes the fragility and interdependence of the creatures living along the ocean's shore.

Carson continued to provide occasional scripts for radio and television broadcasts, including one for an Omnibus program on clouds. Yet she had little time to write in the late 1950s due to family responsibilities. Her mother and niece died within a year of one another and the never-married Carson adopted Roger, her five year-old great-nephew. Roger was the inspiration for Carson's fifth book, The Sense of Wonder, which grew out of an article for Women's Home Companion. (The book was published posthumously in 1965 and urged parents to instill a love of nature in their children.)

Carson was concerned about the effects of the chemical fertilizer DDT for many years and tried unsuccessfully to publish articles about the pesticide's negative effects on plants and animals. Her concern grew in the years after World War II when DDT became widely available to farmers. Other scientists had noted the deterioration in the environment and the death of wildlife due to DDT, but none had Carson's fame or respect. She pondered the topic of her next book in a letter to a friend in February 1958: "It seems time someone wrote of Life in the light of the truth as it now appears to us. And I think that may be the book I am to write…. As man approaches the 'new heaven and the new earth'—or the space-age universe, if you will—he must do it with humility rather than arrogance."

Shortly after Carson began work on the book that would become Silent Spring, she was diagnosed with a malignant breast tumor. The cancer spread throughout her body, which made writing difficult, but a condensation of the book was published in the New Yorker in June 1962 and the entire book in September 1963. Silent Spring was immediately attacked by chemical companies and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which denounced the book's findings of DDT's ill effects on the environment as false.

Carson herself was painted as an unreliable, hysterical woman by critics and attacked repeatedly in the media. Yet the furor over Silent Spring died down when it became apparent that Carson's critics had misinterpreted the book's message. In Silent Spring, Carson called for increased control over the distribution and use of pesticides like DDT as well as the development of biological controls as an alternative to spraying pesticides from the air. Her dramatic presentation of humanity's destruction of the environment through DDT and other pesticides shocked a public that had heretofore been unaware of any reason for concern.

The overwhelming interest and anxiety about the situation presented in Carson's book led President John F. Kennedy to announce a federal investigation into the problem. The report of the President's Science Advisory Committee in May 1963 agreed with Carson's conclusions in Silent Spring. Later that year, Carson became the first woman to win the Audubon Medal. Within four months of Silent Spring's publication, there were over 40 bills in state legislatures calling for stronger restrictions on the use of pesticides. Carson's impact upon environmental policy did not cease with her death in 1964. In November 1969, five years after her death, the U.S. government took steps to phase out the use of DDT over a two-year period, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established a year later.

There have been two new posthumous publications of Carson's writings in addition to either renamed partial or complete reprints of her earlier works. Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman was published in 1995 to great acclaim. Freeman, a naturalist and former teacher, had written to Carson in 1952 after the publication of The Sea Around Us when she learned Carson was building a summer home near the Freemans' on Southport Island in Maine. The women later met and became close friends for the remainder of Carson's life.

Carson's compassionate nature and joy in life shines through these letters, as does her concern for her family and the pain of her later illness. Near the end of her niece's struggle with diabetes, Carson wrote to Freeman: "I think I wrote you a year ago that my great problem was how to be a writer and at the same time a member of my family…. It is that conflict that just tears me to pieces. Now, so near the end, I wonder why I can't have peace for even ten days, but I have thought of no practical solution." Always, Rachel reveals that Carson's courage in the face of personal tragedy was as striking as her bravery in facing public criticism and her graciousness in acknowledging eventual public triumph.

Lost Woods:

The Discovered Writings of Rachel Carson (1998) is a collection of brief essays, talks, field notes, acceptance speeches, magazine articles, and personal letters. The selections in Lost Woods range from Carson's first Atlantic Monthly article, "Undersea," which was the inspiration for the book Under the Sea Wind, to her final letter to Dorothy Freeman (1964). In this letter, which Freeman received after Carson's death, the latter wrote: "My regrets, darling, are for your sadness, for leaving Roger, when I so wanted to see him through to manhood…. I have had a rich life, full of rewards and satisfactions that come to few, and if it must end now, I can feel that I have achieved most of what I wished to do. That wouldn't have been true two years ago, when I first realized my time was short."

Rachel Carson was a gifted scientist and talented writer whose works introduced readers around the world to the delicate balance of nature and society's responsibility for preserving it. Carson was one of the few women of her time able to achieve success in the male-dominated world of science. Through her inspirational and scientifically sound writings she convinced her colleagues and the general public of both the need for sound environmental policy and the capability of female scientists.

Often hailed as the mother of the environmental movement, her impact on literature and environmental policy is still felt today. Yet her characteristic modesty did not allow her to believe her work would bring about lasting change. Shortly before the publication of Silent Spring, Carson wrote in a letter: "I have felt bound by a solemn obligation to do what I could—if I didn't at least try I could never again be happy in nature. But now I can believe I have at least helped a little. It would be unrealistic to believe one book could bring a complete change." As writer Paul Brooks noted in Speaking for Nature, "It may have been unrealistic, but history has proved it true."

Other Works:

Food from the Sea: Fish and Shellfish of New England (1943). Food from Home Waters: Fishes of the Middle West (1943). Fish and Shellfish of the South Atlantic and Gulf Coasts (1944). Fish and Shellfish of the Middle Atlantic Coast (1945). Life Under the Sea (1968). The Rocky Coast (1971). The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work (1972). Silent Spring Revisited (1987).

Bibliography:

Brooks, P., The House of Life: R. Carson at Work (1972). Brooks, P., Speaking for Nature (1980). Graham, F., Jr., Since Silent Spring (1970). Sterling, P., Sea and Earth: The Life of R. Carson (1970). Stille, D. R., Extraordinary Women Scientists. Veglahn, N., Women Scientists (1991). Whorton, J., Before Silent Spring: Pesticides and Public Health in Pre-DDT America (1974).

Reference Works:

CANR 35 (1992). Current Biography (1951, 1964). CBY (1951). Notable Women in the Life Sciences (1996). Reader's Companion to American History (1991). Twentieth Century Authors, 1st supp. (1955).

Other reference:

American Forests (July 1970). "The Spirit of Rachel Carson," in Audubon (July-August 1992). SatR (16 May 1964). Science (26 May 1995).

—LEAH J. SPARKS

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