Carson, Rachel Louise (1907 – 1964) American Ecologist, Marine Biologist, and Writer
Rachel Louise Carson (1907 – 1964)
American ecologist, marine biologist, and writer
Rachel Louise Carson was a university-trained biologist, a longtime United States government employee, and a bestselling author of such books as Edge of the Sea, The Sea Around Us (a National Book Award winner), and Silent Spring.
Her book on the dangers of misusing pesticides, Silent Spring, has become a classic of environmental literature and resulted in her recognition as the fountainhead of modern environmentalism . Silent Spring was reissued in a twenty-fifth anniversary edition in 1987, and remains standard reading for anyone concerned about environmental issues.
Carson grew up in the Pennsylvania countryside and reportedly developed an early interest in nature from her mother and from exploring the woods and fields around her home. She was first an English major in college, but a required course in biology rekindled that early interest in the subject and she graduated in 1928 from Pennsylvania College for Women with a degree in zoology and went on to earn a master's degree at Johns Hopkins University. After the publication of Silent Spring, she was often criticized for being a "popular science writer" rather than a trained biologist, making it obvious that her critics were unaware of her university work, including a master's thesis entitled "The Development of the Pronephros During the Embryonic and Early Larval Life of the Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus )."
Summer work also included biological studies at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, where she became more interested in the life of the sea. After doing a stint as a part-time scriptwriter for the Bureau of Fisheries, she was hired full-time as a junior aquatic biologist. When she resigned from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 1952 to devote her time to her writing, she was biologist and chief editor there. First, as a biologist and writer with the Bureau and then as a free-lance writer and biologist, she successfully combined professionally the two great loves of her life, biology and writing.
Often described as "a book about death which exalts life," Silent Spring is the work on which Carson's position as the modern catalyst of a renewed environmental movement rests. The book begins with a shocking fable of one composite town's "silent spring" after pesticides have decimated insects and the birds that feed upon them. The main part of the book is a massive documentation of the effects of organic pesticides on all kinds of life, including birds and humans. The final sections are quite restrained, drawing a hopeful picture of the future, if feasible alternatives to the use of pesticides—such as biological controls—are used in conjunction with and as a partial replacement of chemical sprays.
Carson was quite conservative throughout the book, being careful to limit examples to those that could be verified and defended. In fact, there was very little new in the book; it was all available earlier in a variety of scientific publications. But her science background allowed her to judge the credibility of the facts she uncovered and provided sufficient knowledge to synthesize a large amount of data. Her literary skills made that data accessible to the general public.
Silent Spring was not a polemic against all use of pesticides but a reasoned argument that potential hazards be carefully and sufficiently considered before any such chemical was approved for use. Many people date modern concern with environmental issues from her argument in this book that "future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life." It is not an accident that her book is dedicated to Albert Schweitzer , because she wrote it from a shared philosophy of reverence for life.
Carson provided an early outline of the potential of using biological controls in place of chemicals , orin concert with smaller doses of chemicals, an approach now called integrated pest management . She worried that too many specialists were concerned only about the effectiveness of chemicals in destroying pests and "the overall picture" was being lost, in fact not valued or even sought. She pointed out the false safety of assuming that products considered individually were safe, when in concert, or synergistically, they could lead to human health problems.
Her holistic approach was one of the real, and unusual, strengths of the book. Prior to the publication of Silent Spring, she even refused to appear on a National Audubon Society panel on pesticides because such an appearance could provide a forum for only part of the picture and she wanted her material to first appear "as a whole." She did allow it to be partially serialized in The New Yorker, but articles in that magazine are long and detailed.
The book was criticized early and often, and often viciously and unfairly. One chemical company, reacting to that pre-publication serialization, tried to get Houghton Mifflin not to publish the book, citing Carson as one of the "sinister influences" trying to reduce the use of agricultural chemicals so that United States food supplies would dwindle to the level of a developing nation. The chemical industry apparently united against Carson, distributing critical reviews and threatening to withdraw magazine advertisements from journals deemed friendly to her. Words and phrases used in the attacks included "ignorant," "biased," "sensational," "unfounded," "distorted," "not written by a scientist," "littered with crass assumptions and gross misinterpretations," to name but a few.
Some balanced reviews were also published, most noteworthy one by Cornell University ecologist LaMont Cole in Scientific American. Cole identified errors in her book, but finished by saying "errors of fact are so infrequent, trivial and irrelevant to the main theme that it would be ungallant to dwell on them," and went on to suggest that the book be widely read in the hopes that it "may help us toward a much needed reappraisal of current policies and practices." That was the spirit in which Carson wrote Silent Spring and reappraisals and new policies were indeed the result of the myriad of reassessments and studies spawned by its publication. To its credit, it did not take the science community long to recognize her credibility; the President's Science Advisory Committee issued a 1963 report that the journal Science suggested "adds up to a fairly thorough-going vindication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring thesis."
While it is important to recognize the importance of Silent Spring as a landmark in the environmental movement, one should not neglect the significance of her other work, especially her three books on oceans and marine life and the impact of her writing on people's awareness of one of earth's great natural ecosystems.
Under the Sea Wind (1941) was Carson's attempt "to make the sea and its life as vivid a reality [for her readers] as it has become for me." And readers are given vivid narratives about the shore, including vegetation and birds, on the open sea, especially by tracing the movements of the mackerel, and on the sea bottom, again by focusing on an example, this time the eel. The Sea Around Us (1951) continues Carson's treatment of marine biology, adding an account of the history and development of the sea and its physical features such as islands and tides. She also includes human perceptions of and relationships with the sea. The Edge of the Sea (1955) was written as a popular guide to beaches and sea shores, but focusing on rocky shores, sand beaches, and coral and mangrove coasts, it complemented the physical descriptions in The Sea Around Us with biological data.
Carson was a careful and thorough scientist, an inspiring author, and a pioneering environmentalist. Her groundbreaking book, and the controversy it generated, was the catalyst for much more serious and detailed looks at environmental issues, including increased governmental investigation that led to creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Her work will remain a hallmark in the increasing awareness modern people are gaining of how humans interact with and impact the environment in which they live and on which they depend.
[Gerald R. Young ]
Bonta, M. M. "Rachel Carson, Pioneering Ecologist." In Women in the Field: America's Pioneering Naturalists. College Station, TX: Texas A & M University Press, 1991.
Brooks, P. The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
Downs, R. B. "Upsetting the Balance of Nature: Rachel Carson's Silent Spring." In Books That Changed America. New York: Macmillan, 1970.
Hynes, H. P. The Recurring Silent Spring. New York: Pergamon Press, 1989.
Marco, G. J., R. M. Hollingworth, and W. Durham. Silent Spring Revisited. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society, 1987.
Graham Jr., F. "Rachel Carson." EPA Journal 4 (November–December 1978): 5–7+.