Rachel Carson Dies of Cancer

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Rachel Carson Dies of Cancer

'Silent Spring' Author Was 56

Obituary excerpt

By: Jonathan N. Leonard

Date: April 15, 1964

Source: "Rachel Carson Dies of Cancer; 'Silent Spring' Author Was 56.". The New York Times, April 15, 1964.

About the Author: Along with frequent contributions to the New York Times, Jonathan N. Leonard is the author of several books on the sciences and arts, including Planets, co-authored by Carl Sagan, Alchemy, and Latin American Cooking.


American biologist and author Rachel Louise Carson (1907–1964), known for her best-selling books Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us, was a seminal figure in the environmental movement during the 1950s and early 1960s. Born in Springdale, Pennsylvania, she was the youngest of three children. Carson wanted to become a writer and studied English at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now known as Chatham College), but eventually became interested in biology and switched her major. She graduated with honors in 1929 and went on to earn a Master of Arts in zoology from The Johns Hopkins University in 1932. After teaching biology at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, Carson began to work part-time for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (now known as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) and eventually became one of the first fulltime female employees in the agency.

Although her job title at the Bureau of Fisheries was aquatic biologist, Carson functioned as a technical writer and supplemented her salary by publishing short pieces. The article "Undersea", published in 1937 by Atlantic Monthly, led to a book contract with Simon & Schuster. Her first book, Under the Sea Wind was published shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and was not a commercial success. During World War II, one of Carson's duties included the promotion of fish as an alternative to meat, which was scarce during the war. In 1949, Carson was promoted to editor-in-chief of the renamed Fish and Wildlife Service.

Carson's second book, The Sea Around Us, was first published in parts. The first chapter appeared in the Yale Review and won a Westinghouse award for science writing. Other portions were subsequently published in the New Yorker, Nature, and Reader's Digest. The complete The Sea Around Us was published in 1951 by Oxford University Press. It became a Book of the Month Club selection and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for a year and a half.

The commercial success of The Sea Around Us led to the re-release of Under the Sea Wind, which also became a best seller, and garnered her awards that included the Gold Medal of the New York Zoological Society, the John Burroughs Medal for excellence in natural history writing, and the National Book Award. Established as a best-selling natural history author, Carson left her government job to become an independent writer. She built a cottage along the Maine coast and wrote The Edge of the Sea, a personal account of life along the shore and her third commercially successful book. Silent Spring, an indictment of overzealous pesticide use and its effects on the environment, was published in 1962 and quickly became a controversial and enduring contribution to the environmental literature.


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Sections of Silent Spring were read into the Congressional Record and afterward, President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) appointed a panel review pesticide regulations. Carson was criticized by the pesticide industry even though she never advocated the complete abandonment of pesticide use. Instead, she argued against indiscriminate pesticide use without consideration of its ecological consequences.

One of the practical consequences of Silent Spring was a significant reduction in the use of the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT. Developed during the 1940s, DDT was used to fight malaria and other insect-borne diseases and was considered by many to be a so-called miracle pesticide. During three decades of use, approximately 675,000 tons of DDT were applied in the United States. DDT, however, is an environmentally persistent chlorinated hydrocarbon that accumulates in the food chain and has significant environmental consequences that offset its benefits in the control of disease. Largely as a result of Silent Spring, DDT was banned by the United States in 1972 and is currently illegal in many other countries. It is, however, still used for disease control in some countries.

Rachel Carson died of breast cancer in 1964, only two years after the publication of Silent Spring. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980.



Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. New York: Mariner Books, 2002 (40th Anniversary Edition).

Web sites

Environmental Working Group. "Toxics in our Environment." 〈http://www.ewg.org/issues/siteindex/issues.php?issueid=5026〉 (accessed February10, 2006).

World Wildlife Fund (WWF). "Keeping Toxic Chemicals Away from Wildlife and Your Family." 〈http://www.worldwildlife.org/consumer/rtc.cfm〉 (accessed February 10 2006).