Carson, Rachel

views updated May 29 2018

9: Rachel Carson

Excerpt from Silent Spring

    Published in 1962.

The modern-day environmental movement is made up of people who advocate the preservation, restoration, or enhancement of the natural environment. Many considered 1962 as the year the movement began. That year, Silent Spring, a book by naturalist and marine biologist Rachel Carson (1907–1964), was a best-seller and prompted national debate about the widespread use of pesticides, which are chemicals used to kill insects. Carson's book was the first publication alerting the general public that pesticides had many unintended, harmful effects. She outlined how pesticides can enter the food and water supply and end up on people's dinner tables.

"Who has made the decision that sets in motion these chains of poisonings, this ever-widening wave of death that spreads out, like ripples when a pebble is dropped into a still pond?"

Carson was particularly concerned about the effects of DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), an insecticide developed in 1939 by Dr. Paul Muller (1899–1965), a Swiss chemist. The chemical was first used on a large-scale basis during World War II (1939–45) when it was dispensed in Italy to help stop a rapidly spreading epidemic of typhus. A dangerous disease, typhus includes symptoms such as fever, headache, chills, and general pains followed by a rash that spreads to the whole body except for the face, palms, and soles of the feet. During the war, typhus was being spread by lice, tiny insects that survive by biting or sucking on humans and other warm-blooded animals. The U.S. Army issued small tin boxes of 10 percent DDT dust to its soldiers to kill body lice, head lice, and crab lice. Most notably, DDT was sprayed on South Pacific islands to kill malaria-causing insects and make the islands safe for occupation by U.S. troops. Malaria is a dangerous and infectious disease common in the tropics and transmitted by mosquitoes. In 1948 Muller won the Nobel Prize for Science, a prestigious, annual, international award for his work on DDT, which was credited for saving many lives.

Beginning in 1946, DDT was used increasingly in the United States to kill pests that threatened crops and to fight Dutch Elm disease, a fungus that attacks elm trees and is spread by bark beetles as they move from tree to tree. By spraying DDT and killing the beetle, government officials hoped to stop the spread of the disease that was killing elm trees throughout the eastern half of the United States. In Silent Spring, Carson described the harmful effects of the spraying. A single application on a group of trees, she wrote, killed insects for weeks and months—not only the targeted insects but countless more—and remained toxic in the environment. For example, worms were contaminated by eating leaves tainted with DDT, and then the contamination spread when those worms were eaten by birds and other animals. Eventually, the toxins work their way into the food and water supply, where they are consumed by humans.

Silent Spring reaches readers

Excerpts from Silent Spring first appeared in the New Yorker magazine in three issues in June 1962. The excerpts caused a sensation, as newspapers and magazines reported Carson's findings, and representatives from the chemical industry condemned them. One chemical company, Velsicol, tried to intimidate Carson's publisher by threatening lawsuits before the book was released. Other spokespersons for the chemical industry declared the book to be unscientific and filled with errors. Several magazines shared those views when reviewing the book. Upon publication, however, Silent Spring became an instant and widely acclaimed best-seller.

Despite challenges by chemical industry representatives, Carson's major findings were proven accurate. Until that time, DDT was in some sense considered a miracle chemical since it was used successfully to destroy malaria-spreading insects and stop the spread of the disease that had killed millions of people. However, Carson's observations about DDT brought the dangers of pesticide use into the public eye. Her revelations about the unintended consequences of the chemical's use—including killing all kinds of insects, poisoning worms and birds and other animals, and ending up in the human food and water supply—led to reforms and laws governing the use of the chemical. Silent Spring then, is among the books that had an enormous impact on Americans, leading to change and reform.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Silent Spring:

  • By the mid 1950s, several years before Silent Spring was published, Carson was one of America's best-known nonfiction writers. She had published five books on the sea and numerous magazine articles. Despite being among the most popular and prominent science writers in the nation, Carson could not convince magazines to give her an assignment to write about DDT. This reveals how controversial her views were on the subject. She performed research and compiled information and statistics for several years before publishing Silent Spring.
  • Carson was a scientist who viewed scientific progress as the development of better ways for humans to live in harmony with nature. She cited the senseless and indiscriminate, or haphazard, chemical spraying of DDT as an example of an attempt to control nature. This, according to Carson in Silent Spring, represented "the Stone Age of science" that ignores scientific progress.
  • In addition to citing scientific evidence for her claims, Carson frequently describes the beauties and variety of nature in her attempts to persuade the reader of the importance of her cause.

Excerpt from Silent Spring

Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded [unannounced] by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song. This sudden silencing of the song of birds, this obliteration [wiping out] of the color and beauty and interest they lend to our world

From the town of Hinsdale, Illinois, a housewife wrote in despair to one of the world's leading ornithologists, Robert Cushman Murphy, Curator Emeritus of Birds at the American Museum of Natural History.

Here in our village the elm trees have been sprayed for several years [she wrote in 1958]. When we moved here six years ago, there was a wealth of bird life; I put up a feeder and had a steady stream of cardinals, chickadees, downies and nuthatches all winter, and the cardinals and chickadees brought their young ones in the summer.

After several years of DDT spray, the town is almost devoid [without] of robins and starlings; chickadees have not been on my shelf for two years, and this year the cardinals are gone too; the nesting population in the neighborhood seems to consist of one dove pair and perhaps one catbird family.

It is hard to explain to the children that the birds have been killed off, when they have learned in school that a Federal law protects the birds from killing or capture. "Will they ever come back?" they ask, and I do not have the answer. The elms are still dying, and so are the birds. Is anything being done? Can anything be done? Can / do anything?

A year after the federal government had launched a massive spraying program against the fire ant, an Alabama woman wrote: "Our place has been a veritable [geniune] bird sanctuary for over half a century. Last July we all remarked, 'There are more birds than ever.' Then, suddenly, in the second week of August, they all disappeared. I was accustomed to rising early to care for my favorite mare that had a young filly. There was not a sound of the song of a bird. It was eerie, terrifying. What was man doing to our perfect and beautiful world? Finally, five months later a blue jay appeared and a wren."

The autumn months to which she referred brought other somber reports from the deep South, where in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama the Field Notes published quarterly by the National Audubon Society and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service noted the striking phenomenon of "blank spots weirdly empty of virtually all bird life." The Field Notes are a compilation of the reports of seasoned observers who have spent many years afield in their particular areas and have unparalleled [unequalled] knowledge of the normal bird life of the region. One such observer reported that in driving about southern Mississippi that fall she saw "no land birds at all for long distances." Another in Baton Rouge [Louisiana] reported that the contents of her feeders had lain untouched "for weeks on end," while fruiting shrubs in her yard, that ordinarily would be stripped clean by that time, still were laden [loaded] with berries. Still another reported that his picture window, "which often used to frame a scene splashed with the red of 40 or 50 cardinals and crowded with other species, seldom permitted a view of as many as a bird ortwoatatime." Professor Maurice Brooks of the University of West Virginia, an authority on the birds of the Appalachian region, reported that the West Virginia bird population had undergone "an incredible reduction."

One story might serve as the tragic symbol of the fate of the birds—a fate that has already overtaken some species, and that threatens all. It is the story of the robin, the bird known to everyone. To millions of Americans, the season's first robin means that the grip of winter is broken. Its coming is an event reported in newspapers and told eagerly at the breakfast table. And as the numbers of migrants grows and the first mists of green appear in the woodlands, thousands of people listen for the first dawn chorus of the robins throbbing in the early morning light. But now all is changed, and not even the return of the birds may be taken for granted.

The survival of the robin, and indeed of many other species as well, seems fatefully linked with the American elm, a tree that is part of the history of thousands of towns from the Atlantic [Ocean] to the Rockies [Rocky Mountains], gracing their streets and their village squares and college campuses with majestic archways of green. Now the elms are stricken with a disease that afflicts [ails] them throughout their range, a disease so serious that many experts believe all efforts to save the elms will in the end be futile [hopeless]. It would be tragic to lose the elms, but it would be doubly tragic if, in vain efforts to save them, we plunge vast segments of our bird populations into the night of extinction. Yet this is precisely what is threatened.

The so-called Dutch elm disease entered the United States from Europe about 1930 in elm burl logs imported for the veneer industry. It is a fungus disease; the organism invades the water-conducting vessels of the tree, spreads by spores carried in the flow of sap, and by its poisonous secretions as well as by mechanical clogging causes the branches to wilt and the tree to die. The disease is spread from diseased to healthy trees by elm bark beetles. The galleries which the insects have tunneled out under the bark of dead trees become contaminated with spores of the invading fungus, and the spores adhere to the insect body and are carried wherever the beetle flies. Efforts to control the fungus disease of the elms have been directed largely toward control of the carrier insect. In community after community, especially throughout the strongholds of the American elm, the Midwest and New England, intensive spraying has become a routine procedure.

What this spraying could mean to bird life, and especially to the robin, was first made clear by the work of two ornithologists at Michigan State University, Professor George Wallace and one of his graduate students, John Mehner. When Mr. Mehner began work for the doctorate [degree] in 1954, he chose a research project that had to do with robin populations. This was quite by chance, for at that time no one suspected that the robins were in danger. But even as he undertook the work, events occurred that were to change its character and indeed to deprive him of his material.

Spraying for Dutch-elm disease began in a small way on the university campus in 1954. The following year the city of East Lansing (where the university is located) joined in, spraying on the campus was expanded, and, with local programs for gypsy moth and mosquito control also under way, the rain of chemicals increased to a downpour.

During 1954, the year of the first light spraying, all seemed well. The following spring the migrating robins began to return to the campus as usual. Like the bluebells in [English writer H. M.] Tomlinson's haunting essay "The Lost Wood," they were "expecting no evil" as they reoccupied their familiar territories. But soon it became evident that something was wrong. Dead and dying robins began to appear on the campus. Few birds were seen in their normal foraging activities or assembling in their usual roosts. Few nests were built; few young appeared. The pattern was repeated with monotonous [dull and repetitious] regularity in succeeding springs. The sprayed area had become a lethal trap in which each wave of migrating robins would be eliminated in about a week. Then new arrivals would come in, only to add to the numbers of doomed birds seen on the campus in the agonized tremors that precede death.

"The campus is serving as a graveyard for most of the robins that attempt to take up residence in the spring," said Dr. Wallace. But why? At first he suspected some disease of the nervous system, but soon it became evident that "in spite of the assurances of the insecticide people that their sprays were 'harmless to birds' the robins were really dying of insecticidal poisoning; they exhibited the well-known symptoms of loss of balance, followed by tremors, convulsions, and death."

Several facts suggested that the robins were being poisoned, not so much by direct contact with the insecticides as indirectly, by eating earthworms. Campus earthworms had been fed inadvertently to crayfish in a research project and all the crayfish had promptly died. A snake kept in a laboratory cage had gone into violent tremors after being fed such worms. And earthworms are the principal food of robins in the spring.

A key piece in the jigsaw puzzle of the doomed robins was soon to be supplied by Dr. Roy Barker of the Illinois Natural History Survey at Urbana. Dr. Barker's work, published in 1958, traced the intricate cycle of events by which the robins' fate is linked to the elm trees by way of the earthworms. The trees are sprayed in the spring (usually at the rate of 2 to 5 pounds of DDT per 50-foot tree, which may be the equivalent of as much as 23 pounds per acre where elms are numerous) and often again in July, at about half this concentration. Powerful sprayers direct a stream of poison to all parts of the tallest trees, killing directly not only the target organism, the bark beetle, but other insects, including pollinating species and predatory spiders and beetles. The poison forms a tenacious [persistent] film over the leaves and bark. Rains do not wash it away. In the autumn the leaves fall to the ground, accumulate in sodden [soaked] layers, and begin the slow process of becoming one with the soil. In this they are aided by the toil of the earthworms, who feed in the leaf litter, for elm leaves are among their favorite foods. In feeding on the leaves the worms also swallow the insecticide, accumulating and concentrating it in their bodies. Dr. Barker found deposits of DDT throughout the digestive tracts of the worms, their blood vessels, nerves, and body wall. Undoubtedly some of the earthworms themselves succumb [die], but others survive to become "biological magnifiers" of the poison. In the spring the robins return to provide another link in the cycle. As few as 11 large earthworms can transfer a lethal dose of DDT to a robin. And 11 worms form a small part of a day's rations to a bird that eats 10 to 12 earthworms in as many minutes.

Not all robins receive a lethal dose, but another consequence may lead to the extinction of their kind as surely as fatal poisoning. The shadow of sterility lies over all the bird studies and indeed lengthens to include all living things within its potential range. There are now only two or three dozen robins to be found each spring on the entire 185-acre campus of Michigan State University, compared with a conservatively estimated 370 adults in this area before spraying. In 1954 every robin nest under observation by Mehner produced young. Toward the end of June, 1957, when at least 370 young birds (the normal replacement of the adult population) would have been foraging over the campus in the years before spraying began, Mehner could find only one young robin. A year later Dr. Wallace was to report: "At no time during the spring or summer [of 1958] did I see a fledgling [young] robin anywhere on the main campus, and so far I have failed to find anyone else who has seen one there."

Part of this failure to produce young is due, of course, to the fact that one or more of a pair of robins dies before the nesting cycle is completed. But Wallace has significant records which point to something more sinister—the actual destruction of the birds' capacity to reproduce. He has, for example, "records of robins and other birds building nests but laying no eggs, and others laying eggs and incubating them but not hatching them. We have one record of a robin that sat on its eggs faithfully for 21 days and they did not hatch. The normal incubation period is 13 days….

The robins, then, are only one part of the chain of devastation linked to the spraying of the elms, even as the elm program is only one of the multitudinous [many] spray programs that cover our land with poisons. Heavy mortality [death] has occurred among about 90 species of birds, including those most familiar to suburbanites and amateur naturalists. The population of nesting birds in general have declined as much as 90 per cent in some of the sprayed towns….

It is only reasonable to suppose that all birds and mammals heavily dependent on earthworms or other soil organisms for food are threatened by the robins' fate. Some 45 species of birds include earthworms in their diet. Among them is the woodcock, a species that winters in southern areas recently heavily sprayed with heptachlor. Two significant discoveries have now been made about the woodcock. Production of young birds on the New Brunswick breeding grounds is definitely reduced, and adult birds that have been analyzed contain large residues of DDT and heptachlor.

Already there are disturbing records of heavy mortality among more than 20 other species of ground-feeding birds whose food—worms, ants, grubs, or other soil organisms—has been poisoned. These include three of the thrushes whose songs are among the most exquisite of bird voices, the olive-backed, the wood, and the hermit. And the sparrows that flit through the shrubby understory of the woodlands and forage with rustling sounds amid the fallen leaves—the song sparrow and the white-throat—these, too, have been found among the victims of the elm sprays.

Mammals, also, may easily be involved in the circle, directly or indirectly. Earthworms are important among the various foods of the raccoon, and are eaten in the spring and fall by opossums. Such subterranean [underground] tunnelers as shrews and moles capture them in some numbers, and then perhaps pass on the poison to predators such as screech owls and barn owls. Several dying screech owls were picked up in Wisconsin following heavy rains in spring, perhaps poisoned by feeding on earthworms. Hawks and owls have been found in convulsions—great horned owls, screech owls, red-shouldered hawks, sparrow hawks, marsh hawks. These may be cases of secondary poisoning, caused by eating birds or mice that have accumulated insecticides in their livers or other organs.

Nor is it only the creatures that forage on the ground or those who prey on them that are endangered by the foliar spraying of the elms. All of the treetop feeders, the birds that glean [gather] their insect food from the leaves, have disappeared from heavily sprayed areas, among them those woodland sprites the kinglets, both ruby-crowned and golden-crowned, the tiny gnatcatchers, and many of the warblers, whose migrating hordes flow through the trees in spring in a multicolored tide of life. In 1956, a late spring delayed spraying so that it coincided with the arrival of an exceptionally heavy wave of warbler migration. Nearly all species of warblers present in the area were represented in the heavy kill that followed. In Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, at least a thousand myrtle warblers could be seen in migration during former years; in 1958, after the spraying of the elms, observers could find only two. So, with additions from other communities, the list grows, and the warblers killed by the spray include those that most charm and fascinate all who are aware of them: the black-and-white, the yellow, the magnolia, and the Cape May; the ovenbird, whose call throbs in the Maytime woods; the Blackburnian, whose wings are touched with flame; the chestnut-sided, the Canadian, and the black-throated green. These tree-top feeders are affected either directly by eating poisoned insects or indirectly by a shortage of food….

As the habit of killing grows—the resort to "eradicating" [destroying] any creature that may annoy or inconvenience us—birds are more and more finding themselves a direct target of poisons rather than an incidental one. There is a growing trend toward aerial applications of such deadly poisons as parathion to "control" concentrations of birds distasteful to farmers. The Fish and Wildlife Service has found it necessary to express serious concern over this trend, pointing out that "parathion treated areas constitute a potential hazard to humans, domestic animals, and wildlife." In southern Indiana, for example, a group of farmers went together in the summer of 1959 to engage a spray plane to treat an area of river bottomland with parathion. The area was a favored roosting site for thousands of blackbirds that were feeding in nearby cornfields. The problem could have been solved easily by a slight change in agricultural practice—a shift to a variety of corn with deep-set ears not accessible to the birds—but the farmers had been persuaded of the merits of killing by poison, and so they sent in the planes on their mission of death.

The results probably gratified the farmers, for the casualty [dead or injured] list included some 65,000 red-winged blackbirds and starlings. What other wildlife deaths may have gone unnoticed and unrecorded is not known. Parathion is not a specific for blackbirds: it is a universal killer. But such rabbits or raccoons or opossums as may have roamed those bottomlands and perhaps never visited the farmers' cornfields were doomed by a judge and jury who neither knew of their existence nor cared.

And what of human beings? In California orchards sprayed with this same parathion, workers handling foliage that had been treated a month earlier collapsed and went into shock, and escaped death only through skilled medical attention. Does Indiana still raise any boys who roam through woods or fields and might even explore the margins of a river? If so, who guarded the poisoned area to keep out any who might wander in, in misguided search for unspoiled nature? Who kept vigilant [careful] watch to tell the innocent stroller that the fields he was about to enter were deadly—all their vegetation coated with a lethal film? Yet at so fearful a risk the farmers, with none to hinder them, waged their needless war on blackbirds.

In each of these situations, one turns away to ponder the question: Who has made the decision that sets in motion these chains of poisonings, this ever-widening wave of death that spreads out, like ripples when a pebble is dropped into a still pond? Who has placed in one pan of the scales the leaves that might have been eaten by the beetles and in the other the pitiful heaps of many-hued feathers, the lifeless remains of the birds that fell before the unselective bludgeon of insecticidal poisons? Who has decided—who has the right to decide—for the countless legions [great numbers] of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile [barren] world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight? The decision is that of the authoritarian temporarily entrusted with power; he has made it during a moment of inattention by millions to whom beauty and the ordered world of nature still have a meaning that is deep and imperative.

What happened next …

Pre-publication excerpts of Silent Spring in the New Yorker in June 1962 caused a sensation. Carson was threatened by major chemical companies, including Monsanto, Velsicol, and American Cyanamid, with lawsuits and claims that she was unqualified to write such a book. Their attempts to undermine Carson's findings and reputation only increased public awareness, and Silent Spring became an instant best-seller.

A special television program about the controversy, The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson, was broadcast by CBS in April 1963. Carson appeared calm and knowledgeable on the news special while critics from the chemical industry attacked her. She left viewers with a strong positive impression by remarking, "Man's attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself … [We are] challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves."

Meanwhile, Silent Spring inspired the public to put pressure on the federal government to investigate its use of pesticides. A panel of experts appointed by President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) issued a report, Use of Pesticides, in May 1963 that supported Carson's findings. This document became an important step toward changing the government's pesticide policy.

After the publication of Silent Spring, use of DDT came under much closer government supervision and was eventually banned by the government in 1972. Carson's influence has been credited on the federal level with several major pieces of regulatory legislation: the Clean Air Act (1963), the Water Quality Act (1965), and the National Environmental Policy Act (1969). In 1970 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created.

Carson died of breast cancer in 1964, but her legacy lives on. In 1999 Time magazine included Carson on its list of the one hundred most influential people of the twentieth century.

Did you know …

  • Carson had been a marine biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and wrote educational brochures for the agency.
  • Silent Spring was on the New York Times best-seller list for thirty-one weeks.
  • In 1970 the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, located in Maine, was dedicated in her memory.

Consider the following …

  • Carson supported the right of individuals to avoid exposure to potentially harmful materials over the economic concerns of companies. Debates between economic development and environmental concerns occur in virtually every community in the United States. What debates are occurring in your community? Discuss ideas presented by the different sides in the debate and how the issues affect you and your family.
  • Carson often describes beautiful natural scenes populated by birds and animals to help persuade readers to appreciate their significance and to think about what life would be like without them. Observe animals and natural scenes around your neighborhood and then interview someone who has lived in the neighborhood for more than twenty years. Compare your feelings about your neighborhood with the way it was in the past, and write about changes that were beneficial and others that had a negative impact.

For More Information


Brooks, Paul. The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

Lear, Linda. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: Owl Books, 1998.

Murphy, Pricilla Coit. What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005.

Waddell, Craig, ed. And No Birds Sing: Rhetorical Analyses of Silent Spring. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.


Mayell, Hillary. "Environmental Movement at 40: Is Earth Healthier?" (April 19, 2002). National Geographic News. (accessed on June 7, 2006).

"Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge." U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (accessed on June 7, 2006).

"The Time 100: The Most Influential People of the Century." Time Magazine. (accessed on June 7, 2006).


The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson (television special), CBS-TV, April 1963.

Insidiously: Spreading harm have in a subtle manner.

Ornithologists: Scientists who study birds.

Migrants: Those who move from one region to another, usually during changing seasons.

Extinction: No longer in existence.

Veneer: A thin piece of wood glued to an inferior piece of wood, often on furniture.

Galleries: Long, enclosed passages.

Gypsy moth: A brown or white moth that causes damage to tree leaves.

Convulsions: Uncontrolled fits.

Pollinating species: Species that transfer pollen from seed plants.

"Biological magnifiers": Organisms that affect other organisms by spreading something.

Sterility: The inability to reproduce.

Incubating: Keeping eggs warm by sitting on them.

Heptachlor: A pesticide that proved highly toxic to humans.

Shrubby understory: Plants and shrubs that grow among trees.

Foliar spraying: Spraying of leaves.

Incidental: Something occurring by chance.

Parathion: A highly poisonous insecticide.

Margins: The areas alongside a border.

Bludgeon: A short, heavy club.

Authoritarian: An allpowerful leader.

Carson, Rachel

views updated May 09 2018

Rachel Carson

BORN: May 27, 1907 • Springdale, Pennsylvania

DIED: April 14, 1964 • Silver Spring, Maryland

American author; biologist

American biologist Rachel Carson (1907–1964) warned of the dangers of chemical pesticides in her 1962 best-selling book, Silent Spring. Pesticides are chemicals used to destroy insects, especially those that damage crops or spread disease. Carson's arguments provoked major public debate about whether such poisons, while effective in eliminating mosquitoes and other pests, might prove far more dangerous to the American landscape and even the health of its citizens in the long run. In the book, she cited evidence that bird populations were dwindling as a result of the overuse of a pesticide known as DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane). Carson told her readers that there could be a time in the future when no songbirds would be alive to return each spring. Ultimately, DDT was banned in the United States ten years later. Rachel Carson and Silent Spring are often credited with launching the movement to protect America's natural resources.

"[M]an is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself."

Writing, zoology, and biology

Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907, in Springdale, Pennsylvania. She grew up on a large piece of land owned by her family in western Pennsylvania. A thoughtful, shy youngster, she spent much of her free time roaming through the woods surrounding the family home. Her literary talents were evident at an early age. She was a published writer by the age of eleven, wrote poetry while in her teens, and decided to pursue an English degree when she enrolled at the Pennsylvania College for Women in Pittsburgh.

During her junior year, however, Carson took a biology course that reawakened her childhood interest in nature. Against the advice of many, she switched her major to zoology, the study of animal biology, and graduated in 1929 with high honors. She won a fellowship to study at the Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratory on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, and then a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, for a graduate degree in zoology. After she finished, she taught there for a time and also at the University of Maryland. Fascinated by the sea, she returned to the Woods Hole institute every summer for further study.

In 1935 Carson discovered a way to merge her literary talents with her chosen field when she began to write radio scripts for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. A year later, that same government agency hired her as an aquatic biologist. She continued her writing career on the side, submitting articles on marine topics to such publications as the Baltimore Sun. One such piece involved the migratory patterns of Chesapeake Bay eels. In 1937 her article titled "Undersea," about the richly complex marine environment, was published in the Atlantic Monthly. A book publisher read it and invited her to expand the topic into a full-length book.

Becoming a full-time writer

Under the Sea Wind (1941), Carson's first book, was published by Simon & Schuster, but it did not receive much attention because America suddenly found itself at war in late 1941. During World War II (1939–45)—when Great Britain, France, the United States, the Soviet Union, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan—Carson remained with the Bureau of Fisheries. The bureau eventually became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1949 she became the editor-in-chief of publications for the agency.

Still drawn to the topic of marine life and the majesty of the oceans, Carson wrote The Sea Around Us, which became one of the best-selling books of 1951. In it, she described the origins and geological characteristics of the world's oceans. It won several awards, including the prestigious National Book Award for nonfiction in 1952 and spent a year and a half on best-seller lists. Because of the book's success, Carson was able to retire from her government job and devote herself to writing full time. She had a home built on the coast of Maine, near West Southport, and produced a third book, The Edge of the Sea. This 1955 title was also greeted with favorable reviews and spent several months on the New York Times best-seller list.

Carson was a respected figure in the scientific community and communicated regularly with leading researchers in the fields of marine biology and animal life. The origins of Silent Spring came when Carson read a letter to the editor of the Boston Herald newspaper written by someone she knew. The Massachusetts resident claimed that DDT, a widely praised chemical pesticide that had come into general use since World War II, was destroying the birds in the wildlife refuge near the letter-writer's home. Carson's acquaintance claimed that she had discovered the bodies of seven dead birds in one day alone.

DDT and malaria

DDT was the world's first synthetic, or human-made, pesticide. An abbreviated term for its full chemical name of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, DDT was extremely effective in killing off mosquito populations. Carson and other scientists had already begun to recognize that it was also harmful to plant and animal life. At the time, however, DDT's benefits were considered to be far greater than its negative effects. The pesticide had been discovered by a Swiss chemist in late 1930s, and its development over the next few years occurred through the support of the U.S. government during World War II.

Previously, during World War I (1914–18), countless numbers of military personnel had died unnecessarily from diseases, such as typhus, carried by insects. Typhus causes fever, headache, chills, and general pains followed by a rash that covers almost the entire body. During the war, typhus was spread by head lice, tiny insects that survive by biting or sucking on humans or other warm-blooded animals. When the United States entered World War II in 1941, troops began fighting enemy forces on the many Japanese-controlled islands in the Pacific Ocean. The tropical climates of the Pacific Theatre, as the warfront was called, posed the risk of numerous other diseases for American troops. One of these was malaria, a dangerous and infectious disease common in the tropics and carried by mosquitoes. In some areas, as many as three-quarters of U.S. soldiers stationed in the Pacific were exhibiting symptoms of malarial fever. In 1942 an entire division had to be removed from combat when 10,000 of its 17,000 men became ill.

When U.S. military planes began spraying DDT from the air on territories they planned to seize from the Japanese, it proved to be an incredibly efficient way to reduce the mosquito population and drastically decrease the number of malaria cases. After the war's end, people began to use the chemical in civilian life, too. Thousands living in the tropics died from malaria every year, including Americans who lived in southern states. India posted annual malaria fatalities as high as 800,000 in some years. By the late 1950s, a major world public health campaign was underway, funded with U.S. aid and administered by the World Health Organization. Fatality rates from malaria had declined significantly by the time Carson read the Boston Herald letter.

The scientists who worked on the Global Malaria Eradication Programme realized that DDT did not kill off mosquitoes entirely. There were some mosquitoes with a genetic structure that allowed them to survive the spraying. Then, they quickly multiplied and repopulated the area. Thus, an entirely new mosquito population, resistant to DDT, began to emerge. The letter Carson had discovered in the Boston Herald was only the beginning of what seemed to be a minor ecological catastrophe in the making. (Ecology refers to the relationship between organisms and their environments.)

DDT had been used in the western United States in an attempt to kill off the gypsy moth and the spruce budworm. In Midwestern towns, it was used to exterminate bark beetle populations that spread the tree-destroying Dutch elm disease. In the American South, DDT was sprayed to eliminate bothersome fire ants. In all of these places, Carson discovered, other species had either died off or suffered from disruptions in the food chain. The food chain is basically food energy that passes from one organism to another as each consumes a lower member on the chain and in turn is eaten by a higher member. Many Americans, like the Boston Herald letter writer, had begun to notice that there were fewer of their favorite birds in their backyards when warmer weather arrived.

Threatened with legal action

Carson decided to make DDT and its dangers the subject of her next book, which she tentatively titled "Man Against the Earth." She had hoped to finish it within a year, but her careful research methods, and the increasingly worrisome findings she discovered, made it a four-year process. In addition, midway through, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery and then radiation treatments, which weakened her. Finally in June 1962, the New Yorker magazine began to publish a series of excerpts from Silent Spring, which is what the book was later called. Reaction to the book was swift. Chemical companies immediately issued statements declaring that Carson was making false claims. One company even threatened to sue the New Yorker, but the magazine's editor responded that his legal department had checked all the facts and found them to be on solid scientific footing.

DDT's effectiveness had prompted research into and the development of a new generation of chemical pesticides, such as dieldrin, parathion, heptachlor, and malathion. Some of the new chemicals were even more poisonous than DDT. Carson blamed the U.S. government and public health officials for failing to investigate any possible negative effects of these synthetic pesticides. She faulted the manufacturers for promoting the chemical's use as a safe and effective way for humans to control their environment. As her research had shown, DDT contained ingredients that failed to break down once it was sprayed. It became even more poisonous as it traveled through the food chain. Wildlife that ate insects exposed to DDT carried it in their systems. Bird populations decreased because female birds began laying eggs with shells that were too weak to protect the embryo.

Silent Spring was published by Houghton Mifflin on September 27, 1962, and quickly reached the New York Times best-seller list. Its title was borrowed from a poem by British Romantic poet John Keats (1795–1821), in which the poet imagined a spring when the birds failed to reappear. Carson's first chapter, "And No Birds Sing," sketches out just such a situation, in an unnamed town in the "heart of America" at a future date. "The few birds seen anywhere were moribund [dying]; they trembled violently and could not fly," she wrote. "It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of scores of bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh."

Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold was one of the early conservationists in American land management. A hunter, forester, and nature writer, Leopold believed that large portions of land should be legally set aside as protected wilderness areas in order to preserve their beauty for future generations. His most famous work is A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (1949), sometimes referred to as the bible of the environmental movement.

Born in 1887, Leopold grew up in Burlington, Iowa, on the banks of the Mississippi River. His father owned an office-furniture company and taught him how to hunt during his youth. At Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, Leopold earned a graduate degree in forestry, a new program at the school. In 1909 he joined the U.S. Forest Service. He was posted to what was then called Arizona Territory. (Arizona had yet to become a state.) He led crews that traveled on horseback to examine timber forests. In 1912 he married Estella Bergere, the daughter of wealthy New Mexico ranchers. The couple eventually had five children.

Leopold began to write about hunting, forestry, and ecology for various magazines. In his younger years, he believed that natural predators such as wolves, mountain lions, and grizzly bears should be targeted by hunters as a way to allow other animals to flourish for the sport. He later reconsidered this idea, arguing instead that the natural order should be preserved.

In 1924 Leopold and his family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, when he was transferred to a Forest Service office there. He retired four years later to pursue a career as a full-time writer and consultant on game and land use. In 1933 he was offered a professorship at the University of Wisconsin's campus in Madison. He was the first person in the United States to hold the title of professor of game management. In 1935 he became one of the founding members of the Wilderness Society.

Leopold's ideas about land preservation were somewhat extreme for the time. The modern age was still relatively new, and humankind's mastery over nature was viewed as a sign of progress. He made two trips to Mexico's Sierra Madre mountain range in the late 1930s, visiting remote places untouched by humans. This experience further influenced his beliefs. There, he saw firsthand how majestic a healthy ecosystem actually was, unlike all the other places he had seen in his life. In his writings and courses, he called for large tracts, or areas, of land to be left undisturbed. If allowed to flourish in a natural state over the generations, such tracts would serve as a laboratory of sorts for contemporary as well as future researchers and nature-lovers.

Leopold and his family practiced his ideas on a parcel of land he had acquired near Madison. They planted pines, hunted with bows and arrows they made themselves, and became keen observers of nature. Leopold carried a small notebook with him everywhere he went on the property and recorded details of plant and animal life as well as geological changes over the seasons. His observations were published in A Sand County Almanac.

Leopold died of a heart attack while trying to put out a fire at his neighbor's cottage. His Sand County Almanac, published a year later, was rediscovered by a new generation of environmentalists in the 1960s. It remains one of the most widely read texts in the land-conservation movement. Leopold believed that Earth is a biologically diverse community, and that humankind, the land, and its nonhuman inhabitants are all part of a system that depends on one another. This idea would become the guiding principle for pro-environment groups a half-century later.

Prompts government study

Carson's book explains that DDT had made its way into the diet of humans because of its presence in the food chain. It actually accumulates in fatty tissue, she wrote, and was even found in the native Aleut population of Alaska. This community lived hundreds of miles away from any area where DDT had been sprayed. Carson did not urge an outright ban on the use of synthetic pesticides, only more research into their potentially damaging effects on plants, animals, and humans.

Silent Spring scared and upset the public. Though some scientists questioned Carson's claims, she included a fifty-five-page list of sources at the close of the book. The major chemical companies, including Monsanto, Velsicol, and American Cyanamid, launched a public-relations attack on her and the book's credibility. But the move actually backfired, noted writer Peter Matthiessen in Time magazine many years later. "In their ugly campaign to reduce a brave scientist's protest to a matter of public relations," Matthiessen wrote, "the chemical interests [companies] had only increased public awareness."

The impact of Carson's book extended all the way to the White House. President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) created a Science Advisory Committee to investigate Silent Spring's warnings. Later, the committee's report found that Carson's claims were true. In April 1963 Carson appeared on television to answer her critics on the CBS News documentary "The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson." Some 15 million viewers tuned in. Her calm explanations of her book's arguments helped silence some of her harsher critics. "We still talk in terms of conquest," she said in the interview about humankind's view of Earth. "We still haven't become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man's attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself," she explained. By the end of that year, lawmakers in forty states were considering bills that would regulate the use of pesticides.

Carson's legacy

Carson did not survive to witness the far-ranging impact of her book. She died of cancer and heart disease on April 14, 1964. Eight years after Carson's death, the United States banned the use of DDT. The long and bitter battle to ban it ended only when wildlife experts found that the bald eagle, the country's cherished national symbol, had suddenly become an endangered species—an animal that is in danger of becoming extinct, often as a result of environmental changes caused by humans. Carson's book also provoked calls for the formation of a federal supervisory agency whose job it would be to prevent future ecological catastrophes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began its work in 1970. Its national, state, and local offices are staffed by scientists, researchers, and public-policy analysts whose mission is to protect human health by safeguarding America's natural environment.

Carson's Silent Spring remains one of the classic nonfiction works of the twentieth century. It fueled an interest in organic farming, or growing crops without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and also forced governments to penalize companies that released toxins from the manufacturing process into the air and water. Her warnings have been repeated in many of the arguments against interfering with the environment, including the debate on genetically modified crops at the turn of the twenty-first century. Genetically modified crops are those that result from human-made changes to the plants' gene structure, which affects their growth, development, and how they reproduce. "What Carson did in Silent Spring," noted Geoffrey Norman in an essay for Esquire, "was to introduce to the general imagination the concept of ecology: the way the natural world fit together, the pieces so tightly and inextricably [not able to be taken apart] bound that you could not isolate cause and effect. The consequences of any action rippled through the whole system, affecting everything and sometimes even changing the system itself. So when we poisoned gypsy moths with massive sprayings of DDT, we were, ultimately, poisoning ourselves."

For More Information


Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

Landau, Elaine. Rachel Carson and the Environmental Movement. New York: Children's Press, 2004.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949.

Yannuzzi, Della. Aldo Leopold: Protector of the Wild. Brookfield, CT: Milkbrook Press, 2002.


Gladwell, Malcolm. "The Mosquito Killer (Annals of Public Health)." New Yorker (July 2, 2001).

Jackson, Donald Dale. "A Sage for All Seasons." Smithsonian (September 1, 1998): p. 120.

Matthiessen, Peter. "Environmentalist: Rachel Carson." Time (March 29, 1999): p. 187.

McDowell, Edwin. "Silent Spring, 20 Years a Milestone." New York Times (September 27, 1982).

Norman, Geoffrey. "The Flight of Rachel Carson." Esquire (December 1983): pp. 472-479.

Watson, Bruce. "Sounding the Alarm." Smithsonian (September 2002): p. 115.


"Rachel Carson: Biologist, Writer, Ecologist (1907–1964)." (accessed on June 23, 2006).


"The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson." CBS Reports, CBS, April 3, 1963.

Carson, Rachel (1907-1964)

views updated May 29 2018

Carson, Rachel (1907-1964)

American marine biologist

Rachel Carson is best known for her 1962 book, Silent Spring, which is often credited with beginning the modern environmental movement in the United States. The book focused on the uncontrolled and often indiscriminate use of pesticides, especially dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (commonly known as DDT), and the irreparable environmental damage caused by these chemicals. The public outcry Carson generated by the book motivated the United States Senate to form a committee to investigate pesticide use. Her eloquent testimony before the committee altered the views of many government officials and helped lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Rachel Louise Carson, the youngest of three children, was born in Springdale, Pennsylvania, a small town twenty miles north of Pittsburgh. Her parents, Robert Warden and Maria McLean Carson, lived on 65 acres and kept cows, chickens, and horses. Although the land was not a true working farm, it had plenty of woods, animals, and streams, and here, near the shores of the Allegheny River, Carson learned about the relationship between the land and animals.

Carson's mother instilled in Rachel a love of nature, and taught her the intricacies of music, art, and literature. Carson's early life was one of isolation; she had few friends besides her cats, and she spent most of her time reading and pursuing the study of nature. She began writing poetry at age eight and published her first story, "A Battle in the Clouds," in St. Nicholas magazine at the age of 10. She later claimed that her professional writing career began at age 11, when St. Nicholas paid her a little over three dollars for one of her essays.

Carson planned to pursue a career as a writer when she received a scholarship in 1925 from the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College) in Pittsburgh. At the college she fell under the influence of Mary Scott Skinker, whose freshman biology course altered her career plans. In the middle of her junior year, Carson switched her major from English to zoology, and in 1928, she graduated magnum cum laude. "Biology has given me something to write about," she wrote to a friend, as quoted in Carnegie magazine. "I will try in my writing to make animals in the woods or waters, where they live, as alive to others as they are to me."

With Skinker's help, Carson obtained first a summer fellowship at the Marine Biology Laboratory at Woods Hole in Massachusetts and then a one-year scholarship from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. While at Woods Hole over the summer, she saw the ocean for the first time and encountered her first exotic sea creatures, including sea anemones and sea urchins. At Johns Hopkins, she studied zoology and genetics. Graduate school did not proceed smoothly; she encountered financial problems and experimental difficulties but eventually managed to finish her highly detailed master's dissertation, "The Development of the Pronephoros during the Embryonic and Early Larval Life of the Catfish (Inctalurus punctaltus )." In June 1932, she received her master's degree.

Before beginning her graduate studies at Johns Hopkins, Carson had arranged an interview with Elmer Higgins, who was head of the Division of Scientific Inquiry at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Carson wanted to discuss her job prospects in marine biology, and Higgins had been encouraging, though he then had little to offer. Carson contacted Higgins again at this time, and she discovered that he had an opening at the Bureau of Fisheries for a part-time science writer to work on radio scripts. The only obstacle was the civil service exam, which women were then discouraged from taking. Carson not only did well on the test, she outscored all other applicants. She went on to become only the second woman ever hired by the bureau for a permanent professional post.

At the Bureau of Fisheries, Carson wrote and edited a variety of government publicationseverything from pamphlets on how to cook fish to professional scientific journals. She earned a reputation as a ruthless editor who would not tolerate inconsistencies, weak prose, or ambiguity. One of her early radio scripts was rejected by Higgins because he found it too "literary." He suggested that she submit the script in essay form to the Atlantic Monthly, then one of the nation's premier literary magazines. To Carson's amazement, the article was accepted and published as "Undersea" in 1937. Her jubilation over the article was tempered by personal family tragedy. Her older sister, Marian, died at age forty that same year, and Carson had to assume responsibility for Marian's children, Marjorie and Virginia Williams.

The Atlantic Monthly article attracted the notice of an editor at the publishing house of Simon & Schuster, who urged Carson to expand the four-page essay into book form. Working diligently in the evenings, she was able to complete the book in a few years; it was published as Under the Sea-Wind. Unfortunately, the book appeared in print in 1941, just one month before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Despite favorable, even laudatory reviews, it sold fewer than 1,600 copies after six years in print. It did, however, bring Carson to the attention of a number of key people, including the influential science writer William Beebe. Beebe published an excerpt from Under the Sea-Wind in his 1944 compilation The Book of Naturalists, including Carson's work alongside the writings of Aristotle, Audubon, and Thoreau.

The poor sales of Under the Sea-Wind compelled Carson to concentrate on her government job. The Bureau of Fisheries merged with the Biological Survey in 1940, and was reborn as the Fish and Wildlife Service. Carson quickly moved up the professional ranks, eventually reaching the position of biologist and chief editor after World War II. One of her postwar assignments, a booklet about National Wildlife Refuges called Conservation in Action, took her back into the field. As part of her research, she visited the Florida Everglades, Parker River in Massachusetts, and Chincoteague Island in the Chesapeake Bay.

After the war, Carson began work on a new book that focused on oceanography . She was now at liberty to use previously classified government research data on oceanography, which included a number of technical and scientific breakthroughs. As part of her research, she did some undersea diving off the Florida coast during the summer of 1949. She battled skeptical administrators to arrange a deep-sea cruise to Georges Bank near Nova Scotia aboard the Fish and Wildlife Service's research vessel, the Albatross III.

Entitled The Sea around Us, her book on oceanography was published on July 2, 1951. It was an unexpected success, and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 86 weeks. The book brought Carson numerous awards, including the National Book Award and the John Burroughs Medal, as well as honorary doctorates from her alma mater and Oberlin College. Despite her inherent shyness, Carson became a regular on the lecture circuit. With financial security no longer the overriding concern it had been, she retired from government service and devoted her time to writing.

Carson began work on another book, focusing this time on the intricacies of life along the shoreline. She took excursions to the mangrove coasts of Florida and returned to one of her favorite locations, the rocky shores of Maine. She fell in love with the Maine coast and in 1953 bought a summer home in West Southport on the shore of Sheepscot Bay. The Edge of the Sea was published in 1955 and earned Carson two more prestigious awards, the Achievement Award of the American Association of University Women and a citation from the National Council of Women of the United States. The book remained on the bestseller list for 20 weeks, and RKO Studios bought the rights to it. In Hollywood, the studio sensationalized the material and ignored scientific fact. Carson corrected some of the more egregious errors but still found the film embarrassing, even after it won an Oscar as the best full-length documentary of 1953.

From 1955 to 1957, Carson concentrated on smaller projects, including a telescript, "Something about the Sky," for the Omnibus series. She also contributed a number of articles to popular magazines. In July 1956, Carson published "Help Your Child to Wonder" in the Woman's Home Companion. The article was based on her own real-life experiences, something rare for Carson. She intended to expand the article into a book and retell the story of her early life on her parent's Pennsylvania farm. After her death, the essay reappeared in 1965 as the book The Sense of Wonder.

In 1956, one of the nieces Carson had raised died at age 36. Marjorie left her son Roger; Carson now cared for him in addition to her mother. She legally adopted Roger that same year and began looking for a suitable place to rear the child. She built a new winter home in Silver Spring, Maryland, on an uncultivated tract of land, and she began another project shortly after the home was finished. The luxuriant setting inspired her to turn her thoughts to nature once again. Carson's next book grew out of a long-held concern about the overuse of pesticides. She had received a letter from Olga Owens Huckins, who related how the aerial spraying of DDT had destroyed her Massachusetts bird sanctuary. Huckins asked her to petition federal authorities to investigate the widespread use of such pesticides, but Carson thought the most effective tactic would be to write an article for a popular magazine. When her initial queries were rejected, Carson attempted to interest the well-known essayist E. B. White in the subject. White suggested she write the article herself, in her own style, and he told her to contact William Shawn, an editor at the New Yorker. Eventually, after numerous discussions with Shawn and others, she decided to write a book instead.

The international reputation Carson now enjoyed enabled her to enlist the aid of an array of experts. She consulted with biologists, chemists, entomologists, and pathologists, spending four years gathering data for her book. When Silent Spring first appeared in serial form in the New Yorker in June 1962, it drew an aggressive response from the chemical industry. Carson argued that the environmental consequences of pesticide use underscored the futility of humanity's attempts to control nature, and she maintained that these efforts to assume control had upset nature's delicate balance. Although the message is now largely accepted, the book caused controversy in some circles, challenging the long-held belief that humans could master nature. The chemical companies, in particular, attacked both the book and its author; they questioned the data, the interpretation of the data, and the author's scientific credentials. One early reviewer referred to Carson as a "hysterical woman," and others continued this sexist line of attack. Some chemical companies attempted to pressure Houghton Mifflin, the book's publisher, into suppressing the book, but these attempts failed.

The general reviews were much kinder and Silent Spring soon attracted a large, concerned audience, both in America and abroad. A special CBS television broadcast, "The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson," which aired on April 3, 1963, pitted Carson against a chemical company spokesman. Her cool-headed, commonsense approach won her many followers and brought national attention to the problem of pesticide use. The book became a cultural icon and part of everyday household conversation. Carson received hundreds of invitations to speak, most of which she declined due to her deteriorating health. She did find the strength to appear before the Women's National Press Club, the National Parks Association, and the Ribicoff Committeethe U.S. Senate committee on environmental hazards.

In 1963, Carson received numerous honors and awards, including an award from the Izaak Walton League of America, the Audubon Medal, and the Cullen Medal of the American Geographical Society. That same year, she was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Carson died of heart failure at the age of 56. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter posthumously awarded her the President's Medal of Freedom. A Rachel Carson stamp was issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 1981.

See also Environmental pollution

Carson, Rachel

views updated Jun 08 2018

Rachel Carson

Born May 27, 1907
Springdale, Pennsylvania

Died April 14, 1964
Silver Spring, Maryland

Naturalist, marine biologist, writer,
environmental activist

Rachel Carson was as much a political activist as a biologist, naturalist, and writer. She spent her lifetime appreciating, exploring, and writing about nature and emphasizing the importance of the natural world in everyday life. In 1962, Carson's book Silent Spring was published. In the work, she reported on the manner in which the poisons found in pesticides—chemical mixtures used to wipe out insects that thrive on plants and animals—were destroying Earth and its atmosphere. The publicity her book generated helped give birth to the modern-day environmental movement.

"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 most to me as a naturalist was being threatened, and that nothing I could do would be more important."

—Rachel Carson.

An early love of nature

Rachel Louise Carson was born on May 27, 1907 in Springdale, a rural community located along the Allegheny River in southwestern Pennsylvania. She grew up in a five-room farmhouse, where she was surrounded by nature. Spurred on by her mother, Maria McLean Carson, young Rachel developed an appreciation for the natural world. In particular, she became fascinated by life as it existed in and around waterways. She also displayed a gift for writing. In fourth grade, she published her first work, a story titled "A Battle in the Clouds," in St. Nicholas, a children's magazine.

Carson wished to pursue a writing career. She started out as an English major at the Pennsylvania College for Women (later known as Chatham College), which she attended during the late 1920s. Upon taking a biology course taught by an inspiring professor, May Scott Skinker, Carson changed her major to zoology during her junior year. She graduated with academic honors in 1929 and won a full scholarship to perform graduate work at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Three years later, Carson earned a master's degree in marine zoology, a life sciences discipline that focuses on sea organisms. During this period, she continued her education by spending summers at the Marine Biological Laboratories in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. She also taught zoology at the University of Maryland and summer-school classes at Johns Hopkins.

Early career

For most of her early professional life, Carson worked for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. (In 1940 the bureau was combined with the Biological Survey unit and renamed the Fish and Wildlife Service.) Carson first worked on a part-time basis, writing scripts for bureau-sponsored radio programs in 1935. The following year, she accepted a full-time position with the bureau as a biologist-researcher and writer-editor. The information-oriented government pamphlets that she wrote included such titles as Food from the Sea: Fish and Shellfish of New England (1943), Food from Home Waters: Fishes of the Middle West (1943), and Fish and Shellfish of the Middle Atlantic Coast (1945).

Carson also wrote articles about natural history for the Baltimore Sun. In 1937 she penned a well-received piece titled "Undersea," published in the Atlantic Monthly. In 1949 she was appointed editor in chief of all Fish and Wildlife Service publications.

Books on the environment

Carson's books express her intense interest in nature, particularly the sea, and in environmental protection. Her first three books explore the manner in which living things are interconnected. The first, Under the Sea-Wind, published in 1941, was an expansion of Carson's Atlantic Monthly article, and "Chesapeake Eels Seek the Sargasso Sea," one of her Baltimore Sun pieces. Under the Sea-Wind offered a view of life as it exists near waterways and underwater, spotlighting the fierce battle for survival among the creatures living in these environments. Although Carson's later books earned her greater fame, Under the Sea-Wind remained her personal favorite.

The Sea Around Us was published in 1951 after being serialized as "A Profile of the Sea" in New Yorker magazine. In the book, Carson examined how the oceans, Earth, and Moon came into existence. Unlike Under the Sea-Wind, which sold poorly, The Sea Around Us became a runaway success. It sold more than 200,000 copies and became a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection. It earned Carson the National Book Award for nonfiction and brought her international fame. The work was adapted as a documentary film, which won an Academy Award in 1952.

The financial success of The Sea Around Us gave Carson the means to quit her job with the Fish and Wildlife Service. While maintaining a residence in the Washington, D.C. area, she then began spending her summers in a cottage by Sheepscot Bay along the Maine shoreline. From her summer cottage, Carson completed much of the research for her follow-up book, 1955's The Edge of the Sea. In the work, she discussed the various forms of life that are found in and by the sea. It also became a bestseller.

Carson's niece Marjorie, with whom she was very close, died in 1957. Carson adopted Marjorie's son Roger. Their relationship—as well as her affection for all young people—served as inspiration for her book, The Sense of Wonder (published after her death in 1965). Here, Carson stressed the need for parents to encourage their children's natural curiosity about the world and their environment. The ideas put forth in The Sense of Wonder first appeared in a 1956 Woman's Home Companion magazine piece titled "Help Your Child to Wonder."

As Carson took on the role of parent, her devotion to her environmental work remained constant. Carson wrote about nature, about the importance of humankind living in harmony with nature, and about the wonder of childhood. She also recognized that America's natural resources were being dangerously mistreated by big business. In 1957 Holiday magazine published her article, "Our Ever-Changing Shore." In the piece, she petitioned for the preservation of America's shorelines that were quickly disappearing due to erosion and industrial development.

The culmination of a life's work: Silent Spring

Back in 1945 Carson had first become concerned about federal plans to use certain insecticides in pest-control programs. She was worried that the government had not considered the potentially negative, long-term impact of such chemicals on the environment. Her concern increased during the 1950s, when many American companies used these pesticides. This awareness led to the book that was her crowning achievement, Silent Spring, published in 1962.

Silent Spring and Not-So-Silent Protest

Before Silent Spring, the everyday use of pesticides and other chemicals seemed harmless, and their destructive impact on the environment was not considered.

For example, in 1939, Paul Muller, a researcher at Geigy Pharmaceutical in Switzerland, determined that dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) could be effectively used as an insecticide. DDT was a colorless, odorless chemical that was inexpensive to produce. In 1948, he even won the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology for this finding. After World War II (1939–45), DDT usage increased across the globe. However, it also was discovered that the chemical had a toxic effect on the environment. It destroyed the reproductive cycles of birds and fish, and polluted waterways. Also, because of its chemical makeup, the presence of DDT was not immediately apparent. It slowly built up, often taking up to fifteen years to be detected.

In 1962, the year in which Silent Spring was published, efforts to ban DDT began. By 1973, the United States had outlawed DDT's use as a pesticide, but it remained in use in other parts of the world.

In Silent Spring, Carson presents evidence to show how overuse of pesticides threatens to destroy Earth and its atmosphere. She alerted the public to the dire environmental consequences if the usage remained unchecked. She cautioned that the poisons found in pesticides were killing off animals, birds, and fish and even might affect food consumed by human beings. She emphasized that all human beings are responsible for keeping Earth and its atmosphere free from contamination.

Attacks and acclaim

Silent Spring triggered much controversy. The leaders of the chemical and farming industries, whose profits depended on the production and use of pesticides, attacked Carson. She was labeled an alarmist. Her credentials were questioned. Her findings were disputed. She was threatened with lawsuits. Some critics went so far as to question Carson's sanity.

However, Carson had supporters too. For example, her findings were upheld in a report issued by the Science Advisory Committee, which had just been appointed by PresidentJohn F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63; see entry). Immediately Silent Spring became a bestseller and further added to Carson's international fame. In 1963, she testified before the U.S. Congress about the importance of passing legislation to protect the environment. In a letter to the editor published that year in the Washington Post, she declared that "the way is being cleared for a raid upon our natural resources that is without parallel within the present century."

After the publication of Silent Spring, Carson was showered with honors, including induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. At the same time, she was suffering from breast cancer. She learned that she had cancer while researching the book. After waging a long battle with the disease, she died in 1964.

Rachel Carson's legacy is long-standing and far-reaching. The publication of Silent Spring marked the beginning of the environmental movement. It sparked awareness among the general public of the potential dangers of environmental pollution. The work spoke out about humankind's responsibilities toward nature. In March 1999, Carson appeared on the cover of Time with Jonas Salk (1914–1995) and Albert Einstein (1879–1955). Each was cited as being among the most significant scientist-theorists of the twentieth century.

For More Information


Archer, Jules. To Save the Earth: The American Environmental Movement. New York: Viking Press, 1998.

Carson, Rachel L. The Edge of the Sea. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1955.

Carson, Rachel L. The Sea Around Us. New York: Oxford University Press, 1951.

Carson, Rachel L. The Sense of Wonder. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.

Carson, Rachel L. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962.

Carson, Rachel L. Under the Sea-Wind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1941.

Lear, Linda, ed. Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.

Lear, Linda. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Web Sites

Rachel Carson Council, Inc. (accessed August 2004). (accessed August 2004).

"TIME 100: Rachel Carson" (accessed August 2004).

Carson, Rachel (1907-1964)

views updated May 29 2018

CARSON, RACHEL (1907–1964)

Nature writer and marine biologist Rachel Carson set off a storm of controversy in 1962 with the publication of her book Silent Spring. In her exposé on the dangerous consequences of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, Carson questioned the benefits of the synthetic chemical DDT, condemned scientific conceit, chastised the chemical industry for pursuing dollars at the expense of nature, and chided agriculturists and government officials for polluting croplands and roadsides. Calling such behavior irresponsible, Carson suggested that if people were not careful, they would eventually destroy the natural world so completely that one day they would awaken in springtime to find no birds chirping, no chicks hatching, and a strange shadow of death everywhere.

Agriculturists and chemical officials scorned Carson's jeremiad and argued that she misrepresented the evidence, while conservationists such as Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas praised her for writing what he called "the most important chronicle of this century for the human race." From the Supreme Court to Ladies' Home Gardening Clubs, Americans discussed Carson's polemic, and in 1963, President John F. Kennedy entered the fray by commissioning a study on pesticides. In sum, Silent Spring contributed to a broader discussion of the environment and served as one significant catalyst for the emergence of the modern environmental movement.

Carson joined a growing number of voices that expressed concern about wilderness preservation, clean air and water, and nuclear energy. And, in concert with others, her writings and action—lobbying Congress, giving speeches, writing letters-to-the-editor, and working with conservationist organizations—spawned a host of environmental regulations that helped shape the contours of government policy, industrial action, scientific development, and individual lifestyles. In 1969, Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency. In 1970, the first Earth Day was held. Thus, Carson's work helped revolutionize the ways that many thought about the environment. President Jimmy Carter honored Carson posthumously in 1980 with the Medal of Freedom, saying, "Always concerned, always eloquent, she created a tide of environmental consciousness that has not ebbed."

Pesticide use was not Carson's chosen topic. She preferred to author works that simply fostered a deeper appreciation of nature. A shy and soft-spoken woman, Carson wrote with an Albert Schweitzer-like reverence for life. All was sacred to her. Her style was lyrical, vivid, and romantic, falling mostly within the nature-writing tradition. She gave her creatures anthropomorphic characteristics, set them in dramatic situations, hoping, she said, "to make animals in the woods or waters, where they live, as alive to others as they are to me."

Born in 1907 to Robert and Maria Carson, Rachel developed her admiration for nature in the woods and wetlands of her home in the Allegheny hills of western Pennsylvania. Her mother nurtured this interest with nature-study books. Simultaneously, Rachel cultivated her desire to write, publishing her first piece at eleven in the children's magazine St. Nicholas.

One of the greatest influences in Carson's life, next to her mother who was her lifelong companion, was her biology teacher at Pennsylvania College for Women. After a required course from Mary Scott Skinker, Carson switched her major from English to biology and, following her mentor's footsteps, pursued her studies with a master's in marine zoology from Johns Hopkins University. After a short stint of teaching at the University of Maryland, Carson landed a job in 1935 with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (later the Fish and Wildlife Department). In this position, Carson pushed for the protection of natural resources in twelve pamphlets she wrote for the Department's "Conservation in Action" series. To supplement her income, Carson wrote nature articles for popular magazines and completed the first two books of her sea trilogy.

The publication of her second book in 1951 brought Carson much acclaim and changed her life significantly. The Sea Around Us garnered positive reviews and was on the New York Times best-seller list for eighty-six weeks. Among other honors, it won the National Book Award and the John Burroughs Medal for excellence in nature writing. In 1951, Carson gained an esteemed Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1952 she resigned from her government position. Book royalties from The Sea Around Us made it possible for her to live by writing. In 1955, she released her third book on the sea, again to widespread praise and more prizes.

While Carson's favorite topic was the sea and coastal shores, she saw the "contamination of man's total environment" as "the central problem of [her] age." Watching her own Allegheny Hills change in the wake of burgeoning industrial activity fed this concern. The atomic bomb and the dumping of nuclear wastes on the ocean's floor increased her anxiety. But it was the spread of synthetic pesticides that disturbed her the most. Although troubled by research on DDT in the 1940s, Carson did not get embroiled in the issue until 1957 when she followed a trial in Long Island, New York between local citizens and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At issue was the spraying of pesticides over private land. Disturbed by plaintiff complaints of poisoned bird sanctuaries and gardens, Carson spent the next four years researching and writing about the impact of synthetic chemicals on the ecosystem.

Carson's work on pesticides and her writings on the sea are two parts of the same message. In all, she wanted to communicate the wonder she felt for the natural world, a world she saw as harmonious, balanced, and beautiful. And, in each, she challenged her fellows to reverence nature and act responsibly to preserve and protect natural habitats. Disputing the notion that humans live separate from and in dominion over the rest of nature, Carson placed people within a "vast web of life" connected to all parts of the ecosystem. Humans were but one small piece. They ought, she emphasized, to respect that place and not squander the world's resources. In the interests of energy use, the message was clear. Harvesting and employing the earth's natural resources was no longer a matter of human need only. Energy officials and policy-makers must consider the requirements of other constituents in the ecosystem, and must heed possible long-term environmental consequences.

Carson succeeded in conveying this view, in part, because she was not the only one fighting for environmental protection. For close to a century, since at least the writings of George Perkins Marsh, the conservationist movement had been building. In the 1940s, conservationists Aldo Leopold and Paul Sears espoused a similar ecological ethic and, for much of the 1950s, David Brower, head of the Sierra Club, fought for public attention in the hopes of saving natural wilderness areas. In 1956, Brower and others successfully resisted the damming of Echo Park in Colorado, a moment now marked as a turning point in environmental protection, and one that had immediate consequences for developers interested in harnessing the energy of water. In the same year that Carson released Silent Spring, Murray Bookchin offered a parallel warning in his book Our Synthetic Environment. It is in this context that the success of Carson's work makes sense. Her writings complemented other actions. Still, it was Carson's lay appeal—her refusal to use technical and scientific jargon—that popularized this ecological vision and catapulted concerns about nature into the mainstream of American life, making the environment a crucial part of the agenda in any future technological decisions.

The modern environmentalist's interdependent understanding of the world that tied humans to nature has had multiple implications for technology and energy issues, both nationally and globally. Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, technological decisions and government, business, and individual energy needs could not easily be divorced from social or ecological concerns. By the 1970s the common assumption was that human actions almost always changed the environment, often in irretrievable ways. Questions of costs and benefits and issues of short term and long-term effects dominated policymaking. This became most apparent in 1973 when the energy crisis intersected with the environmental movement. With the OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) embargo, costs of oil soared, forcing the nation to focus on the depletion of natural resources and America's high energy-dependent lifestyles. Energy issues became inextricably tied to environmental and economic factors.

Rachel Carson played a crucial role in the ways Americans interpreted these events. Though a quiet person, more a recluse than an activist, her naturalist concerns won out. Propelled away from her refuge by her beloved sea to write a book on pesticides, Carson's activism grew and she spent her last days in the halls of Congress lobbying for environmental legislation. Her fight was short-lived, however. Carson died of breast cancer in 1964, two years after the publication of Silent Spring.

Linda Sargent Wood


Bookchin, M. (1962). Our Synthetic Environment. New York: Knopf.

Carson, R. (1941). Under the Sea-Wind: A Naturalist's Picture of Ocean Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Carson, R. (1951). The Sea Around Us. New York: Oxford University Press.

Carson, R. (1955). The Edge of the Sea. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Carson, R. (1962). Silent Spring. Boston: Fawcett Crest.

Lear, L. (1997). Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Lear, L., ed. (1998). Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lutts, R. H. (1985). "Chemical Fallout: Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Radioactive Fallout and the Environmental Movement." Environmental History Review 9:210–225.

Melosi, M. V. (1985). Coping with Abundance: Energy and Environment in Industrial America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Worster, D. (1977). Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Carson, Rachel Louise

views updated May 18 2018

CARSON, Rachel Louise

(b. 27 May 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania; d. 14 April 1964 in Silver Spring, Maryland), scientist and writer whose book Silent Spring (1962) activated public concern over the use of pesticides and inspired a new environmental consciousness in the 1960s.

Carson was the youngest of three children born to Robert Carson and Maria McLean. Her father purchased their home, a farm, with plans to subdivide and sell, but made few sales over the years. Instead he worked as a traveling salesman, electrician, and a utility-company employee, among other jobs, and the family often struggled for enough money to survive. Her mother was a thirty-eight-year-old homemaker with two children already in school when Carson was born. McLean had a keen interest in nature and a love of reading that she shared with her youngest daughter. She and Carson were inseparable, spending endless hours wandering the outdoors. On one of these walks, Carson discovered a fossilized fish in the cliffs near her home, sparking a special interest in scientific discovery.

From her youngest years, Carson pursued writing. Her first story was published in the September 1918 issue of St. Nicholas, a popular children's literary magazine. A shy, slim, introverted girl, Carson was an excellent student and was accepted on partial scholarship to Pittsburgh's Pennsylvania College for Women (later Chatham College). Carson began college as an English major, but under the influence of Mary Scott Skinker, who taught her in a biology class and became her mentor and friend, she switched to science in her third year. After graduating on 10 June 1929 Carson left for a summer internship at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Enamored with the sea, she continued her studies at Woods Hole during the summers and completed her master's degree in zoology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Throughout her life, Carson experienced demanding familial obligations. As a college student, she cared for nieces and nephews in her crowded family home during the summer. Family responsibilities prevented her from pursuing a doctorate, and as she began to make a living, she provided a home for her parents and at times her siblings and their offspring.

Carson taught zoology at the University of Maryland for a few years, before beginning a fifteen-year career as a scientist and editor for the U.S. government in 1936. She became the first female biologist ever hired by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Her final government position was as editor-in-chief at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

While earning her living as a government employee, Carson began submitting nature articles for publication. In time, she completed two books about the sea: Under the Sea-Wind (1941) and The Sea Around Us (1952). Writings from her second book had been rejected by fifteen magazines, but once it was published, the work became hugely popular and stayed on the best-seller lists for eighty-six weeks. Not only did the book earn Carson national prominence as a naturalist and writer, it also allowed her to leave her job, devote all her time to writing, and buy a summer home in Maine. Carson, whose writing was praised for its clarity and elegance of style, completed her trilogy of sea books with The Edge of the Sea in 1955.

Carson tended to her sister, niece, and mother during their failing health and subsequent deaths, and adopted her grandnephew Roger when her niece died. Thus at age forty-eight, she became mother to a five-year-old boy. In 1957 local and state governments sprayed a combination of fuel oil and the insecticide DDT over portions of the northeastern United States. Carson had friends in Massachusetts and Long Island who witnessed the wildlife damage that resulted, and she was persuaded to write an article in protest. She had considered writing on the subject as early as 1945, even suggesting such an article to Reader's Digest, whose editors failed to show interest. But by 1958 Carson felt compelled to change directions in her writing, and to begin researching the effects of pesticides on wildlife as the subject of her next book. "The more I learned about the use of pesticides, the more appalled I became," she later said. "I realized that here was the material for a book. What I discovered was that everything which meant most to me as a naturalist was being threatened, and that nothing I could do would be more important."

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Americans generally embraced pesticides and chemicals as boons to human civilization, believing them responsible for increased agricultural production and for easing the nuisance and destruction from uncontrolled insects. And in light of the cold war and the rush to win the "space race" against the Soviets, technological advancements by the United States were seen as patriotic. For these reasons, the publication of Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 was highly controversial. Knowing criticism was inevitable, Carson was meticulous in her research, calling upon her extensive contacts in government, academia, and conservation groups for accurate data, and devoting a fifty-five-page appendix to her principal sources.

Portions of Silent Spring first appeared in the New Yorker in June 1962. Carson used the title to bring up images of a world absent of birds as a result of chemical poisoning. Even before the book was published, chemical companies threatened lawsuits and began attacking Carson rather than her facts. When the book was released on 27 September 1962, the National Agricultural Chemicals Association spent over $250,000 on a public-relations campaign to discredit Carson. They painted her as an alarmist and a hysterical female. A letter from former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in which he expressed the opinion that Carson might be a Communist, and questioned why "a spinster with no children" would be so concerned about genetics, was widely quoted.

But Silent Spring was a runaway best-seller, and sales were probably helped by the criticism it attracted. The book spoke of the connection between cancer and pesticides, raising issues of public health. President John F. Kennedy's interior secretary Stewart Udall took an early interest in the book, and used it to advocate pesticide regulation within the government. A shift in the public attitude toward the environment was meanwhile taking place. As Carson stated in a speech to the National Parks Association, the public no longer "assumed that someone was looking after things—that the spraying must be all right or it wouldn't be done."

Two days before Carson appeared on the Columbia Broadcasting System's CBS Reports in April 1963, three of the five largest commercial sponsors withdrew their advertising. Nevertheless, the network broadcast the show and Carson came across as dignified, calm, polite, and concerned, thus easily vindicating herself from personal attacks. On 15 May 1963 President Kennedy's Science Advisory Committee released the report "The Uses of Pesticides," which formalized support for Carson's findings. During her June 1963 testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee, chaired by Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, Carson provided ideas for reform, and called for the formation of an independent board or commission within the executive branch of government.Vice President Al Gore later credited Carson with inspiring the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as leading himself and millions of others to an environmental consciousness.

At the time of her death, only Carson's closest friends were aware of the tremendous pain and physical strain she had faced in her last few years. Carson had been battling cancer throughout the writing of Silent Spring. She never publicly suggested a link between her cancer and an agricultural-research facility near her home, but privately she suspected it. Carson died from a coronary heart attack. She had requested cremation, and that her ashes be scattered off the coast of Maine near her home, but against her wishes, her brother Robert held a large funeral for her at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Later, her friends observed her original request.

Considered one of the most influential books of the twentieth century, Silent Spring had far-reaching effects. At a time when the American public began questioning the government's decision to fight the Vietnam War, they also began rethinking the human relationship to nature. Because of Carson, words such as "ecology" and "environment" entered the public vocabulary. No one could have predicted the impact that one woman, described by naturalist Louis Halle as "quiet, diffident, neat, proper and without affectation," could have on society. Carson herself did not live long enough to observe the impact of her book. After she completed writing Silent Spring she 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."

Carson's personal papers are at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Two significant biographies are Paul Brooks, The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work (1972), and Linda Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (1997). Martha Freeman, ed., Always, Rachel (1995), offers an intimate view of Carson through the letters she exchanged with her friend Dorothy Freeman. Peter Matthiessen wrote a good brief biography for Time magazine's "100 People of the Century" issue (29 Mar. 1999), and Stewart Udall, one of the first politicians to become interested in Carson's work, discussed her in "How the Wilderness Was Won," American Heritage (Feb.–Mar. 2000). The Web site is also a good source for information.

Janet Ingram

Carson, Rachel

views updated May 23 2018

Carson, Rachel

American Author, Biologist, and Environmentalist

Rachel Carson made a career of her lifelong fascination with wildlife and the environment around her and became one of the pioneers of the environmental movement in the United States. Her mother taught her to enjoy the outdoors. On graduation from Parnassas High School in Pennsylvania, Carson enrolled in the Pennsylvania College for Women in Pittsburgh, planning to study English and become a writer. A course in biology rekindled her interest in science and led her to change to a science major.

Carson went on to do postgraduate work at Johns Hopkins University, obtaining a master's degree in 1932. She joined the zoology staff at the University of Maryland in 1931. Carson developed a particular interest in the life of the sea, which led her into further postgraduate research at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts. In 1936, she accepted a position as an aquatic biologist at the Bureau of Fisheries in Washington, D.C. She went on to be editor in chief at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the successor to the Bureau of Fisheries. Here she prepared leaflets and informational brochures on conservation and the protection of natural resources.

Early Works

Rachel Carson's first book, Under the Sea Wind, appeared in 1941 with the subtitle "a naturalist's picture of ocean life." The book, which grew from Carson's fascination with the seashore and the ocean as a result of vacations on the Atlantic coast, was well received. The narrative told the story of the seashore, the open sea, and the sea bottom.

Carson's important second book, The Sea Around Us, was published in 1951. Even more than her previous book, it was acclaimed for its approachable writing style. The Sea Around Us provides a layperson's geological guide through time and tide. In this book, Carson explores the mystery and treasures of the hidden world of the oceans, revealing its history and environment to the nonscientists. Carson maps the evolution of planet Earththe formation of mountains, islands, and oceansthen moves into a more detailed description of the sea, starting with the sea surface and the creatures that live near the surface, descending through the depths to the sea bottom.

The Sea Around Us went to the top of the nonfiction best-seller list in the United States, won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction, was selected for the Book of the Month Club, and was condensed for Reader's Digest. It went into nine printings and was translated into thirty-three languages.

Such was the success of The Sea Around Us that it enabled Carson to accept a Guggenheim Fellowship and take a leave of absence from her job to start work on a third book, The Edge of the Sea, published in 1955. Written as a popular guide to the seashore, this book is a study of the ecological relationship between the Atlantic seashore and the animals that inhabit the coastline. While complementing her previous two books, this work evidences the growth of Carson's interest in the interrelationship of Earth's systems.

Silent Spring

Rachel Carson's lasting reputation as a force in the environmental movement was made with her fourth and final book, Silent Spring, published in 1962. The title of the book was inspired by a phrase from a John Keats poem"And no birds sing." Pesticides being sprayed indiscriminately were killing songbirds and thus bringing about the absence of birdsong: a silent spring.

In this book, Carson moves away from her focus on the sea and the land-sea interface to describe the interrelationship between communities and modern agricultural and industrial techniques. The book chronicles the disastrous results evident from the widespread use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and chemical treatments designed to increase agricultural production or simplify the production process.

As an example, Carson describes streams that became chemical soups, laden with the outpourings of chemical treatment plants. She describes runoff from fields treated with pesticides and chemical fertilizers, killing algae , plant life, fish, and animals. With this book, Carson educated the general public about the hazards of environmental contamination and made the case for careful consideration of both short-and long-term impacts of human-generated chemical contamination of our waterways.

The arguments contained in Silent Spring were not new. These concerns had been discussed in scientific journals, but Carson's approachable style brought the discussion of environmental management before a much wider general audience. On publication, Silent Spring attracted a great deal of adverse criticism, generated mostly by the chemical industry. More balanced reactions were found in the scientific press.

In 1963, the President's Science Advisory Committee concurred with Carson's assessment of the damage wrought by the widespread use of chemicals and the spiral of contamination that resulted from the development of ever more toxic treatments as insects developed resistance to pesticides. Her writing alerted the country to the dangers of chemical pollution to waters and helped transform water resources management.

see also Environmental Movement, Role of Water in the.

Pat Dasch


Bonta, Marcia Myers. Women in the Field: America's Pioneering Women Naturalists. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1991.

Brooks, Paul. The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

Carson, Rachel. The Edge of the Sea. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1955.

. The Sea Around Us. New York: Oxford University Press, 1951.

. Silent Spring. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

. Under the Sea Wind. New York: Viking Penguin, 1941.

Lear, Linda J. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: Henry Holt, 1972.


The chemical dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, is a synthetic organic compound introduced in the 1940s and used as an insecticide. Its continual build-up in the food chain caused concern for human and animal health. As a result, DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972, 10 years after the publication of Silent Spring. DDT remains in use in many countries of the world.

Carson, Rachel

views updated Jun 11 2018


For post-World War II America, scientist and writer Rachel Louise Carson (1907–1964), born in Springdale, Pennsylvania on May 27, popularized the idea that ethical discussions of science and technology should consider environmental concerns. Using the insights of ecology, Carson pointed out that humans and nature were inextricably, even physically connected; for example, they were subject to similar dangers from industrial chemicals in the environment. Therefore, Carson argued, humans should try to respect rather than dominate nature. This argument culminated in her international bestseller, Silent Spring (1962), published shortly before her death from breast cancer on April 14.

Early Work and Writings

Raised in a rural but rapidly industrializing area of Pennsylvania, Carson attended Pennsylvania Women's College (now Chatham College) from 1925 to 1929, where she majored in biology. From 1929 to 1934 she attended Johns Hopkins, graduating with a master of science in zoology. Due to the Depression, Carson could not afford to stay in school and earn her Ph.D. Instead she found a job as an editor and science writer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She worked there until 1952, when the international success of her second book, The Sea Around Us (1950), finally made it possible for her to quit and write full-time.

Carson's professional background gave her a strong grounding in the latest research from several different scientific disciplines. As well as editing the work of other scientists, her job was to synthesize and publicize scientific information for the public. In addition, before ecology became a well-known approach, Carson had embraced an ecological perspective. (Ecology is the science that studies the interactions of organisms in the natural world.) Her first book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941), traced the many complex layers of marine ecosystems. During her employment, Carson also became concerned with the impact of various new postwar technologies on the wildlife and environment—among them, the pesticide dichlorodiphenylthrichloroethane (DDT), a wartime technology released into the consumer market in 1945.

As Carson's career as a writer began to gather momentum, so did her ideas about science, technology, and the environment. Repeatedly she emphasized the need to educate the public about science. She also challenged the idea that "science is something that belongs in a separate compartment of its own, apart from everyday life" (Brooks 1972, p. 128). Carson's developing critique of science targeted restricted circles of experts who isolated their knowledge of the natural world from the public. Her next book, The Edge of the Sea (1955), strove to make scientific information about the seashore accessible to the general reader. She also encouraged her readers to engage in firsthand experience with the environment to give them a reference point for evaluating scientific knowledge and discoveries.

Silent Spring

The United States's development of the atomic bomb proved to be a crucial turning point in Carson's thinking about the interactions of humans and their environment, and the consequences of science and technology. As she remembered, the possibility of humans being able to destroy all life was so horrible that "I shut my mind—refused to acknowledge what I couldn't help seeing. But that does no good, and I have now opened my eyes and my mind. I may not like what I see, but it does no good to ignore it ..." (Lear 1997, p. 310). Instead Carson faced man's destruction of his environment. In particular she focused on synthetic chemical pesticides.

In Silent Spring Carson argued that science and technology had largely ignored the environmental consequences of pesticides in disturbing the balance of nature. This metaphor referred to the ecological interactions of species in the natural world, and Carson showed how pesticides interrupted these complicated relations. The widespread use of persistent synthetic chemical pesticides endangered birds, wildlife, domestic livestock, and even humans. Residues from DDT, aldrin, dieldrin, heptachlor, and other chemicals contaminated most water, soil, and vegetation. The federal government had not only failed to protect citizens from these dangers, but by carrying out aerial spraying attacks on the fire ant and the gypsy moth, it had committed some of the worst offenses. Chemical dangers even penetrated suburbia, where people intensively sprayed their homes and gardens. Carson discussed both the immediate consequences for human health and the possible long-term hazards, including genetic damage and cancer. In particular she blamed scientific experts (economic entomologists and agronomists, among others) who supported the chemical-based technologies of industrialized agriculture. For Carson agribusiness epitomized the industrial mindset of man dominating nature for the interests of private economic gain.

Silent Spring resulted in an enormous public uproar. The book raised issues that extended far past the debate on pesticides. Ultimately it questioned how modern, industrialized society related to the natural world. Pesticides were but symptoms of the underlying problem: the idea that humans should dominate and control nature. Carson wrote that the "control of nature is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man" (Carson 1962, p. 297). However, many readers disagreed. Criticizing Carson's idea of the balance of nature as too static, they argued instead that nature was inherently unbalanced. Man had to use pesticides and dominate nature in order to ensure his own survival. In fact Carson's understanding of the balance of nature was complicated: The phrase implied stasis, but she also portrayed nature as an active entity capable of great change.

Altogether Carson put forth an environmental ethic based on the physical, ecological connections that existed between humans and their environment. She insisted that science and technology be evaluated according to this ecological standard, where humans and nature merged as one. Moreover as part of the fabric of life, humans had no right to put the entire biotic community at risk. By popularizing ecological ideas, Carson treated her readers as capable of understanding and participating in scientific debates. She also redefined calculations of risk: Decisions on environmentally hazardous technologies should take into account public environmental values as much as scientific findings of harm. Moreover scientists and industries should bear the burden to prove their products safe, rather than the public having to prove them dangerous.

In Silent Spring, Carson set the foundation of the environmental movement that began in the late-twentieth century. The insight that humans and nature were ecologically linked gave people new ways to conceive of environmental issues. The environment existed not only in the wilderness and the national parks, but in the immediate, intimate surroundings of home, garden, workplace, and even the health of the physical body. Carson also sparked the ongoing public debate about how to best consider environmental issues in making ethical decisions about science and technology. She was especially significant for her grassroots appeal—making everyday people aware of their role in preserving their environment.


SEE ALSO Agricultural Ethics;DDT;Ecology;Environmental Ethics;Environmentalism;Waste.


Brooks, Paul. (1972). The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Brooks, Carson's editor, wrote this book after her death in order to shed some light on Carson's private life, her writing process, and the history of Silent Spring.

Carson, Rachel. (1962). Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Details the dangers of the first generation of synthetic chemical pesticides produced in the postwar era.

Lear, Linda. (1997). Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: Henry Holt and Co. The definitive biography on the life of Rachel Carson.

Carson, Rachel Louise

views updated Jun 11 2018


(b Springdale, Pennsylvania, 27 May 1907; d. Silver Spring, Maryland, 14 April 1964)

ecology, natural history, marine biology.

Carson, the third and youngest child of Maria Frazier McLean Carson and Robert Warden Carson, grew up in semirural Pennsylvania. Her father was a moderately successful insurance agent who augmented his income by the piecemeal selling of the family farm. Despite financial difficulties she was able to attend Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College) in Pittsburgh, graduating magna cum laude in English and biology in 1929, Zoology professor Mary Scott Skinker encouraged Carson to face the daunting prospects for a woman in professional zoology, and she entered graduate studies at the Johns Hopkins University after summer research at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts. Her thesis research, under R. P. Cowles, was detailed microscopy of the embryological development of the kidney system in a catfish species, Morphology was standard training in 1930 even for the field of fisheries biology, which she wished to enter.

Financially constrained, Carson worked for a year as laboratory assistant to the geneticist Raymond Pearl, took a position in 1931 as assistant in zoology at the University of Maryland, and continued there after taking an M.A. in marine zoology in 1932 at Hopkins. With employment opportunities restricted and the need to care for her widowed mother, she began part-time writing for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries public information projects in 1935 Thus, out of necessity Carson began her career as a science writer. When a civil service opening arose in 1936. she entered the bureau as a junior aquatic biologist under Elmer Higgins of the Division of Scientific Inquiry, who had requested her appointment to his office.

Carson wrote informative radio broadcasts, pamphlets, and reports on fisheries research and oceanography. To supplement her income she produced articles on the sea and marine ecology, including “Undersea”in Atlantic Monthly (1937), which led the popular science writer Hendrik Willem van Loon and Quincy Howe, editor in chief at Simon & Schuster, to encourage her to write Under the SeaWind, a natural history of sea life with a sharp ecological focus but also a touch o( drama. It appeared to good reviews in ISM I, but sales were low.

In 1940 Fisheries merged with the Bureauo( Biological Survey to create the Fish and Wildlife Service; Carson moved into its information section. Respected for her analytical abilities and her literary skills, she advanced to editor in chief by 1949, Significant projects that she oversaw were the promotion of applied oceanography, conservation efforts, and the new wildlife refuge network. Although she sailed on research vessels, Carson s scientific work for the Fish and Wildlife Service was as a synthesizer of information, not a field research zoologist.

She pursued her writing career with the help of the Eugene F. Saxton Memorial Fellowship, which allowed her to take a leave of absence and write The Sea Around Us. Using recent research, she traced the origins and history of the oceans and explained the ecological relation so( the physical environment to marine and human life. Chapters were serialized in the New Yorker and other magazines to much acclaim, and when the book appeared in 1951 it was an immediate best-seller. It was on the New York Times best-seller list for eighty-six weeks, joined by a reissue of Sea-Wind. and (arson became a literary celebrity. Among the awards, medals, and honorary doctorates following tins book was a Guggenheim fellowship for another book, which allowed her to take a leave of absence in 1951 and finally resign a year later. Her subsequent financial success gave her the opportunity to travel and to do research on her next book, a guide and natural history of seashore life in the intertidal zone. The Edge of the Sea appeared in 195s and also became a best-seller.

Shy and reserved, Carson did not relish the attention bestowed on her as a popular author, although she answered the many letters she received. Rumored to be a recluse, she lived a quiet life of scholarship with her mother and her grandnephew Roger Christie, whom she had adopted when he was orphaned in 1957. She stayed in touch with a close circle of friends, was active in the Audubon Society, and corresponded with a number of professional scientists and writers.

In January 1958 one of these correspondents, Olga Owens Huckins, brought to Carson’s attention environmental problems caused by indiscriminate pesticide use. Plagued by poor health, and slowed by the death of her mother in 1958 and the removal of a cancerous tumor in 1960, Carson nonetheless uncovered in four years of research a remarkable amount of evidence, never before brought together, that profligate spraying had led to unexpected damage throughout the natural environment, Applying the same principles that had informed her previous work, she explained in Silent Spring how the ecologically interconnected “web of life” was affected by chemical disruption, including groundwater contamination, the concentration of residues in animals high in the food chain, and the death of birds. Pest control problems had increased even through the loss of natural enemies and the evolution of resistance.

The public controversy started in 1962. even before publication of the best-selling Silent Spring that same year, when the New Yorker serialized chapters, Not opposed to all pesticide use, Carson objected to the application of a technology without sensitivity to the natural balance maintained by the complex interactions of organism and environment, or to the loss of wild habitat and species in the drive to eradicate pests, Nonetheless, she was attacked strongly by spokespersons for the agricultural chemical industry and portrayed as a fanatic opposed to all pest control. In the unfavorable reviews, innuendo and claims of error outweighed actual refutations of her carefully documented argument. Her popularity and the lyrical quality of her writing were used to cast her as a nonprofessional, sentimental nature lover, a crank in a balance-of-nature cult. The debate that raged around her, as favorable reviews pointed out, was fundamentally between ecological theorists and economic entomologists more tied to simplistic agricultural practice than to the science of complex environmental relationships, Carson’s ecological theory was not radical. She tied Charles Elton’s standard views on food chains and interconnectivity to the holistic views on energy and materials flow of such ecologists as Aldo Leopold. If she stressed the harmony of nature, she also had a Darwinian view of the ceaseless struggle forcing adaptation both to the environment and among organisms, She was, more pointedly, successful in transmitting the paradigmatic ecological theory of the 1950’s to a wide audience.

The debate reached national proportions, and Carson became a figure of headlines, editorials, and popular culture. In 1963 the Presidents Science Advisory Committee report on pesticides vindicated her argument, and federal environmental protection laws were one eventual outcome. In all her books, but especially in Silent Spring, (arson brought the relatively new science of ecology to the public’s attention, and helped change the relations of applied science to government through public environmental policy, Carson died of cancel two years after the publication of Silent Spring.


I. Original Works. Carson’s major works are Under the Sea-Wind (New York, 1941); The Sea Around Us (New York, 1951); The Edge of the Sea (Boston, 1955); and Silent Spring (Boston. 1962)

Her library and some of her correspondence are held at the Rachel Carson Council. C hew Chase. Maryland. Correspondence and literary papers are in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscripts Library, Yale University.

II. Secondary Literature. Numerous obituaries and biographical sketches have been published, including several biographies. The most definitive of these is Paul Brooks, The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work (Boston, 1972). The pesticide controversy and some of its political repercussions are discussed in Frank Graham. Jr., Since Silent Spring (Boston, 1970).

William C. Kimler

Carson, Rachel

views updated May 14 2018

Rachel Carson

Born: May 27, 1907
Springdale, Pennsylvania
Died: April 14, 1964
Silver Spring, Maryland

American biologist and writer

Rachel Carson was an American biologist and writer whose book Silent Spring awakened the public to the dangers of pollution and its impact on the environment. Because of her work, she is considered a pioneer in the modern environmental movement.

Childhood and education

Rachel Louise Carson was born May 27, 1907, in Springdale, Pennsylvania. A quiet child who kept to herself, she spent long hours learning about nature through her mother, a musician and schoolteacher. Carson's mother also inspired her daughter's interest in literature, and at a very young age Carson knew she wanted to become a writer. Carson sealed her ambitions to write when, at the age of ten, she published her first piece in a national children's magazine.

In high school, Carson was an intelligent and motivated student who impressed her teachers. In college Carson studied English at the Pennsylvania College for Women in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But she changed her major to biology after rediscovering her love for science. After earning her undergraduate degree, she studied creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, where she earned a master's degree. She completed her postgraduate studies at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts.

Biologist to celebrated writer

In 1936 Carson served as an aquatic biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. A year later Carson published a well-received essay in the national publication Atlantic Monthly, which would ultimately lead to her first book, Under the Sea Wind (1941). She soon became editor-in-chief of the Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, a department dedicated to the conservation (protection) of wildlife. During this time she honed her writing skills, which focused on wildlife conservation. In 1951 The Sea around Us brought its author instant fame. At the top of the best-seller list for thirty-nine weeks, it was translated into thirty languages. For the book the shy, soft-spoken Carson received the National Book Award, the Gold Medal of the New York Zoological Society, and the John Burroughs Medal.

The following year Carson left the government to undertake full-time writing and research. As a scientist and as an observant human being, the overwhelming effects of technology upon the natural world increasingly disturbed her. She wrote at the time: "I suppose my thinking began to be affected soon after atomic science [an energy process which can have an extreme effect on the environment] was firmly established It was pleasant to believe that much of Nature was forever beyond the tampering reach of man: I have now opened my eyes and my mind. I may not like what I see, but it does no good to ignore it."

Takes on pollution

When Silent Spring appeared in 1962, the poetic pen and scientific mind of Carson produced an impact equaled by few scientists. In fact, she had aroused an entire nation. More than a billion dollars worth of chemical sprays were being sold and used in America each year. Carson traced the course of chlorinated hydrocarbons, a harmful substance found in the pesticides (chemicals used to protect crops from insects), through energy cycles and food chains. She learned that highly toxic (deadly) materials, contaminating the environment and lasting for many years in waters and soils, also tended to build up in the human body. Insect species that were the targets for these poisons began developing immunities (resistance) to pesticides, and because of these poisons in the insects, birds were not reproducing. In fact, the entire food chain and environmental balance was becoming disrupted because of these chemicals. Carson proposed strict limitations on spraying programs and an accelerated research effort to develop natural and biological controls for harmful insects.

The pesticide industry reacted with a massive campaign to damage the reputation of Carson and her findings. Firmly and gently, she spent the next two years educating the public at large. "I think we are challenged as mankind has never been challenged before," she once said, "to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves." She died on April, 14, 1964, in Silver Spring, Maryland. Though her work was just beginning at the time of her death, through her pen Carson opened the eyes of a nation and inspired environmental activism in a country that was rapidly losing its own natural resources.

For More Information

Graham, Frank. Since Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1970.

Lear, Linda. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: H. Holt, 1997.

Lear, Linda, ed. Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.