Rachel Louise Carson

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Rachel Louise Carson


American Biologist and Writer

Rachel Carson was a scientist and writer who first revealed the residual hazards of indiscriminate pesticide use, drawing attention to their serious ill effects on animals and humans. Carson also won recognition and lasting esteem as a conservationist and important early leader of the environmental movement.

Born May 27, 1907, on a farm in Springdale, Pennsylvania, Carson credited her mother with encouraging her love of nature. She displayed an early talent for writing and went to Pennsylvania College for Women to major in English, with the aim of becoming a writer. When a biology teacher piqued her interest in marine biology, she changed her major. She received a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, graduating with a master's degree in 1932. She went on to complete postgraduate work at Woods Hole Marine Laboratory in Massachusetts, and then worked on the zoology staff at the University of Maryland.

In order to support her mother and nieces, Carson took a position as an aquatic biologist with the Bureau of Fisheries in 1936, one of the first women to be hired by the bureau for a professional position. She supplemented her income by writing magazine articles on natural history and conservation. All her writing was about science and the sea.

In 1940 the Bureau of Fisheries merged with the Biological Survey to form the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose major focus was conservation. Carson was still writing for magazines and published a popular essay in the Atlantic on life in the sea. She decided to turn the article into a book, and 1941 published Under the Sea Wind. In it she emphasized that man is part of the natural world, not separate from it, and not its master. The book won critical acclaim, but sales were interrupted by World War II. In 1947 she became editor-in-chief of publications at the bureau and promoted a national policy of conserving natural resources in a series of twelve booklets called "Conservation in Action."

In 1951 she wrote about the sea again in the book The Sea Around Us. It was an immediate success, winning several awards, including the National Book Award. It was translated into 30 languages and led to a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship that allowed her to take a year's absence from the bureau. The next year she resigned from her job and bought a cottage by the sea in Maine to continue her writing.

A turning point came when a friend wrote a letter telling her how DDT had been sprayed in their community to kill mosquitoes. She found seven songbirds dead in her yard. The woman had scrubbed and scrubbed her birdbath but three more birds died. Carson began to research the use of pesticides. Focusing on DDT, she outlined the trail of poison from soil and water to humans. She described how the toxins accumulate from the lower parts of the food chain, such as plankton, to the next. She emphasized how environmental health problems are created by radiation and the never-ending stream of pesticides.

Her book Silent Spring was published in 1962 and was an immediate bestseller. The title suggested the silence after the birds are decimated by pesticides. The book aroused passion and excitement, as well as controversy. But public awareness of the subject had been raised, and people began to look at the environment. Ecology, a subject that had been ignored and relegated to the back of textbooks was now front and center.

Carson had never considered herself a crusader, but she launched a campaign to influence legislation. By 1962 bills to stop the use of pesticides were introduced in several states. She testified before Congress and appeared on television. President Kennedy set up a commission to study the issue.

On April 14, 1964, Carson died of breast cancer, but she had set in motion efforts to protect the environment that continue to this day. Regarded as the mother of the environmental movement, Carson was one of the first to make Americans aware of the delicate ecological balance and the devastating effects of pollution and unregulated exploitation of the earth's resources.