Rachel Carson, award winning writer of the 1962 ground-breaking anti-pesticide book Silent Spring, is widely acknowledged to be the founder of the modern American environmental movement.  Born in 1907 near Pittsburgh, PA, she early on displayed a propensity for literature and enrolled in college with the aim of becoming a writer.  During her junior year, however, she decided to become a biologist, a decision which caused a rift with college administrators who thought science an unsuitable vocation for a woman. 

     Although Carson had never seen the ocean when she graduated from college, she was determined to enter the field of marine biology.  After obtaining a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, she began work at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries where she was able to combine her love of science and her gift for writing by creating scripts for a weekly radio show the Bureau produced and by writing brochures about the oceans.  She quickly found she wanted to share her knowledge of the oceans’ flora and fauna with the general public by writing books about it.

     Her first book, Under the Sea Wind was published in 1941, and her second, The Sea Around Us in 1951, both to rave reviews.  In fact, the latter book won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction as well as the coveted Burroughs Medal.  With the publication of her third book, The Edge of the Sea in 1955, Carson’s name recognition with the public allowed her the latitude to speak out on issues about which she felt strongly.  Although tiny in physical stature as well as being a rather shy person, she was not afraid to offer her voice to help save the natural world she loved.  Long an adversary of the use of pesticides, especially DDT because of its devastating effects on animal life, Carson firmly believed that if harm came to any part of nature, it would come to all parts, including humanity, through the interconnectivity of the ecosystem. 

     In 1957 Carson conceived the idea of writing a book explaining the destructive power of DDT.  After years of research and planning, the controversial result of her effort was the beautifully written Silent Spring, published in 1962, which immediately became a best seller.  Beset by backlash to it from the Interior Dept. of the U.S. government and the chemical industry, especially DuPont, Carson stoutly maintained her position that pesticides were poisoning the earth and the earth’s creatures.  One day, she warned, there would be a “silent spring” with no life left to greet the awakening earth.  She also wanted to instill in others her belief – based on the massive amount of research she had done – that “in nature nothing exists alone.”  In her book she gently chided readers to join the battle to save the soil, the seas, and plant and animal life by examining closely the implications of pesticide use.  In part because of Silent Spring, DDT was largely banned in the U.S. beginning in 1972.

     Carson, who had been battling cancer for several years, was awarded the Audubon Medal and inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters – a singular honor for a writer of non-fiction – just before her untimely death in 1963. 

     I will close with one of my favorite quotes from Silent Spring, one which I think sums up Rachel Carson’s love of nature and displays her brilliant writing skills.

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.

The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the

most part date from that Stone Age of science.  It is our

alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself

with the most modern and terrible of weapons, and that in turning

them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.

Biography of Rachel Carson:

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

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Rachel Carson

by Judith Geer