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Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson (1907 - 1964) was one of the most influential people of the 20th century. Her landmark book, Silent Spring is often credited with having launched the global environmental movement, and undoubtedly had an immense effect in the United States, where it brought about a reversal in national pesticide policy.

Carson was born in 1907 on a small family farm in Springdale, Pennsylvania. She studied English and biology and soon learned that she had a talent for writing, observing that she could try to "make animals in the woods or waters, where they live, as alive to others as they are to me". She graduated from Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College) in 1929. Despite financial difficulties, she continued her studies in zoology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University, earning a master's degree in zoology in 1932.

Carson taught zoology at Johns Hopkins and at the University of Maryland for several years and continued to study, particularly at the Marine Biological Laboratories in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Her financial situation, never satisfactory, became worse in 1932 when her father died, leaving Carson to care for her aging mother, and making a continuation of her doctoral studies impossible. She took on a part-time position at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries as a science writer working on radio scripts - in the process having to overcome resistance to the then-radical idea of having a woman sit for the Civil Service exam. She outscored all other applicants on the exam and in 1936 became only the second woman ever to be hired by the Bureau of Fisheries for a full-time, professional position (as a junior aquatic biologist).

At the Bureau, Carson worked on everything from cookbooks to scientific journals, and became known for her ruthless insistence on high standards of writing. Early in her time there, the head of the Bureau's Division of Scientific Inquiry (who had been instrumental in finding a position for her in the first place) rejected one of Carson's radio scripts because it was "too literary", but suggested that she submit it to the Atlantic Monthly. To Carson's astonishment and delight it was accepted, and published as Undersea in 1937. (Other sources have it that it was the editor of the Baltimore Sun who made the Atlantic Monthly suggestion - Carson had been eking out her tiny income with short articles for that paper for some time.) Also in 1937, Carson's family responsibilities increased when her older sister died at the age of 40, and she had to take on responsibility for her two nieces.

Publishing house Simon & Schuster, impressed by Undersea, contacted Carson and suggested that she expand it into book form. Several years of working in the evenings resulted in Under the Sea-Wind (1941) which received excellent reviews but flopped in commercial terms - it had the misfortune to be released just a month before the Pearl Harbor raid catapulted America into World War II.

Carson rose within the Bureau (by then transformed into the Fish and Wildlife Service), becoming chief editor of publications in 1949. For some time she had been working on material for a second book: it was rejected by 15 different magazines before The New Yorker serialized parts of it as A Profile of the Sea in 1951. Other parts soon appeared in Nature, and Oxford University Press published it in book form as The sea around us. It remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 86 weeks, was abridged by Reader's Digest, won the National Book Award, and resulted in Carson being awarded two honorary doctorates.

With success came financial security, and Carson was able to give up her job in 1952 to concentrate on writing full time: completing the third volume of her sea trilogy, The Edge of the Sea in 1955. It was another bestseller, won further awards, and was made into an Oscar-winning documentary film - severely embarrassing Carson, who was appalled at the film's sensational style and distortion of fact, and disassociated herself from it. Through 1956 and 1957, Carson worked on a number of projects, including articles for popular magazines and a telescript.

Family tragedy struck a third time when one of the nieces she had cared for in the 1940s died at the age of 36, leaving a five-year-old orphan son. Carson took on on that responsibility alongside the continuing one of caring for her mother, who was almost 90 by this time. She adopted the boy and, needing a suitable place to raise him, bought a rural property in Maryland. This environment was to be a major factor in the choice of her next topic.

Starting in the mid-1940s, Carson had become more and more concerned about the misuse of newly invented pesticides, especially DDT. "The more I learned about the use of pesticides, the more appalled I became," she wrote later, explaining her decision to start researching for what would eventually become her most famous work, Silent Spring. "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."

The four year task of writing Silent Spring began with a letter from the custodian of a Massachusetts bird sanctuary which had been destroyed by aerial spraying of DDT. The letter asked Carson to use her influence with government authorities to begin an investigation into pesticide use. Carson, however, decided it would be more effective to raise the issue in a popular magazine. Publishers were uninterested and eventually the project became a book instead.

As a scientist of international standing now, she was able to ask (and receive) the aid of prominent biologists, chemists, pathologists, and entomologists. Silent Spring became a detailed chronicle of the association between over-use of pesticides like dieldrin, toxaphene, heptachlor, and DDT and mass wildlife kills, but it was no mere dry recital of the facts and figures: Carson's writing was as lyrical and evocative as it was precise. Part-way through the process of writing it, she was diagnosed with breast cancer: Silent Spring would be her last major work.

Even before Silent Spring was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1962, there was violent opposition to it. As Time magazine recounts it:

Carson was violently assailed by threats of lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that this meticulous scientist was a "hysterical woman" unqualified to write such a book. A huge counterattack was organized and led by Monsanto, Velsicol, American Cyanamid - indeed, the whole chemical industry - duly supported by the Agriculture Department as well as the more cautious in the media.

The chemical companies and other critics attacked both book and author: contesting the data, its interpretation, and even Carson's scientific credentials. Houghton Mifflin were pressured - unsuccessfully - into suppressing the book. Reviews from those without a vested financial interest to protect, however, were positive, and Silent Spring became a runaway best seller both in the USA and overseas. Carson received hundreds of speaking invitations but was unable to accept the great majority of them: her long battle with breast cancer was entering its final stages. Audubon and National Parks Magazine published additional excerpts from Silent Spring and within a year or so of publication "all but the most self-serving of Carson's attackers were backing rapidly toward safer ground. In their ugly campaign to reduce a brave scientist's protest to a matter of public relations, the chemical interests had only increased public awareness" [1].

Pesticide use became a major public issues, helped by Carson's April 1963 appearance on a CBS TV special with the soft-spoken Carson in debate with a chemical company spokesman. Although she was gravely ill by this time, Carson's restrained, commonsense approach was persuasive. Later that year she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and received many other honours and awards, including the Audubon Medal and the Cullen Medal of the American Geographical Society.

Of far more significance to her was the response of the US government, which ordered a complete review of pesticide policy. In one of her last public appearances, Carson testifed before a Senate investigative committee. The eventual banning of DDT in 1972 was a direct result of Carson's work, and Silent Spring remains both one of the foundation texts for the contemporary environmental movement and an important living classic to this day.

Rachel Carson died of breast cancer on April 14, 1964. She was fifty-six.

In 1980 she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the USA.

Further reading