In 1963, a 60-minute documentary aired on the program "CBS Reports." In it, a serene, highly articulate middle-aged woman sat in her den calmly proposing that it might not be such a good idea to spray 900 million pounds (408 million kilograms) per year of an insecticide called DDT on crops, roadsides and lawns across the country. She pointed out that nobody knew what the long-term consequences might be — for either humans or wild animals. That woman was American marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson.
Offering an opposing point of view was a spokesman for the chemical company, American Cyanamid named Robert White-Stephens. Clad in a lab coat and sporting thick, black-rimmed glasses, White-Stephens opined that Carson was wrong to suppose that we should be careful about messing with the natural world. Smart scientists knew better, he said. They knew, in fact, that "man" was well on the road to "mastering" nature.
Carson was wearing a wig during that television interview because her hair had fallen out. She was in the midst of receiving radiation treatments for the cancer that would soon kill her. Despite her advanced illness, she managed to communicate her points eloquently and reasonably, unlike her dogmatic counterpart [source: Weeks]. By most accounts, Carson won the showdown.
She Was a Natural-born Writer
Rachel Carson was a country girl. She was born on May 27, 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania where she grew up on a 60-acre farm. There she wandered the fields, testing her knowledge of the animal calls and plants her mother had taught her to identify. Life wasn't that far from the bucolic pastoral scenes described in her favorite books, like "The Wind in the Willows" and everything by Beatrix Potter.
But her father was not much of a success as a farmer and to make ends meet he sold off parcels of farmland to developers little by little. And so urbanity began to creep into Carson's young life as streets and shops moved ever closer. It was an ecological shift that prefigured the blight of pesticides she would later detail in her most famous book, "Silent Spring."
By the age of 10, Carson was already a published writer. Her work was accepted in "St. Nicholas," a magazine for children that had previously printed the childhood works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner [source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service].
She Studied English and Biology
When Carson was young, she read constantly and wrote nearly as often. She composed short prose pieces and essays. She would later say that she couldn't remember a time when she didn't know she was going to be a writer. She wasn't sure why this was, only that it presented itself as a done deal, an inevitable, inborn vocation.
So it's no surprise that when she went to Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University) she majored in English. But partway through her studies, she took a biology class and became enamored by her professor, Mary Scott Skinker. So powerful was Skinker's influence that Carson switched majors and landed a summer internship working with her professor at the U.S. Marine Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts [source: rachelcarson.org].
That was to be her first encounter with the ocean. It was a momentous meeting. Although she's best known for "Silent Spring," Carson's lifelong passion and the subject of most of her work, was the ocean. And in the end, she didn't so much leave English behind for biology, but instead she fused the two interests into a career as a science writer.
Her Family Came First
Carson was a scholar in the making. After receiving her BA, she enrolled at Johns Hopkins in 1929 where she completed her masters in zoology and eventually began a Ph.D. program in 1932 to study marine biology. But the Depression changed things.
While she was working on her doctorate, her family moved in with her. Working as a lab assistant and teacher, Carson was the sole breadwinner in the house, supporting not only her mother and father, but also one of her sisters and two nieces.
Under severe financial pressure, Carson had to quit her doctoral program and get a job to support her family. In 1935, her father died and in 1937, so did her sister, making the financial responsibility for her mother and her nieces fall squarely on Carson's shoulders. Any and all future studies for Carson became out of the question [source: Michals].
She Broke the "Glass Ceiling"
Despite being forced to quit her advanced studies to support her family, Carson decided to try for a job in the civil service. It was 1935 and President Franklin Roosevelt had expanded the number of government jobs to help dig the country out of the Great Depression.
Carson sat the civil service exam and aced it. In fact, she outperformed every other applicant. Given her background in marine biology, it seems natural that she was soon employed by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (later the Department of Fish and Wildlife). In fact, she became the second woman ever hired by that agency.
In 1936, she was made a junior aquatic biologist, and in 1943 she was promoted to aquatic biologist. Much of her work at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries involved research and writing. During World War II, Carson was part of a team investigating the nature of underwater sounds and terrain to help the Navy with the development of its submarine program [source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service]. She also authored pamphlets targeted at housewives, providing information on how best to cook fish, given wartime meat-rationing [source: Lepore].
Her Prose was "Too Good for the Government"
Government pamphlets couldn't contain Carson's amazing prose for very long. When, at length, she submitted an 11-page essay about marine life called "The World of Waters," her boss told her it was too good for government publication. Instead, he urged her to try finding a magazine that would take it.
She reached out to the editor of the Atlantic Monthly who was happy to publish it. "Undersea" appeared in the magazine in 1937 and is considered the piece that launched her career as a naturalist. Encouraged by the success, Carson began a book, which she wrote on the back of Fish & Wildlife Service stationary. It was published as "Under the Sea-Wind" and the timing couldn't have been worse. A few weeks later came the bombing of Pearl Harbor and suddenly nobody had any time for poetic investigations of marine life.
Maybe that's why The Atlantic wasn't interested in her second piece, "The Sea Around Us." So Carson submitted the work to The New Yorker. The magazine's legendary editor, Wallace Shawn, loved Carson's writing and immediately agreed to serialize the piece in 1951. When it came out in book form, "The Sea Around Us" spent 86 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List and won the National Book Award [source: Lepore].
She Lived and Wrote by the Sea
After the success of her book, "The Sea Around Us," Carson resigned from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 1951 to pursue writing full time. And by 1952 she had received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which, combined with her books' royalties, enabled her to buy a small patch of land on the coast of Maine in 1953 [source: NWHM].
There she devoted herself to writing full-time. In 1955, she published "The Edge of the Sea," which was another bestseller. By this time, her nieces were grown and her mother, Maria, lived with her. Maria Carson had little formal education, but she had a bright and curious mind and had a lifelong fascination with birds.
In Maine, Maria taught her daughter how to identify the myriad birdsongs that surrounded them in the warmer months. Carson, who had for so long focused on life beneath the waves and at the tide's edge, now began to extend her interest to the creatures of the air.
Carson Hid Relationship with Dorothy Freeman
Rachel Carson never married, nor did she ever show any signs of romantic interest in the opposite sex. After her move to Maine, however, she met a woman named Dorothy Freeman. It was the beginning of a passionate, but almost entirely secret, love affair. To the outside world, the two women were close friends. Freeman, in her 50s at the time, was married with children and strove to hide the nature of her relationship.
Carson and Freeman conducted much of their affair via letters. To safeguard their secret, they would often enclose two letters in a single envelope. One letter was for public consumption and could be read aloud to family and friends. The other was private and passionate and would have likely alerted a reader to the true nature of their relationship.
The private letters, it was agreed, were to be consigned to the "strong box," which was their nickname, or code word, for burning. They couldn't quite bring themselves to burn all the private letters, however, and in 1995 Freeman's granddaughter published the surviving ones in a book about the two women's relationship [source: NWHM].
She Warned of the Dangers of DDT
DDT was developed in the 1940s. It was first used in wartime to help control the spread of malaria, typhus and other diseases transmitted by insects. But with the end of World War II, the manufacturers sought commercial uses for the substance, hoping to tap into emerging markets.
At first, DDT was remarkably successful as an insecticide for crops and gardens. But it wasn't clear what the effects might be on other organisms, including our own [source: EPA]. Some scientists were alarmed, but the risks associated with the use of DDT were not widely known.
As early as the 1940s, Carson was one of those concerned that releasing a powerful poison into the environment might not be such a good idea. As an employee of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Carson had read government reports on DDT and how it had not been tested for civilian use. And how it was killing animals and insects. She proposed an article on the subject to Reader's Digest, but the popular magazine rejected the pitch [source: Lepore].
Carson returned her attention the sea and the endless fascinations to be found beneath the waves, but she kept her eye on the slowly mounting evidence that DDT might be more than the miracle chemical it was hoped to be.
But in 1958, a citizen's group called the Committee Against Mass Poisoning, filed a lawsuit in New York State to try and stop aerial spraying of insecticides. A member of the Committee, Olga Owens Huckins, contacted Carson to urge her to write about the suit. Carson was reluctant, primarily because it would entail leaving Maine for New York.
She had good reason not to do so. For one thing, she had responsibilities. When one of her two nieces died young, she left an orphaned boy named Roger. Carson, always apt to put family first, adopted her grand-nephew. This was admirable on its own, but Carson was also beginning what would be a long, torturous struggle with breast cancer.
Nevertheless, she was deeply concerned about the use of insecticides, particularly DDT. The more she looked into the matter, the more convinced she became that she had to write about it. She asked colleagues to follow the New York trial while she remained at home and began her research. It was the inception of what would become "Silent Spring," the work for which she is best remembered.
"Silent Spring" Was Groundbreaking
Carson's essay "Silent Spring" was serialized in the New Yorker in 1962 and caused an immediate sensation. Many, including the esteemed author, E.B. White, declared it one of the best and most important pieces ever published in the magazine. When it came out as a book, it shot to the top of the bestseller list and instigated a national debate about the dangers of pesticides.
Asked about the controversy, President John F. Kennedy cited Carson's book as an important factor. Vested interests, particularly companies that manufactured products like DDT, went into attack mode, doing their best to discredit Carson as an amateur and a communist (she was demonstrably neither).
To the chagrin of her detractors, Carson's conclusions were backed up by the findings of President Kennedy's Science Advisory Committee Report. As a result, the use of DDT and other pesticides were heavily regulated. "Silent Spring" is widely credited with having sparked the modern environmental movement and laid the foundation for creating the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
She Hid Her Breast Cancer From the Public
It was no surprise that after Carson published "Silent Spring," she came under attack by the chemical industry, and some in the government even accused her of being an "alarmist." But she remained strong and spirited and continued to speak out against what she believed was a threat to the natural world.
What Carson was private about, however, was she was also fighting another battle —breast cancer. And she was terrified to let the public know. When she testified before Congress soon after publication of "Silent Spring," she was wearing a wig to hide her balding head, a side effect of radiation treatments.
Just two years after "Silent Spring," she died of metastatic breast cancer. She was just 57 [source: silentspring.org]. She had worked through incredible pain and illness to complete her last book and her partner Dorothy Freeman would later maintain that "Silent Spring" had killed her.
But before she died, Carson wrote that she was thinking about her next book — it was going to be about the mysterious rise in sea levels. If only she had lived. Given the extraordinary influence of "Silent Spring," it's hard not to think that Rachel Carson might have been able to publicize the dangers of climate change decades before it became a global concern.
Adelbert Ames is a famous American biologist. Learn more about Adelbert Ames at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Things You Should Know About Rachel Carson
Growing up, I often heard mention of Rachel Carson and her seminal work, "Silent Spring," but I had no idea that long before she published that book, she was famous for her writings about the ocean. And I think it truly heroic that she was able to write with such force and clarity while undergoing the treatments and illnesses associated with terminal cancer. As one commentator noted, if she could do that, none of us has any excuse for putting off what needs to be done.
More Great Links
- EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). "DDT – A Brief History and Status." Aug. 11, 2017. (May 1, 2018) https://www.epa.gov/ingredients-used-pesticide-products/ddt-brief-history-and-status
- Johnson, Caitlin. "The Legacy of 'Silent Spring'." CBS Sunday Morning. April 22, 2007. (April 31, 2018) https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-legacy-of-silent-spring/
- Grossman, Elizabeth. "Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring' Turns 50." The Atlantic. June 25, 2012. (April 31, 2018) https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/06/rachel-carsons-silent-spring-turns-50/258926/
- Lepore, Jill. "The Right Way to Remember Rachel Carson." The New Yorker. March 26, 2018. (April 31, 2018) https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/03/26/the-right-way-to-remember-rachel-carson
- Michals, Debra. "Rachel Carson (1907-1964)." NWHM (National Women's History Museum). 2015. (May 1, 2018) https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/rachel-carson
- Rachelcarson.org. "In Memoriam: Mary Scott Skinker." (April 30, 2018) http://www.rachelcarson.org/mMarySkinker.aspx
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. "Rachel Carson, National Wildlife Refuge, Maine. Biography" Feb. 5, 2013. (May 7, 2018) https://www.fws.gov/refuge/rachel_carson/about/rachelcarson.html
- Weeks, Linton. "The CBS Report That Helped 'Silent Spring' Be Heard." March 21, 2007. (April 31, 2018) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/20/AR2007032001762.html