10 Things You Should Know About Rachel Carson


3
She Warned of the Dangers of DDT
Rachel Carson was concerned about the dangers of DDT as early as the 1940s, and her research would become the inception of her book "Silent Spring." Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

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.

More to Explore