Remembering Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, 60 years Later
Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring” in 1962. In honor of Women’s History month and the 60th Anniversary of Carson’s seminal work, I wanted to look back at this remarkable woman and her life’s work.
“Silent Spring” represented a watershed moment for what became our modern environmental movement. Carson’s book and activism raised our national consciousness and concern about all living organisms and public health – specifically the use and long-term deleterious impacts of synthetic pesticides such as DDT.
While researching information about Carson, I came across a recent CT DEEP publication called Women in the Environment developed for use as an educational material by teachers. The following information comes in part or directly from that publication’s section about Rachel Carson.
Carson was born May 27, 1907, in Springdale, Pennsylvania. Exploring the outdoors and nature were always an interest to Carson. Her love of writing also emerged at an early age when she wrote poems and stories while still in elementary school.
Carson attended Pennsylvania College and was introduced to the study of biology, which drew her interest and enthusiasm. A woman at that time was not encouraged to pursue a career in, or even study science, and Carson often was discouraged from continuing on her path. Still, she graduated in 1929 and found a summer position at Woods Hole Biological Laboratory in Cape Cod.
Carson’s love for the ocean blossomed during her time at Woods Hole and in the fall, she began her master’s degree in marine biology at Johns Hopkins University, under a full academic scholarship. She graduated in 1932.
Carson’s first job after graduation was with the United States Bureau of Fisheries as a writer producing radio spots about fish. According to CT DEEP, “her writing ability and scientific background led to further duties that included developing and editing government reports and creating nature stories. In 1941 she published her first book, ‘Under the Sea Wind,’ uniting fiction with scientific facts for an approachable and accurate text. By 1949, Rachel had risen to the rank of editor in chief of the U.S. Wildlife Service’s publications. She continued to work on her own literary projects, and in 1951 she published her award-winning book, ‘The Sea Around Us.’”
Carson began writing full-time in 1952 when she left the Wildlife Service and moved to Maine to be closer to the ocean. Her next book was “The Edge of the Sea,” focusing on the ecological link between different habitats. It was ground-breaking work explaining ecology and the importance of plant and animal diversity to create a balanced system.
“In the early 1960’s Carson began work on her most famous book, ‘Silent Spring.’ This work would address her concerns about the widespread use of DDT, a common pesticide, and its dangerous effect on bird populations. It took four years to compile data and research supporting the position that DDT needed to be banned and pesticide use controlled, so that overuse would not result in environmental damage. When ‘Silent Spring’ was published in 1962, the issue of pesticide use was volatile. A special committee was formed by President Kennedy to look into the issue of environmental protection.”
The work led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 and the banning of DDT in the United States by 1972. Carson, however, never saw the culmination of her work because she died in 1964 from cancer.
“An early environmental spokesperson, she worked toward protection of natural resources and environmental health. In 1972, the EPA banned the use of DDT in the United States. Sadly, she died in 1964 and did not live to see the banning of DDT. Her influence in the area of science and importance in conservation and ecology has lasted long past her death. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a national wildlife refuge in Maine was created in her honor. Today, the Rachel Carson Council continues her work providing information on environmental issues.”
Carson’s influence on the environmental movement can’t be denied and her role is even more poignant when we learn about the unfounded criticism aimed at her by the chemical industry as a result of “Silent Spring.”
Carson closes “Silent Spring” with a stark warning that bears remembering to this day.
“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. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.”
Back in 2015, at the suggestion of Norwich Bulletin reader Richard Waterman, I purchased first editions of Carson’s “Under the Sea Wind,” “The Sea Around Us” and “Silent Spring.” They are wonderful books that clearly demonstrate Carson’s scientific knowledge and literary skill that together made her writing more accessible to all readers. Perhaps that is one of her lasting legacies.
I urge readers of this column to learn more about Rachael Carson and her work. Let us always remember and celebrate this amazing writer and scientist not only during Women’s History Month, but throughout the year.
We are fortunate to live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. I hope you’ll join me and others as we continue to enjoy it, care for it, and pass it on.
Information for this column was gleaned from “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson and “Women in the Environment: Educational materials and resources that focus on the contributions woman have made to the study and protection of our environment from past to present” produced by CT DEEP Kellogg Environmental Center, Derby, CT. It can be found at:
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 860-774-3300.
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