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Rachel Carson
(b. 1907)

2003 Women's History Month Honorees

In 1962 Rachel Carson's pioneering and meticulously researched exposť, Silent Spring, identified the devastating and irrevocable hazards of DDT, one of the most powerful pesticides the world had known.

Rachel Carson
Photo: Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos

This disclosure helped set the stage for the environmental movement of the late 20th century. The book's publication caused a firestorm of controversy. Some of the attacks were very personal, questioning Carson's integrity and even her sanity.

Carson, a renowned nature author and a former marine biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had grown up with an enthusiasm for nature matched only by her love of writing and poetry. Born in 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania, the youngest of three children, Rachel's interest in all living things in the woods, meadows and stream near her home was encouraged by her mother, Maria McLean Carson, who remained Rachel's strongest supporter throughout her life.

Determined to be a writer, Rachel entered the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College), but feeling she did not possess enough imagination to write fiction, she turned to biology which always provided material for her beautiful prose. In 1929, she graduated magna cum laude.

But in 1934, limited finances forced her to withdraw from the doctoral program. With her father's sudden death in 1935, she became responsible for the family's welfare and began her career with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries.

Her first book Under the Sea-Wind published in 1941 did not attract a big audience. Yet, in 1951, Carson's The Sea Around Us was an instant success, receiving the National Book Award for nonfiction and remaining on the New York Best bestseller list for 86 weeks. The success of her book allowed Rachel to continue her research and study.

Rachel's interest in the dangers of DDT was rekindled in 1958, by a letter from a friend in Massachusetts bemoaning the number of large birds dying on Cape Code as a result of DDT sprayings. During the four years it took for Rachel Carson to complete the Silent Spring, she was fighting breast cancer and then bone cancer.

Her finished work meticulously described how DDT entered the food chain and accumulated in the fatty tissues of animals, including human beings, and caused cancer and genetic damage. First serialized in The New Yorker in June 1962, the book alarmed readers across America and, not surprisingly, brought a howl of indignation from the chemical industry.

Anticipating this reaction, Carson included 55 pages of notes and a list of eminent scientists who had read and approved the manuscript. President John F. Kennedy's Science Advisory Committee thoroughly vindicated both Silent Spring and its author. As a result, DDT came under much closer government supervision and was eventually banned.

The threats Carson outlined were too frightening to ignore. Silent Spring brought a new public awareness that nature was vulnerable to human intervention. Rachel Carson died in 1964. She had overcome extraordinary difficulties and adversities to pioneer a new way of thinking about the connection of all life.

 

Rachel Carson Resources
Rachel Carson was one of the most significant people of the 20th century. Print and non-print resources and information about her are readily available. The following list is only a suggested start for research and information.

Primary Sources - Rachel Carson Publications

Under the Sea-Wind, 1941
The Sea Around Us, 1951
The Edge of the Sea, 1955
The Silent Spring, 1962*
The Sense of Wonder, 1965


Online Resources

Excellent biographical and other detailed information regarding Rachel Carson

Extensive resources and other information related to Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson quotes

"Environmental Themes in Children's Literature" (a project by Yale student Kristin L. Udvari) discusses Rachel Carson's approach to sharing environmental ideas with children


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