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A short biography of

Rachel Carson &

Silent Spring

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Rachel Louise Carson

Born: May 27, 1907
in Springdale, Pennsylvania

Died: April 14, 1964
in Silver Spring, Maryland

Rachel Carson, writer, scientist, and ecologist, grew up simply
in the rural river town of Springdale, Pennsylvania. Her mother
bequeathed to her a life-long love of nature and the living world
that Rachel expressed first as a writer and later as a student of
marine biology. Carson graduated from Pennsylvania College for
Women (now Chatham College) in 1929, studied at the Woods Hole
Marine Biological Laboratory, and received her MA in zoology from
Johns Hopkins University in 1932.

She was hired by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries to write radio
scripts during the Depression and supplemented her income writing
feature articles on natural history for the Baltimore Sun. She
began a fifteen-year career in the federal service as a scientist
and editor in 1936 and rose to become Editor-in-Chief of all
publications for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

She wrote pamphlets on conservation and natural resources and
edited scientific articles, but in her free time turned her
government research into lyric prose, first as an article
"Undersea" (1937, for the Atlantic Monthly), and then in a book,
Under the Sea-Wind (1941). In 1952 she published her
prize-winning study of the ocean, The Sea Around Us, which was
followed by The Edge of the Sea in 1955. These books constituted
a biography of the ocean and made Carson famous as a naturalist
and science writer for the public. Carson resigned from
government service in 1952 to devote herself to her writing.

She wrote several other articles designed to teach people about
the wonder and beauty of the living world, including "Help Your
Child to Wonder," (1956) and "Our Ever-Changing Shore" (1957),
and planned another book on the ecology of life. Embedded within
all of Carson's writing was the view that human beings were but
one part of nature distinguished primarily by their power to
alter it, in some cases irreversibly.

Disturbed by the profligate use of synthetic chemical pesticides
after World War II, Carson reluctantly changed her focus in order
to warn the public about the long term effects of misusing
pesticides. In Silent Spring (1962) she challenged the practices
of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a
change in the way humankind viewed the natural world.

Carson was attacked by the chemical industry and some in
government as an alarmist, but courageously spoke out to remind
us that we are a vulnerable part of the natural world subject to
the same damage as the rest of the ecosystem. Testifying before
Congress in 1963, Carson called for new policies to protect human
health and the environment.

Rachel Carson died in 1964 after a long battle against breast
cancer. Her witness for the beauty and integrity of life
continues to inspire new generations to protect the living world
and all its creatures.

Biographical entry courtesy of Carson biographer © Linda Lear,
1998, author of Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (1997).

The Story of Silent Spring

How a courageous woman took on the chemical industry and raised
important questions about humankind's impact on nature.

Although their role will probably always be less celebrated than
wars, marches, riots or stormy political campaigns, it is books
that have at times most powerfully influenced social change in
American life. Thomas Paine's Common Sense galvanized radical
sentiment in the early days of the American revolution; Uncle
Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe roused Northern antipathy to
slavery in the decade leading up to the Civil War; and Rachel
Carson's Silent Spring, which in 1962 exposed the hazards of the
pesticide DDT, eloquently questioned humanity's faith in
technological progress and helped set the stage for the
environmental movement.

Carson, a renowned nature author and a former marine biologist
with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was uniquely equipped to
create so startling and inflammatory a book. A native of rural
Pennsylvania, she had grown up with an enthusiasm for nature
matched only by her love of writing and poetry. The educational
brochures she wrote for the Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as
her published books and magazine articles, were characterized by
meticulous research and a poetic evocation of her subject.

Carson was happiest writing about the strength and resilience of
natural systems. Her books Under the Sea Wind, The Sea Around Us
(which stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 86
weeks), and The Edge of The Sea were hymns to the
inter-connectedness of nature and all living things. Although she
rarely used the term, Carson held an ecological view of nature,
describing in precise yet poetic language the complex web of life
that linked mollusks to sea-birds to the fish swimming in the
ocean's deepest and most inaccessible reaches.

DDT, the most powerful pesticide the world had ever known,
exposed nature's vulnerability. Unlike most pesticides, whose
effectiveness is limited to destroying one or two types of
insects, DDT was capable of killing hundreds of different kinds
at once. Developed in 1939, it first distinguished itself during
World War II, clearing South Pacific islands of malaria-causing
insects for U.S. troops, while in Europe being used as an
effective de-lousing powder. Its inventor was awarded the Nobel

When DDT became available for civilian use in 1945, there were
only a few people who expressed second thoughts about this new
miracle compound. One was nature writer Edwin Way Teale, who
warned, "A spray as indiscriminate as DDT can upset the economy
of nature as much as a revolution upsets social economy. Ninety
percent of all insects are good, and if they are killed, things
go out of kilter right away." Another was Rachel Carson, who
wrote to the Reader's Digest to propose an article about a series
of tests on DDT being conducted not far from where she lived in
Maryland. The magazine rejected the idea.

Silent Spring

Thirteen years later, in 1958, Carson's interest in writing about
the dangers of DDT was rekindled when she received a letter from
a friend in Massachusetts bemoaning the large bird kills which
had occured on Cape Cod as the result of DDT sprayings. The use
of DDT had proliferated greatly since 1945 and Carson again
tried, unsuccessfully, to interest a magazine in assigning her
the story of its less desirable effects. By 1958 Carson was a
best-selling author, and the fact that she could not obtain a
magazine assignment to write about DDT is indicative of how
heretical and controversial her views on the subject must have
seemed. Having already amassed a large quantity of research on
the subject, however, Carson decided to go ahead and tackle the
DDT issue in a book.

Silent Spring took Carson four years to complete. It 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. A single application on a crop, she
wrote, killed insects for weeks and months, and not only the
targeted insects but countless more, and remained toxic in the
environment even after it was diluted by rainwater. Carson
concluded that DDT and other pesticides had irrevocably harmed
birds and animals and had contaminated the entire world food
supply. The book's most haunting and famous chapter, "A Fable for
Tomorrow," depicted a nameless American town where all life --
from fish to birds to apple blossoms to human children -- had
been "silenced" by the insidious effects of DDT.

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. "If man were to
faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson," complained an
executive of the American Cyanamid Company, "we would return to
the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once
again inherit the earth." Monsanto published and distributed
5,000 copies of a brochure parodying Silent Spring entitled "The
Desolate Year," relating the devastation and inconvenience of a
world where famine, disease, and insects ran amuck because
chemical pesticides had been banned. Some of the attacks were
more personal, questioning Carson's integrity and even her

Her careful preparation, however, had paid off. Anticipating the
reaction of the chemical industry, she had compiled Silent Spring
as one would a lawyer's brief, with no fewer than 55 pages of
notes and a list of experts who had read and approved the
manuscript. Many eminent scientists rose to her defense, and when
President John F. Kennedy ordered the President's Science
Advisory Committee to examine the issues the book raised, its
report thoroughly vindicated both Silent Spring and its author.
As a result, DDT came under much closer government supervision
and was eventually banned. The public debate moved quickly from
whether pesticides were dangerous to which pesticides were
dangerous, and the burden of proof shifted from the opponents of
unrestrained pesticide use to the chemicals' manufacturers.

The most important legacy of Silent Spring, though, was a new
public awareness that nature was vulnerable to human
intervention. Rachel Carson had made a radical proposal: that, at
times, technological progress is so fundamentally at odds with
natural processes that it must be curtailed. Conservation had
never raised much broad public interest, for few people really
worried about the disappearance of wilderness. But the threats
Carson had outlined -- the contamination of the food chain,
cancer, genetic damage, the deaths of entire species -- were too
frightening to ignore. For the first time, the need to regulate
industry in order to protect the environment became widely
accepted, and environmentalism was born.

Carson was well aware of the larger implications of her work.
Appearing on a CBS documentary about Silent Spring shortly before
her death from breast cancer in 1964, she remarked, "Man's
attitude toward nature is today critically important simply
because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy
nature. But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature
is inevitably a war against himself…[We are] challenged as
mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity
and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves."

One of the landmark books of the 20th century, Silent Spring's
message resonates loudly today, even 35 years after its
publication. And equally inspiring is the example of Rachel
Carson herself. Against overwhelming difficulties and adversity,
but motivated by her unabashed love of nature, she rose like a
gladiator in its defense.

Rachel Carson Official Website

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