Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: A marine biologist and gifted expositor, Rachel Carson wrote many articles as well as three lilting, lyrical books about the sea. She is most remembered, however, for her fourth book, Silent Spring (1962), an exhaustively researched exposé that sparked a national furor over the irresponsible use of pesticides in America.
Rachel Louise Carson was born on May 27, 1907, in Springdale, Pennsylvania, approximately eighteen miles from Pittsburgh. Her father, Robert Warden Carson, had purchased at least sixty-five acres of land, intending to sell house lots, but the failure of this plan ensured that the young Rachel would be brought up in a fairly rural setting. Her mother, Maria McLean Carson, was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and instilled her love of language, music, and nature in her three children. Rachel’s long walks with her mother in the nearby orchards and woods awakened in her an awe for and joy in the natural world which lasted her entire life.
Rachel Carson soon conceived the goal of becoming a writer and proceeded toward that goal with alacrity: Her story “A Battle in the Clouds,” which won a $10 prize, was published in St. Nicholas, a children’s magazine, when she was only ten years old. Throughout her teenage years, she continued to write, and in 1925, at the age of eighteen she entered the Pennsylvania College for Women (later Chatham College) as an English major. During her first two years there, Rachel contributed many works to the literary supplement of the school newspaper.
Despite her success as a budding writer, Carson changed her major from English to biology midway through her college career. Years later, she was to say that biology gave her something to write about. One of Carson’s mentors, a dynamic biology instructor named Mary Skinker who was returning to the doctoral program at The Johns Hopkins University, encouraged Carson to think about graduate school. Carson applied for admission to graduate school at The Johns Hopkins University for the fall of 1929 and was accepted. Following her graduation from Pennsylvania College for Women in the spring of 1929, Carson studied under a scholarship at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole on Cape Cod. That summer, Carson saw the ocean for the first time. Henceforth, the sea remained an integral part of her life.
The following year saw many changes in Carson’s life; her parents moved to Baltimore to live with her, and she received a teaching assistantship at The Johns Hopkins Summer School. Carson completed her master’s degree in marine zoology in 1932, although she continued to teach until 1936.
In 1935, Carson’s father died. Under pressure to support her family, she went to work part-time at the Bureau of Fisheries (which later became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), writing and editing radio scripts. While working there, she noticed an announcement of an opening for an assistant biologist at the bureau. She took the Civil Service examination (earning the highest score that year) and accepted the full-time appointment. Carson continued her work for the bureau for the next sixteen years, eventually rising in rank to become editor-in-chief of the publications department.
Oddly enough (considering the Department of Agriculture’s subsequent vigorous opposition to her most famous book, Silent Spring), it was Rachel Carson’s government work which led to her first article on the ocean. Carson had been asked, as she later said, to “produce something of a general sort about the sea. I set to work, but somehow the material rather took charge of the situation and turned into something that was, perhaps, unusual as a broadcast for the Commissioner of Fisheries.” Her supervisor found the article unsuitable and suggested that she submit it to The Atlantic Monthly magazine. The article, “Undersea,” was published in 1937.
As lyrical as it was informative, “Undersea” soon attracted the attention of an editor from the publishing house of Simon & Schuster, who encouraged Carson to write a book. After nearly four years of working in the evenings, during the weekends, and whenever her government job permitted, Carson published Under the Sea-Wind (1941). Although the book received excellent reviews, its publication was rather lost in the outrage over the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entrance of the United States into World War II. Despite its dampening effect on the sales of her first book, the war effort not only provided Carson with a wealth of new information...
(The entire section is 1911 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
The biologist Rachel Louise Carson is primarily known as the author of Silent Spring, an exposé of the effects of chemical pesticides on human health and the environment that became a seminal work in the crusade for ecological awareness. Carson spent much of her childhood outdoors on her family’s land, where she was encouraged by her mother to develop an awareness of the natural world. She also loved books and from her earliest childhood assumed that she would be a writer. At the age of eleven, she published an essay in the children’s magazine Saint Nicholas. Intending to major in English, Carson enrolled in the Pennsylvania College for Women. Halfway through her junior year, however, her fascination with the natural sciences led her to change her major to biology. After graduating magna cum laude in 1928, she went on to gain an M.A. in zoology from The Johns Hopkins University in 1932.
Carson found employment with the United States Bureau of Fisheries, where she wrote and edited books and radio scripts. To supplement her income, she also published freelance articles. The acceptance of an article by The Atlantic prompted her to write a novel, Under the Sea-Wind, a narrative of sea and shore life told from the points of view of a shore bird, a mackerel, and an eel. Although sales were disappointing, the book earned an enthusiastic response from the scientific community.
Carson’s second book, The Sea Around Us, is a scientific examination of the ocean’s development, features, and inhabitants. This best-selling book, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction, launched Carson on the road to fame. In her acceptance speech, Carson stated that there is no such thing as a separate literature of science, since the aim of science is to discover and illuminate the truth, which is the aim of all literature. Throughout her writing career, Carson pursued this aim with a commitment to simplicity of expression and avoidance of technical jargon. She said, “My...
(The entire section is 832 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Brooks, Paul. The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. This biography of Rachel Carson and survey of her work was written by her editor. Based upon her private papers, Brooks’s account is primarily made up of many wonderful samples of her writings, both public and private.
Gartner, Carol B. Rachel Carson. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983. This readable discussion of Carson carefully blends her personal and public lives as well as providing a good bibliography for further reading.
Graham, Frank, Jr. Since “Silent Spring.” Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970....
(The entire section is 420 words.)
Biography (The Sixties in America)
As a small child, Rachel Louise Carson connected to the natural world. Educated in part by her mother, who employed a popular naturalist curriculum, Carson learned to respect and preserve life. She wanted to be a writer but switched from English to zoology in her junior year at Pennsylvania College for Women (later Catham College). Her research on the sea began during a summer at the Woods Hole Massachusetts Marine Biology Laboratory. She received her masters degree in marine biology from Johns Hopkins University. Carson taught briefly but needed more income to support her parents. She eventually became an aquatic biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, where she wrote and later edited public...
(The entire section is 1122 words.)