Rachel Carson

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(History of the World: The 20th 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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 2,693 words.)