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 about the ocean but also provided the nation with many new pesticides that were developed as part of the research into chemical warfare.
As early as 1942, when she unsuccessfully proposed an article on the effects of the pesticide dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) to Reader’s Digest magazine, Carson was interested in the issues involving the use of untested pesticides. At this time in her life, however, she could not bring herself to believe that man’s chemicals could fundamentally affect what she called the “stream of life” on the land, in the skies, or in the oceans. Thus, she returned to her first love—the sea—writing the lyrical and technically informative book, The Sea Around Us, published in 1951. One chapter, “The Birth of An Island,” was published in 1950 in The Yale Review and won the George Westinghouse Science Writing Award. The book was enormously popular, winning the National Book Award in 1951 and the John Burroughs Medal in 1952 and remaining on the best-seller lists for more than a year. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, but returned the money after receiving substantial royalties from her best-selling book. Carson’s resulting financial independence allowed her to resign from her government post and devote herself to her writing.
Just before the publication of The Sea Around Us, Carson had begun work on what originally was to be a field guide to the Atlantic shore, but later became The Edge of the Sea (1955), a careful, poetical portrayal of “the marginal world” between ocean and land. This book also became a best-seller and added to Carson’s financial security as well as to her reputation as an author. These first three books contain themes that pervaded Carson’s entire life: her belief that nothing in nature exists alone (for example, that all living things are interconnected by air and water) and her sense of what Albert Schweitzer called a “reverence for life,” a phrase which she quoted often. These characteristics, together with her technical training and her expository gifts, made Carson the perfect person to write Silent Spring. Initially, Carson intended to write only an article on the effects of pesticides. The more studies she read, however, the more horrifying the picture became, finally driving her to relinquish her belief in the inviobility of the natural world. The widespread spraying of toxic chemicals (such as DDT) led to disastrous effects on wildlife and possible links with human diseases (such as cancer) which had not been thoroughly studied. These facts, together with the incomplete information from the chemical industry about its products and the ignorance of the American public about the effects of pesticides, convinced Carson that a book explaining these issues needed to be written.
In Silent Spring, Carson suggested that studies on long-term effects of pesticides needed to be conducted. She revealed documented evidence that showed a pattern of increasing concentrations of pesticides in higher animals. She conservatively combined the results of more than a thousand technical reports to form an unassailable foundation of documentation to support her alarming conclusions. At the same time, she beautifully encouraged love and respect for life in all of its forms. This feature of Silent Spring, together with her constructive suggestions for alleviating the damage already done, turned what could have been a doomsaying book into a hopeful guide to “the other road” (one of her chapter titles).
The publication of Silent Spring led to a national debate over the use of pesticides. Unable to discredit the scientific precision of the book, her opponents frequently misrepresented her positions, then attacked those misrepresentations as well as the author’s scientific ability. Despite these attacks, the public outcry over Silent Spring led President John F. Kennedy to appoint a special commission charged with studying the pesticide controversy. This Science Advisory Committee eventually supported most of Carson’s conclusions and duplicated many of her suggestions. Carson’s work and her testimony before the United States Senate formed a large part of the impetus behind the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. Rachel Carson died of cancer and heart disease in 1964, approximately six years before the EPA opened its doors.
As the beloved author of three well-researched and beautifully written books about the sea, Rachel Carson was able to draw a large reading audience for her final book, Silent Spring; as a well-trained scientist who was able to consult with specialists in many fields, Carson was able to write with precision and confidence about the technical issues surrounding the use of pesticides; and as a gifted expositor, she was able to hold the audience’s attention through understandable explanations and suggestions written in a graceful, impassioned style. Carson’s well-documented book incited a national debate over the cavalier use of pesticides which led to the growth of the American environmental movement and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Despite the passage of three decades, Carson’s books were as readable in the 1990’s as they were in the 1950’s and 1960’s because of her meticulous writing, which distinguished hypotheses and theories from demonstrated facts. The impact of Carson’s Silent Spring on government, on industry, on everyday citizens, and, thus, on the natural world is unequalled in American history.
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. This book provides an account of Carson’s career and how she came to devote most of her energy during her final years to Silent Spring. The author also traces the progress of the pesticide controversy through the 1960’s.
Hynes, H. Patricia. The Recurring Silent Spring. New York: Pergamon Press, 1989. This work focuses on Silent Spring, providing a brief but informative biography of Carson (elegantly refuting the “lonely spinster” stereotype) before discussing the impact and legacy of Silent Spring and the state of the American physical and social environment from Carson’s time through the 1980’s. A detailed bibliography is included.
McCay, Mary A. Rachel Carson. New York: Twayne, 1993. This excellent biography of Carson puts her major writings in the context of her personal development as a naturalist and analyzes her work as a part of the American naturalist tradition.
Marco, Gino J., Robert M. Hollingworth, and William Durham, eds. Silent Spring Revisited. Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1987. This collection of essays includes a summary of Silent Spring, as well as an essay about Carson’s motives and the reaction to her book by a personal friend of Carson, in addition to eleven essays that explore the scientific, political, and environmental issues surrounding the use of pesticides.