Rachel Carson

Rachel Louise Carson (1907-1964) was an American biologist and writer whose book Silent Spring aroused an apathetic public to the dangers of chemical pesticides.

Rachel Carson was born May 27, 1907, in Springdale, Pa. A solitary child, she spent long hours learning of field, pond, and forest from her mother. At college she studied creative writing and in 1932 obtained a master's degree in biology from the Johns Hopkins University. She did postgraduate studies at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory.

In 1936, Carson served as an aquatic biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. After her first book, Under the Sea Wind (1941), she soon became editor in chief of the Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. In 1951 The Sea around Us brought its author instant fame. At the top of the best-seller list for 39 weeks, it was translated into 30 languages. For it, the shy, soft-spoken Carson received the National Book Award, the Gold Medal of the New York Zoological Society, and the John Burroughs Medal.

The following year Carson left the government to undertake fulltime writing and research. As a scientist and as an observant human being, she was increasingly disturbed by the overwhelming effects of technology upon the natural world. She wrote at the time: "I suppose my thinking began to be affected soon after atomic science was firmly established … It was pleasant to believe that much of Nature was forever beyond the tampering reach of man: I have now opened my eyes and my mind. I may not like what I see, but it does no good to ignore it."

When Silent Spring appeared in 1962, the lyric pen and analytical mind of Carson produced an impact equaled by few scientists; she aroused an entire nation. More than a billion dollars worth of chemical sprays was being sold and used in America each year. But when Carson traced the course of chlorinated hydrocarbons through energy cycles and food chains, she found that highly toxic materials, contaminating the environment and persisting for many years in waters and soils, also tended to accumulate in the human body. While target insect species were developing immunities to pesticides, because of these poisons birds were not reproducing. She proposed strict limitations on spraying programs and an accelerated research effort to develop natural, biological controls for harmful insects.

The pesticide industry reacted with a massive campaign to discredit Carson and her findings. Firmly and gently, she spent the next 2 years educating the public at large: "I think we are challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves." She died on April, 14, 1964, at Silver Spring, Md.


Further Reading on Rachel Louise Carson

The most authoritative book on Rachel Carson and the pesticide issue is Frank Graham, Since Silent Spring (1970). The references in the back of the book are recommended for up-to-date information on pesticides, their use, and control.