Once in awhile someone does something beneficial for humans or animals or the environment. And once in a really long while someone does something beneficial for all life. This is extremely rare; but there is such a person. Strange—even though her contribution to all living things may be greater than that of, Einstein, Picasso, Lincoln or Columbus, her name is not nearly as familiar. One of her accomplishments, Silent Spring, published in 1962 is given credit for the start of a serious environmental movement. Her efforts are credited with contributing to the start of the Environmental Protection Agency, the banning of DDT, the development of the U.S. Clean Water ACT, and more. What she did for all of us was and still is—‘truly’ important. Who is this person whose contribution to humankind, and the planet as a whole, rivals all ‘important’ contributions throughout history? Her name is Rachel Carson!
After WW2, poisons were widely used. Rachel Carson disapproved of the government and industry spraying everyone and everything with poisons. One of Carson’s statements that critics use to attack her is, “Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life?” Carson believed if the public was going to be subjected to the risks associated with chemicals they had the right to understand what the risks were. The dominate mindset at the time was that mankind could and would control nature—and this hasn’t changed. They sprayed food crops, homes, schools and even sprayed children as they ate their lunches. By 1955 approximately 600 million pounds of DDT was produced per year. The thinking, if you want to call it thinking, was they could spray poisons to get rid of anything without considering the possible consequences—it seems they were wrong. They went to war with whatever they considered pests and when they did, the fallout spread to everything. Animals and animal products were contaminated, birds and fish were contaminated and their reproductive capacity diminished. There were reports of animals dying from the sprays. Carson, a Marine Biologist, had been studying the animals of the sea and was already sensitive to the fact they were being adversely affected by pollutants.
A person like Rachel Carson doesn’t come along very often. I’m not sure exactly what it takes to do great things, but whatever it is—she had it. She wrote and spoke about the dangers of the irresponsible use of chemicals. And when she had done all she could do—she had revolutionized the way we think about it. Certainly, her particular skills, scientist and accomplished writer, were important to what she did. But even more important, she had to care—a lot. This virtue would drive her to her goal while being pressed back by immeasurable adversity. I don’t suppose anyone knows why it is that a perceived strong person may be incapacitated when life burdens them excessively, and an apparently frail person may persevere. In Carson’s case, it was the frail and somewhat sickly person who came through as the real life heroine. She is a heroine of the first order. She fought not just for herself, but for all life on the planet.
It turns out that Rachel Carson was fighting the odds most of her life. Being a woman and continuing her education past high school in the 1920’s wasn’t easy. And changing her major from English to science surely added to an already difficult task. Then decades later she found herself in the position of trying to warn everyone about the dangers of the practice of poisoning too much too often; especially when the residual and long term effects weren’t known. She was virtually alone, head to head in a battle with the huge corporations and the scientists and politicians who were locked into the mentality that man could and would overcome nature forcefully. One of the well known spokespersons for the chemical industry and adversary to Rachel Carson’s vision, Dr. White Stevens, stated she was wrong. His statement, which made sense to those on his side of the issue, sounds blatantly, chauvinistic and narrow-sighted to those of the opposite persuasion. “The crux, the fulcrum over which the argument chiefly rests, is that Miss Carson maintains that the balance of nature is a major force in the survival of man, whereas the modern chemist, the modern biologist and scientist, believes that man is steadily controlling nature.” ~ Robert White Stevens.
In a society such as ours the forces working against a thoughtful, responsible person trying to elicit important change are tremendous. Almost a half century later some people are trying to blame Rachel Carson for the millions of deaths from Malaria in other parts of the world, attributing this to the limitations placed on DDT in the early 70’s. The fact is, her book came out in 1962 and, after reading it, President Kennedy called for testing of the chemicals in question. “In one of her last public appearances, Carson testified before President Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee. The committee issued its report on May 15, 1963, largely backing Carson’s scientific claims.” In 1972 the EPA came into existence and one of their early decisions, based on reports from government scientists, was to ban most DDT use in the U.S. Rachel Carson had passed away almost a decade earlier in 1964, but her detractors will still try to blame her for the actions of a federal government agency.
Rachel Carson, born May 27, 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania, spent her childhood on a farm where she was able to explore her passion, the natural world. She loved reading and writing and by ten years of age was being published. Her mother taught her about nature on and around the farm, but Rachel Carson was particularly enamored with the ocean. She would eventually dedicate much of her life to learning about the ocean, and then trying to save it.
She did very well in her studies of science while attending the Pennsylvania College for Women in the late 20’s and she went on to Johns Hopkins College. In 1935 she received her master’s degree in zoology. Unfortunately, due to her father’s death in 1935, she had to leave school and support her family, mother and sisters. She took a job in civil service. Working for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, Carson was writing radio copy for educational radio broadcasts and then began writing part of a public brochure about the fisheries.
Writing was something she had wanted to do all her life. Her position as a biologist had given her opportunity to research and write. After work she could write using information she acquired from her research and she submitted her copy for publication. Rachel Carson wanted to write and now her position and knowledge in the sciences gave her something to write about. Before starting the project of writing Silent Spring, Carson had written three other books all about the sea which received great reviews. And her books spent a significant amount of time on the bestseller lists. From the mid 30’s to the early 40’s her essays were being published. Then in 1945 Carson became aware of DDT. She was interested and she wanted to write about it, but the publishers weren’t interested. Nothing she wrote about DDT was published until 1962.
Her success, in what is now the Fish and Wildlife Service, allowed for freedom in choosing her writing. Her manuscript for The Sea Around Us was completed in 1950. Sections of it appeared in various magazines and she received several awards. This second book was on the bestseller list for 86 weeks. With this publication and the republication of Under the Sea-Wind, which was also a bestseller, Carson was able to give up her job and start writing full time in 1952. In 1955, The Edge of the Sea was completed. The mid 50’s included more magazine articles and a plan for another book. But, her new interest, conservation, contributed to her abandonment of a book about evolution. Then in 1957 tragedy struck again. A niece died and Rachel Carson adopted her five year old son, Roger. At this time she was still caring for her mother.
It seems that with the new interest in conservation, insecticide spraying programs were of renewed interest to Carson. Also in 1957 the USDA headed up a program to eradicate the fire ant through aerial spraying of DDT. The fire ant had been in the country for almost 30 years and was not of significant concern. But now that all the WW2 militarily funded chemicals were prevalent, the fire ant—suspiciously—took on a threatening posture as far as the bureaucracies were concerned. This incident was instrumental in Carson’s choice to devote herself to the topic of pesticides. This was another in a series of catalysts sending her on a four year journey to complete Silent Spring. Carson attended FDA hearings on revising pesticide regulation in 1959. She came away discouraged. She witnessed first-hand how aggressive these companies could be and she heard testimony that was contrary to all the research she had done. She did research at the National Institute of Health library and was convinced there was a clear connection between pesticides and cancer.
By the time she was ready to start writing in 1960 her health failed and she was laid up for awhile. Ironically, just as she was completing a couple chapters on cancer she discovered lumps in her breast—she was told she needed a mastectomy. Soon after there were further complications in her life including worse news about her health—the cancer was malignant and had metastasized. The editing of Silent Spring was completed in 1962 and the book published.
Carson was deluged with requests for interviews and appearances but turned down most of them. She had been through a lot and had endured a lot from the tongues of the critics of her work. But beyond all that she was ill. She was taking radiation treatments through this period and at the time she was so weak her friend had to take her to and from the hospital. Perhaps if the people involved in her medical care had any notion of what this one woman had done they would have tried harder. Her book stirred interest all the way to the White House and stimulated some to act. Carson attended a congressional hearing and made a recommendation for an agency to be responsible for the condition of our environment.
Rachel Carson died in 1964, but what she started lives on in those who, like her, use their minds and try to live their conscience rather than their desires.
Carson credited her mother with instilling in her a love for the natural world. She was fortunate to live on a large farm and her mother spent time with her showing and telling her of the wonders of nature. At the time in her life when she decided to write her book on chemical pesticides she apparently was in need of a nudge. She had resisted writing this book as she believed there were others who could do better because of the subject matter. In fact she spent the better part of a year soliciting others to take on this task. She could find nobody. Then she got a call from a friend telling her that her bird sanctuary had been sprayed in a local aerial pesticide program and it was killing her birds. This appears to have been the impetus for her start in what probably was the most difficult period of her life.
When her book was released even the President was aware of it. It prompted him to act and set in motion congressional hearings and eventually agencies and laws. People all over the world have read her book and people are still reading it. There may be people who have broached topics of greater importance and affect than this, but if so, there aren’t many. Her legacy is so great that it may never dissipate as long as there are some intelligent, thinking people around. As long as there are some that aren’t blinded by greed or apathy, Rachel Carson’s contribution will be remembered. Her impact on the world is one of the greatest, but sadly it will never receive the attention and the adulation of the masses like that reserved for a movie or sports celebrity or even a popular fifteen year old singer. Truth is, this fact underscores the difficulty and futility of working with the collective mentality of the human species. Thankfully, it didn’t stop Rachel Carson.
“Rachel Carson made environmentalism respectable. Before Silent Spring nearly all Americans believed that science was a force for good. Carson’s work exposed the dark side of science. It showed that DDT and other chemicals we were using to enhance agricultural productivity were poisoning our lakes, rivers, oceans, and ourselves. Thanks to her, progress can no longer be measured solely in tons of wheat produced and millions of insects killed. Thanks to her, the destruction of nature can no longer be called progress.” ~Don Weiss.
As I studied Rachel Carson’s life, reading from many authors about the effects of her efforts, I soon realized that 46 years later she is still affecting us. What she set into motion continues today. No doubt, the problems were not solved in total. In fact the pollution problems have continued and increased; but it isn’t because we aren’t aware of what is going on. At least in her day people were naïve—we don’t have such excuses today!